By Laurence Vittes
While doing a little research during the conducting finals of the 2015 Gstaad Menuhin Festival & Academy, I discovered a pattern. Basic training for most conductors begins at the piano. However, a number of notable string players, too, have traded in their instruments for the baton with great success. Lorin Maazel started out as a violinist; Carlo Maria Giulini, a violist; Arturo Toscanini and John Barbirolli, cellists; and Serge Koussevitzky and Zubin Mehta, double-bassists.
Violinist Itzhak Perlman took the step with some success, and violinist Joshua Bell was named music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in 2011. While conducting schools and academies still turn out the greatest number of new conductors, there is an accelerating trend among young virtuoso string players to leapfrog the traditional process on their way to the podium.
In order to find out what makes young soloists want to become conductors, I spoke to violinists Julian Rachlin and Gemma New, and cellists Eric Jacobsen and Han-Na Chang.
As a violinist, violist, recording artist, and educator, Julian Rachlin has established close relationships with many of the world’s most prestigious conductors and orchestras. In September 2015, he took up his new position as principal guest conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia at the Sage Gateshead concert hall, and has been guest conducting around the world. Rachlin plays the 1704 “ex Liebig” Stradivari, on loan courtesy of the Dkfm Angelika Prokopp Privatstiftung, and a 1791 Lorenzo Storioni viola. He uses Thomastik-Infeld strings.
What inspired you to conduct?
I’m not the type who plays the Tchaikovsky and Brahms concertos, then sits down until the next time. For me, the violin is not as important as it might seem; it’s not even my favorite instrument. But whether I play violin or viola, teach, or conduct, it’s all about a life in music—being curious, and staying inspired and fresh.
What is your favorite instrument?
I always wanted to be a cellist like my father, and a recording by Rostropovich was the very first piece of music I listened to when I was two, sitting with an umbrella, which I pretended was a cello with a stick as my bow.
[Editor’s Note: According to a 2015 violinist.com interview, Rachlin was “tricked” into playing violin by his grandparents, who gave him a violin at age two and a half, and claimed it was a cello.]
What were your first experiences as a conductor?
My life as a conductor started around 2005 when I was asked by the Mahler Chamber Music, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and the English Chamber Orchestra to come in and play concertos without a conductor. At first, I just stood there, but when players asked me if I wanted to say something, if I had any ideas, I was surprised. Nobody had ever asked me to say anything. When I saw that the players took my ideas seriously, that they found something in what I said and what I transmitted through my body language, I began to take the idea of conducting more seriously.
How did you start developing your conducting skills?
Before I took lessons, I talked to many conductors, asking their opinion, and Zubin Mehta, Mariss Jansons, and Daniele Gatti all encouraged me. In fact, Mariss told me to take lessons from my mom—Sophie Rachlin, a graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory in choir conducting—together with Valery Gergiev, Semyon Bychkov, and Jansons. Of course, I didn’t want to take lessons from my mom at first, but I took one lesson and was so impressed that I’ve been studying with her now for six years.
How have you approached building repertoire as a conductor?
I’m learning one symphony a year, to make sure I will know each of them inside out. So far, my repertoire consists of Tchaikovsky 4, Beethoven 7, Mendelssohn 4, and Mozart 35, 39, and 40. My priority is still my violin, but I’m doing more and more guest conducting, including my debut at the Musikverein in Vienna, conducting Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture, and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Fourth Symphony.