When conductor James Feddeck meets the musicians of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra to prepare for Burlington and Rutland concerts, it will be for the first time. Guest conducting can be daunting.
“You know, it’s very fast,” Feddeck explained from Milan, Italy, where he is also conducting.
“A lot of things have to happen very quickly, but even more than that, what it comes down to is that the musicians make up their mind very fast about who you are and what you are about,” he said. “Very quickly, I have to figure out what makes this orchestra tick, what makes this orchestra work, and how I connect with them, and make it better.
“Because that’s really all the conductor, quite simply, is there for — to prepare the concert, to rehearse it efficiently and to take what these excellent professional, highly trained and experienced musicians bring, and somehow quickly make it even better.”
Feddeck will be conducting the VSO in the highly traditional program at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26, at Burlington’s Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27, at Rutland’s Paramount Theatre. Featured are Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 and Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat, “Dumbarton Oaks.”
Born in New York City and trained at the Oberlin Conservatory, Feddeck was hailed by the Chicago Tribune as “a gifted conductor who’s clearly going places.” Winner of the Solti Conducting Award and the Aspen Conducting Prize, he is a former assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, where he came to know VSO Music Director Jaime Laredo.
Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C major, which was premiered in 1846 in Leipzig with Felix Mendelssohn conducting, is Feddeck’s favorite of Schumann’s four.
“What makes a really great performance of this piece is what I would call a really classical approach,” Feddeck said. “That could mean different things to different people, but there is a reason that I wanted to pair this Schumann Second with Haydn.”
For Feddeck, the Schumann has to have the same kind of wit and humor, but allow for the more developed emotional expressiveness of the later work.
“I want to experience the Schumann through the lens of Haydn,” Feddeck said. “I think if the orchestra and I can do that together, if the audience can see that lens clearly, then I think the Schumann will be successful.
“I love Schumann’s Second and I’m very passionate about it,” he said.
Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in G major presents a different challenge, with the current debate between period and modern performance practices. Feddeck says that he comes down somewhere in the middle.
“I do believe in the validity of what now we would call period performance or historical practices,” he said. “On the other hand, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra musicians will not have equipment to do that. If they were going to bring the Classical bow and have gut strings and all this, we could do this without compromise.
“But immediately, by having different instruments, there has to be compromise,” Feddeck said. “So how do you do that in a way that tips the hat, so to speak, to the style?”
Feddeck described a “hearty discussion” he had while conducting a German orchestra in a Beethoven symphony. During the first rehearsal, violinists questioned why he wasn’t honoring historical practices, referring to a treatise by Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang’s father and a renowned violin teacher.
“They were very, very passionate about it,” Feddeck said. “I said, I have read all this and understand it, but until you bring the bow they had and change out all the strings on your instrument with the animal gut, and finally get them in tune, then we can discuss what the treatise said.
“What I’m trying to do is to get the sound the treatise demanded, but with the equipment you have,” Feddeck said. “Suddenly it was OK.”
Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat, called “Dumbarton Oaks” for the Washington, D.C. estate where it premiered, is actually a concerto grosso — with many soloists. Although it was originally scored for a small chamber orchestra, the VSO will increase the number of strings because of the difficult acoustics of the Flynn. (The Paramount is better.)
“It highlights and features the orchestra, the virtuosity of these wonderful musicians on the stage,” Feddeck said. “It’s a very colorful work, based on the Bach Brandenburg concertos.”
Feddeck arrives Wednesday and will face the members of the VSO for the first time at Thursday’s rehearsal, but he’s prepared.
“When you’re a guest conductor, I think you have literally a few minutes to really make that connection,” he said. “I always find that if musicians sense a devotion to the music and an integrity of an interpretation, they’ll go with it.”