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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 2

Conductors: UdeM’s new postgrad Program

by Lucie Renaud / October 1, 2001

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Starting in September, the Université de Montréal’s music faculty is offering a program in conducting leading to master’s or doctor’s degree, following a successful two-year pilot project. Maestro Paolo Bellomia is in charge of planning and directing the new program, the only one of its kind in Canada, which will accept five top candidates and a few visiting students.

Bellomia, one of a number of conductors who had to study their art abroad, views the program as an absolute necessity. He was assistant to conductor Peter Eötvös in Europe from 1996 to 1998 and has regularly conducted American and European orchestras, as well as being artistic director of the Ensemble du Jeu Présent in Ottawa. Bellomia was initially attracted to contemporary music and studied composition with Massimo Rossi. He earned a master’s in composition in the class of André Prévost and later was one of the first doctoral students in Lorraine Vaillancourt’s conducting class. He now feels an affinity for all repertoires.

Only one kind of music

Bellomia’s personal development has shown him that there is only one kind of music. “Whether it’s Handel or Boulez, we have to play it all. As Berg said, we must be able to approach contemporary music with the same passion and musicality that we give traditional music, and we must approach traditional music with the same rigour that we give contemporary music. This statement practically defines the basis of my course in conducting.”

When putting the new program together, Bellomia drew his inspiration from the respective strengths of the American and European schools of conducting, including the importance of solfège as taught in Italy. “I remember attending a rehearsal conducted by the Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, during which he sang and named all the notes at an absolutely breakneck speed,” says Bellomia. He is also a strong advocate of reading scores at the piano, a technique much favoured in Germany. He feels it enables a conductor to gain a basic understanding of the work. Another preference is for musical dictation, the speciality of the Conservatoire de Paris. Pierre Boulez, under whom he studied, told him that solfège and dictation were the courses he felt gave him the most as a student.

Bellomia is planning a very tough course. He will bring in wind ensembles and string quintets, asking them to add false notes and play off key in order to develop the young conductors’ keenness of ear. The ability to read music fluently in the different clefs is also important, in his view. Bellomia was taught this at Julliard by a professor who insisted his students be able to play all the Bach chorals on the piano in the four clefs. He also admires the body movements in conducting promoted by the American school. “When it comes to a beautiful technique, I’d say the Americans get the prize,” he says.

Hands-on experience

What Bellomia offers his young protégés is hands-on experience with orchestras— “time on the podium.” This is the reason for the strictly limited number of candidates. Taking his cue from Julliard’s Conductor’s Orchestra, he has worked with the University of Montreal and the City of Saint-Laurent to set up the Philarmonie des jeunes de Saint-Laurent. This orchestra of between 65 and 80 musicians is made up of young Saint-Laurent residents, students at the Saint-Laurent CEGEP (junior college), and members of the Université de Montréal’s music faculty who aren’t members of the university orchestra. It will be conducted exclusively by students in the conducting course, although under close supervision. Bellomia foresees a mini-tour of high schools in the Saint-Laurent area in order to stimulate young people to explore the classical and contemporary music repertoire. The students in the new program will be able to present the works to the public, something Bellomia feels is essential for the coming generation of conductors.

“Conductors must be promoters, must be in touch with the public, not stars in themselves, otherwise classical music will die,” he says. His students will also be able to conduct smaller ensembles (for example, two pianos, percussion, and brass for Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring), as well as the university choir and opera workshop. Jean-Philippe Tremblay also worked on the pilot project for the new program and had a chance last year to conduct a family matinée performance of Puccini’s opera, Gianni Schicchi. Tremblay, the young conductor of the Orchestre de la Francophonie, has just been named assistant to Pinchas Zukerman at the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa.

Bellomia will no doubt demand a great deal from the privileged students admitted to the new program. “A conductor has to be able to communicate in addition to having all the required musical qualities,” he says. “It varies from one person to another. Some are exuberant, outgoing. Others speak quietly but know how to get their message across. I’m thinking of Jean-François Rivest and Lorraine Vaillancourt, for example. Communication doesn’t necessarily mean having a talent for acting. It’s still a mystery to me, and I’ve never been able to put my finger on exactly what makes for good communication.” Although he can’t define it, Bellomia (who admits he prefers the passion of teaching to the “fever” of conducting) certainly knows how to communicate!

For those interested in the new program, auditions will be held in the second week of December 2001 and the third week of April 2002. Contact Lise Bédard at (514) 343-6427.

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

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