A Conductor’s-Eye View from Yaniv Segal
This coming Sunday, May 20 at 3 PM the Greenwich Village Orchestra plays Shostakovich’s lively and entertaining yet subtext-loaded Symphony No. 9, conducted by Yaniv Segal of the eclectic Chelsea Symphony, followed by the GVO’s own Barbara Yahr conducting Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 at Washington Irving HS Auditorium at Irving Place and 16th Street. A $15 donation gets you in; there’s a reception to follow. Segal is widely sought out as a guest conductor; luckily, he had a little time to discuss what promises to be a characteristically rich program.
Lucid Culture: You’ve had a very eclectic background in the arts, having been involved with the theatre and in music since childhood. Let me ask you, is your acting background something you draw on as a conductor, and if so, how?
Yaniv Segal: Being on stage from a young age has helped me to become very comfortable as a performer in front of an audience. I very rarely get nervous, but if I do get a little antsy before a performance, as soon as I step on stage I am over it and able to focus on the music at hand.
Conducting is different from acting in many ways but a big difference is the timeframe – whereas acting requires emoting in real-time, a conductor must show what is about to happen in the near future while reacting to what is going on in the present. It is a constant mind trick to be both involved and aware of shaping the present while preparing the future and considering how the present will impact something that occurs in the music down the line.
A similarity between conducting and acting is that the end result must be apparent..and communicated. If an actor were to feel a certain passionate scene in some way – let’s say Maria’s reaction to Tony’s death at the end of West Side Story – but the reaction were internal, and not communicated to the audience, the actor might feel personally devastated, but the audience may not be moved at all. Thus the good and successful actor must not only be able to feel the emotion in the story, but also to communicate that in a way that the audience feels the same way. A conductor must resonate with the music but also must translate that into some kind of physical or spiritual communication so that the musicians all feel it and thus are able to bring the emotions and power of the music to the audience.
LC: You’re also a trained violinist. Does that inform your approach to conducting an orchestra – and especially the string section?
YS: I have a lot of experience playing in orchestras. I still play violin and viola regularly, and that has definitely influenced my conducting. Perhaps one of the biggest areas of influence is on my rehearsal technique. As an orchestral musician, I have been frustrated by conductors who are not efficient with their time on the podium during rehearsal. We want to make music together and the best way to do that is through more playing and less talking. I think that a successful conductor knows how to manage their limited rehearsal time and knows how to get the most out of an orchestra using the fewest words possible.
As to my specific string playing knowledge, it is certainly helpful for conducting. The strings are the most numerous members of an orchestra. Although I have learned a little bit about playing all the instruments in the orchestra in order to feel a connection to them, I will always feel a close relationship with string sound and technique—and that certainly informs my conducting and rehearsing.
LC: You are a founder of the Chelsea Symphony, that excellent and eclectic orchestra across town on the west side. It’s good to see cross-pollination going on between these two ensembles. As up-and-coming orchestras from neighborhoods long known for their artsiness, is there any competition between you? Or is it more collaborative – you know, in classical circles, everybody tends to know everybody else…
YS: I don’t think that there is competition between the two organizations. We have had a very positive working experience between the two organizations and in the past GVO has graciously lent some of their equipment, and there are some players who play in both orchestras. If I can make a general statement, I would say that competition is created by people and not by organizations. The two orchestras serve different communities and have different aspirations and specific goals. It makes more sense to work together to bring more music to New York’s diverse and wonderful neighborhoods than to think of ourselves as in competition.
LC: To what degree, if at all, do you have to throw a switch, transition from one work or one era to another? I’ve seen you conduct Tschaikovsky, you just conducted a massive symphonic poem for choir and orchestra, Mario Jazzetti’s The Profile, the Life, and the Faith Across the Notes at Avery Fisher Hall. Now you’re moving to the Shostakovich Symphony No. 9. Both of those pieces have a triumphant sensibility, on the surface at least: does this make the shift easier for you?
YS: Conductors these days are expected to do the impossible and to have a command of all types of repertoire, styles, time periods, etcetera. A single concert might typically juxtapose a world premiere with a classical warhorse. Basically we have to be able to switch gears on a dime. I think if anything makes shifting between pieces easier, it is the quality of the music that makes the difference. When there is music that we love to perform, it doesn’t matter when it was written.
LC: Many listeners hear considerable sarcasm along with triumph in the Shostakovich. Do you agree?
YS: For sure. It is very important to listen to this piece in the context for which it was written. At the end of World War II, the Soviets, Stalin especially, expected a triumphant Ninth Symphony from their country’s leading composer, Shostakovich, along the lines of Beethoven’s Ninth. Instead, he gave them this 30-minute chamber symphony full of wit, humor, and sarcasm. Every seeming development towards a climax dissipates before it fully materializes. The symphony has a witty scherzo and an enormous faux-serious and plaintive bassoon solo which negates the weightiness of the low brass (the fourth movement). Finally in the last movement Shostakovich gives us what seems to be a true military march and perhaps the final triumph, but that two disappears into a childlike “nyah nyah” moment.
LC: Is there something in this work – a message, an emotional resonance maybe – that you hope send listeners home with?
YS: Perhaps Shostakovich was trying to point out the folly of war, perhaps he was just sticking it to the authorities… I think the message is clear from Shostakovich. He stayed true to his artistic integrity regardless of what was expected of him from an authority he didn’t believe in. It is important for all of us, even when faced with tremendous calamities, to remember that we have our own voices.
LC: Have you ever conducted the GVO before? If so, you’re in for a treat…
YS: Yes, I have. I was their assistant conductor when I lived in New York. I got to work with them a lot in rehearsal and conducted several pieces in performance. The last time I conducted them was Saint-Saens’ The Carnival of the Animals, and Barbara Yahr played the piano part.
LC: Any other questions I should be asking?
YS: I met my wife through the GVO. She was playing flute and piccolo in the orchestra as a grad student, and I was called to sub for Barbara for a rehearsal. Joanna and I hit it off and started dating a few weeks later. I ended up becoming the assistant conductor of the orchestra, she ended up serving on the board, and we are about to celebrate our two-year anniversary!
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