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Curtain Call: Interview for Ashland Tidings

Updated: Mar 15, 2022

March 14, 2022

A list of twenty-five questions arrived. Some of them prodded me to go a bit deeper into what a conductor does. Hopefully, this post illuminates some of the conducting mysteries!

1. Where were you born and raised?

In Bratislava, Slovakia.

2. Did you grow up in a family of creatives—parents, siblings?

I am the only musician in the family but my parents greatly valued the arts. They took my brother and me to concerts, galleries, museums, ballet, opera and theater all the time.

3. What instruments did you learn to play at an early age? Details?

Piano first and foremost. Many hours a day. I did have a rock band in my teens and played a bass guitar. I also sang a lot in choirs in my teens and twenties - those experiences helped me tremendously to advance as a musician.

4. Do you remember an early experience with music that made a big impression on you — a concert or performance?

I heard some impressive performances but, for me, it was more a sum of all those concert outings.

5. Did you attend public school or a conservatory as a child/teen? What kinds of musical activities were you involved in?

There was an after-school music program that was of a very good quality and cost next to nothing. I started there as a six-year-old. I went to the Conservatory at the age of fourteen.

6. Colleges and degrees? What led you to conducting?

I have a PhD from the University of Performing Arts in Bratislava and a DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) from the University of Arizona.

I started studying conducting parallel to piano at the Conservatory. It happened because my piano teacher’s husband, who was a composer, agreed to test my skills in preparation for the piano entrance exam to the Conservatory. After our session, he told my parents that I should consider going for a conducting exam as well. He said I had the right kind of personality to be a conductor. I said yes to my parents because I was a good kid!

7. What was your first job out of university?

Music directorship of the Rogue Valley Symphony. There were many “gigs” beforehand but this was the first “real thing."

8. What were you doing just prior to moving to the United States?

Finishing my PhD in Bratislava and serving as Assistant Conductor of the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra.

9. What brought you to America?

Fulbright scholarship. I am deeply grateful for the door it opened to me.

10. What brought you to the Rogue Valley and when? What were you doing just before the RVS job?

My first season was 2009/2010. Just before the RVS, I was Assistant Conductor with Arizona Opera.

11. What do you like most about living and working in the Rogue Valley?

It is a place where a great natural beauty surrounds communities with a healthy and sophisticated life style.

12. One of the most fascinating aspects of your work must be the challenge of coordinating the output of a large group of musicians. How do you work with them as a team?

It starts by sending my notes along with the schedule for the upcoming concert (I just did that yesterday for America’s Journey). Then we meet for rehearsals - usually four of them - and do concerts - often three in a row. The bulk of the work happens in rehearsals. Bringing music from the page to life is a fascinating challenge. It never is not interesting.

13. How exactly do you communicate your ideas about a work?

It is a combination of musical skills and psychology. A conductor tries to show as much as possible with gestures and body language. However, we do have to talk too! The secret is to know when to stop, what to say and how to say it.

14. You often have little time to rehearse with guest artists. How do you inspire a sense of esprit de corps?

Guest artists that we bring are of a very high caliber. When they first start playing with the orchestra, the excitement in the rehearsal hall is contagious. My job is to intuit what interpretive choices they are going to make based on what I hear as their overall concept of the work. I have to lead the orchestra in the same interpretation. It does require anticipating what the soloist is going to do at any given moment.

I meet them ahead of the first rehearsal but that meeting never needs to be more than 30 minutes long. When I think of it now, it usually takes about 15 minutes for me to figure out what they are after.

15. Describe the dynamics between you and a guest artist, leading and following, etc.

My goal is to follow their intent as close as possible. I succeed when they feel comfortable. In a way, I am trying to make them be unaware that there is an ensemble there. The orchestra should be like an extension of their mind. There are specific spots when I have to say: here you are following me because it is the only way to make it work. But even then, I want to conduct like they would if they could. Accompanying a concerto cannot be a selfish endeavor.

16. How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the musicians? Conveying/interpreting the vision of the composer?

The better the musicians, the more inspiration they require because they already know the style. So, I would say, conveying composer’s vision first, then adding that special ingredient of inspiration. Inspiration is to make them believe they are playing that score for the very first time and we are on a journey of discovery together.

17. What have been the crucial criteria in establishing your credibility with an orchestra?

I go by a simple rule: I can only demand if I come prepared. The authority comes naturally when musicians sense that their conductor knows the music inside and out.

18. How much individualism can orchestra players afford? How do you find the right balance between individual performance and team performance?

There is a room for self-expression even in the orchestral setting. Yes, I have the final word but I actively take in all aural feedback. I hear what my musicians are bringing to the table and try to incorporate as much of it as possible into my concept. That is why every performance is slightly different, which is so beautiful about a live concert.

19. What exactly are members of the orchestra looking for when they glance up from the music to watch you for a moment?

The beat, the cue, the exact moment when something is supposed to happen. And then the inspiration.

20. Do you have favorite composers, periods? Which and why?

I do not really. I try to immerse myself in whatever score I have in front of me at the moment. I am constantly at awe witnessing how creativity manifests itself through all these different composers, past and present.

21. You often conduct without a score. What goes into deciding whether to use a score?

I often conduct an overture or a symphony from memory but I don’t do it for works featuring a soloist. I have a full control to shape pieces without the soloist as I please. As I said above, in a concerto I try to be an extension of the soloist. The concerto is not really my baby - and it should not be. I try to keep my mind open to interpretations that are different from my own. Therefore, that music is not as internalized or assimilated as when I conduct a symphony.

22. How do you balance your other job as music director of the Queens Symphony Orchestra in New York?

It works quite well. I am usually very busy in New York in the summer when the RVS does not perform. I go there seldomly in the autumn when I am busy with the RVS. The spring is when things get a bit more hectic. With Omicron in the rear mirror, I have thirteen concerts scheduled for the next three months between Rogue Valley, New York and Slovakia.

23. What were patrons'/fans' reactions to your pandemic projects?

I think by and large our patrons really appreciated that we kept an active profile and that we were able to come up with creative ways to present music. I wanted our efforts to be a reminder that the times of normalcy were eventually going to return. People were hungry for those assurances. It took an extra effort but we felt that we had an obligation to serve our patrons, especially when they could have been in a mentally and emotionally difficult place.

24. What do you look forward to most about returning to “normal”?

Connecting with people. There is nothing better than the communion of souls experienced through a live music performance.

25. Do you have any guest conducting jobs lined up for 2022? Indeed! I am returning to the Slovak Philharmonic after quite some time this May. It will be busy times again and I am looking forward to it!

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