Hey, remember that time I was whining about how much I hate playing an instrument, on account of because I, in a word, suck? Well, this is the guy for whom I almost auditioned – Yaniv Dinur, conductor of the American University symphony orchestra. Steeped in my own incompetence, I wrote him an apologetic email cancelling my audition (I believe my exact Groucho Marx paraphrase was “I wouldn’t want to be a part of any orchestra that would have me”) – but of course I was shameless enough to slip in an interview request. And darned if he didn’t agree! So here is my interview with Yaniv Dinur – read on to learn about understanding music, taking responsibility, and the secret no conductor wants you to know…
Jenn German: Do you want to start with a bit of background about yourself? I know that’s not always the most exciting part of an interview, but I want to know about your magical musical journey.
Yaniv Dinur: Well, you know, talking about myself is always very exciting.
YD: Well, I’m originally from Israel, and… uh… This is hard! I started studying the piano when I was six. I started studying conducting when I was sixteen, and when I was nineteen I had my first professional concert in Ireland, and that opened more opportunities for me in Europe. Then I came to the States about five years ago – I did my doctorate in orchestral conducting at the University of Michigan – and I just started at American University a couple of months ago. I’m completely new!
JG: Is this your first school gig?
YD: My first school gig, yeah.
JG: How do you find it so far?
YD: I like it a lot. I like the students very much; they’re very bright, they work hard, and I’m very happy about the group.
JG: How many concerts do you have coming up?
YD: This coming weekend we are going to do two concerts, on Friday and Saturday, with the same program. Next semester we’re going to do two other programs, and every program we’re going to repeat once, similar to this one.
JG: What are you going to be playing this weekend?
YD: We will play a Mexican piece called “Danzon No. 2” by Arturo Marquez, a composer that is still alive, which is always very exciting. It’s a great, great piece – intoxicating, really. Then we’re going to play the Barber violin concerto, the first movement of this concerto, with Allie Martin [apologies if I got this name wrong; EDITED TO ADD: corrected!], who won the concerto competition last year. The first half of the program is American music, so we have Latin American and North American. And in the second half of the concert we’re going to play Schumann’s Symphony No. 3.
JG: Can you walk me through how you made the decision to play each of these pieces? Was it something that you found to be easy, or did you really have to wrap your head around the students and the audience?
YD: Well, you know, programming for a concert is one of the most fun things for a conductor. It’s always interesting and exciting to look for new combinations and great music to do. So what was important for me was to do some American music, because I really believe that American orchestras especially should be playing American music, and also contemporary music – American contemporary music. So I wanted to do this kind of combination of new and old. That’s what I was striving for, and at the same time of course, great music, something that will be fun to play, and also challenging, and also fun for the audience to listen to.
JG: I’ve always really enjoyed that, back when I was playing instruments, playing a piece that was sort of just outside my current reach and then working toward mastering it – is that kind of your aesthetic?
YD: Yeah, yeah, something that is great music, but also challenging, and it’s also part of the process of building the orchestra and working toward even more advanced pieces.
JG: What would you say is the hardest of the pieces you’re doing?
YD: The hardest? All of three pieces are hard to play, and they all have different challenges. If it’s stylistic challenges, or rhythmic challenges…
JG: But is it ever a question of something being technically challenging or emotionally challenging? For example, the Barber Adagio for Strings is probably the best of that ilk because I don’t think the notes are terribly hard, but to capture that feeling is very difficult. So there’s probably two different ways that you could look at a piece as being difficult.
YD: Exactly. If you take, for instance, the third movement of the Schumann symphony, which is a slow, slow piece, kind of a simply song, so it’s very easy to play it in a very boring way, you know? And it’s very hard to really get into the feeling of it and treat every note in a way that it will mean something.
JG: How do you get that out of your players?
YD: This is hard. This is a challenge for me as a conductor, because I can’t really play myself. So I’m going to tell you now the secret – something that conductors want to hide. Everyone’s always talking about the power of conductors, but that’s nonsense! The truth is that conductors are really helpless, because we are totally dependent on the players. If they don’t want to play the way we want them to, we have nothing to do about it.
So there are many ways, for me, to try to get to that point that I want. The goal is for us to reach a point that we think the same. This can be reached by, for instance, giving them extra-musical examples that they can think of and be inspired by. For instance, play this like you are petting a cat. Something very tender, something that you love. Even though I don’t like cats.
JG: Awww, you just haven’t met the right cat!
[Here there was a brief interlude in which I attempted to convince him he would like my cat Ruffian, because she acts like a dog. He admitted there is a cat he knows that he likes, so I’m considering that progress! Anyway, back to the matter at hand…]
YD: Another way is by going to technical things, like playing with a certain amount of bow, with vibrato, without vibrato, things like that. So there are many ways to reach that goal. It’s hard.
JG: That was actually very interesting, that thing you said about the conductor being somewhat powerless. I recently read an article in the Montreal Gazette about how the conductor has achieved something of rock star status, that often his name, in the program, will be larger than the names of the composers they’ll be playing. So I’d like to posit to you something that my high school orchestra once asked of my class: if a concert is bad, the orchestra just did not do a good job, who is to blame – the instrumentalists or the conductor?
YD: This is the famous joke that all conductors tell! If the orchestra plays well, it’s because of the conductor. If the orchestra does not play well, it’s because of the orchestra.
JG: What does the conductor think?
YD: Exactly this, what I told you. [Pause for effect, pause for effect…] No, no, but it’s a joke, of course. Let’s say that the conductor is responsible for everything, you know? If the conductor dares to stand in this position of leader, take this position of a leader and stand in front of fifty players, sixty players, sometimes a hundred players, and tell them what to do and how to play – you also have to take responsibility for the results.
JG: Have you felt that this is scary, and do you find that to be invigorating?
YD: You know, it can be scary, but I don’t often think about that. What I think about is the privilege that I have to do what I like to do, to make music together with people. This is the best thing about this profession.
JG: That’s a good philosophy!
YD: Yeah, I try!
JG: Would you say you’re a rock star?
JG: You and Dudamel.
YD: Yes, together.
JG: What is your favorite piece that you’ll be playing this weekend?
YD: My favorite piece…
JG: I know that’s a really rough one, but if I were to hold a gun to your head – for some bizarre reason; I don’t know how finding out your favorite piece would help me in that case – but if I were to demand this information of you, you must choose one!
YD: I must choose one… My favorite piece… It’s hard because it changes from moment to moment. When I conduct something, when I will conduct the “Danzon No. 2” it will be my favorite piece at that moment, and when I move to the next piece, that will be my favorite piece. It’s really like that. It’s not just wasting words. It really feels like that.
JG: That’s awesome, but now I have to ask you – have you ever conducted a piece where the entire time you were just like “Bleeeeeeeh. Make it stop!”?
YD: “Make it stop.” Um… yes. Yes, I have. I’ve conducted a piece like that. But in every piece that I conducted, of course, sometimes you like a piece more, sometimes you like a piece less. We’re people; we have our own tastes and our own preferences, so I am allowed to not like a piece.
JG: Of course!
YD: But in every piece I’ve conducted I manage to find something that I like, or something that I can make better for myself, or that I can make sound better than it actually is.
JG: So when you create your programs, are you aiming largely to find pieces that you like and that your orchestra will enjoy playing, or do you consider more what is going to work for the level of musicians you have?
YD: It’s a combination of both, but I think it’s very important, first of all, to choose something that I love, because I think this will be the best performance. When I love something, I will perform it in the best way.
JG: Indeed! Is there anything else you want to talk about regarding you weekend concerts?
YD: Yeah! I want to tell you what else is going to happen there.
YD: Yeah! We’re going to have a special event, because in addition to conducting the orchestra, I also teach a class that is called “Understanding Music.” This is a class for non-music majors. I decided that the final project is going to have to be related to this concert that we are going to have this weekend, and so their assignment was kind of free – they could do anything, but there were two limitations: it has to be related to the concert, and it has to be related to them somehow, preferably to their major. And there was another thing too… it has to be visual.
So it could be anything really – it could be a painting, a sculpture, a scientific experiment, but something that relates to the music we’re going to play, and to them or their major. And right before the concert we’re going to have an exhibition of these master works that they’re going to create, so the audience is going to come and walk around and see all these works and then come into the concert hall and hear the music that inspired these works. I’m very excited about that.
JG: That is incredibly neat. Will that be right outside the concert hall?
YD: It will be in the hallway around the concert hall.
JG: That’s really cool!
YD: Yeah, yeah, I’m excited to see that myself.
JG: What dates and times exactly?
Thanks, Maestro! You can learn more about Yaniv Dinur on his website. I encourage everyone in the DC area to check out the concert, because that pre-concert exhibition sounds especially intriguing.