Mastering the Conductor’s Art:
Up Close with Sean Newhouse

Sean Newhouse was interviewed by Philadelphia-based writer and critic, Vic Schermer on September 19, 2011. This interview or excerpts from it may be republished with permission of Vic Schermer (

Conducting Style: Approach to the Music and Musicians

VLS: In my review of your August 6th concert at Tanglewood, I wrote that I appreciated the way you “conducted the music rather than the musicians." Having been a musician myself, I know that some conductors are very dictatorial and controlling. By contrast, others seem to get what they want by trusting the musicians. My impression was that you were not massaging your own ego, but rather are among those who trust that the musicians will “get it."

SN: Sure, you’re right, I do trust them. But a conductor does have to have an ego, in the sense of having the confidence in his vision of the music in order to be effective. You have to have a strong belief in yourself, that what you have to offer is worthwhile. But at the same time, it’s not about you, it’s about the music. Your function as a conductor is to bring the music to life. And I find that the performances that affect me most as an audience member are not those where it’s “Maestro Smith’s Beethoven" but rather the performances that come across as “Wow! That *is* Beethoven, that sounds like what Beethoven must have imagined in his head!" What I’m always striving for is a performance where I happen to be on the podium, but you’re thinking about the composer. You’re thinking about the music, and you’re feeling it at a very deep level. My function as a conductor is to bring out the innate content of the music and its innermost core.

VLS: By that, do you mean that you’re striving for transparency?

SN: It depends what you mean by transparency. When I think of transparency in music, I think of making all of the parts audible to the listener. And I think that is a very high value, because both in life and in music, I am what you might call a maximalist, in that I want everything to be the most and the best that it can be, and to bring out all the good in something. And so in music, I’m trying to bring out everything interesting that the composer put into it. In that sense, I’m trying to be transparent. But sometimes one of the things that a composer put into a piece is so important that in order for the music to fulfill its potential, you may have to emphasize one element at the expense of another.

VLS: And perhaps there are some pieces, like the Rite of Spring that are so intense and almost chaotic, that it would be a question for the conductor whether to make it transparent and faithful to exact details of the score versus emphasizing the overall flow and the key lines.

SN: The way I look at it is that you have to weigh what is going to move the listener the most. What is going to make the most impact? What is going to capture the essence of the piece? And sometimes that means bringing out inner voices and countermelodies and making the piece transparent in a literal sense, but sometimes if you hear the engine roaring in all its complexity, you may lose the impact of one particular component part.

VLS: Transparency is important, but sometimes there are specific elements of the piece that must be emphasized.

SN: Exactly. Transparency is an important value, but the highest value is communicating the inner core of a given piece, and different pieces make different demands in that way.

By the way, what’s that music I hear in the background? [The interview was conducted by telephone from Schermer’s home.]

VLS: (Laughter). That’s an ice cream truck on the street nearby. It reminds me a bit of the famous organ grinder motif Mahler used in the 10th Symphony. Interestingly, Mahler discussed his childhood memory of that folk song with Sigmund Freud when he had a consultation with him regarding emotional difficulties he was going through. Dr. Emmanuel Garcia, a friend who is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, wrote an article about Mahler’s session with Freud, where the organ grinder song came up in connection with their discussion of Mahler’s relationship to his wife, Alma.

SN: I actually wrote a paper in graduate school on what I called Mahler’s use of “low" music, which was very controversial in his time and gave a unique aspect to his music.

Early Musical Background

VLS: Going back to your origins, did you come from a musically inclined family?

SN: I’m the only professional musician in my family anytime recently. But they’re definitely music lovers. My father’s parents founded an opera guild in Schenectady, New York. My father plays guitar, and both of my parents sing. I heard my parents sing and play at church, and I heard lots of recordings at home.

I started playing the violin at the age of seven, in a public elementary school program in South Burlington, Vermont, where we had moved just prior to third grade. My parents later told me that they had planned to start me out on piano, but they accepted my choice of the violin. There’s actually an amusing story about that... When we had a chance to pick out an instrument, I chose the violin, and I made the startling discovery that I could play two strings simultaneously, very advanced obviously (Laughter). So the teacher said to me with some humor perhaps, “Why don’t you give some of the other students a chance, Maestro?" I sometimes wonder if that experience planted an idea in my head about being a conductor, rather than a violinist!

VLS: She may have meant it light-heartedly, but it was very prophetic!

SN: In any case, I started taking private violin lessons soon thereafter. I practiced a lot, and was a good violinist - not a prodigy, but competent. Soon, of course, I began playing in youth orchestras, and it was there that I first encountered the orchestral repertoire. And it was my love affair with the orchestral repertoire that eventually brought me to conducting. Even as a child, I felt the incredible power, majesty, and richness of orchestral music. The whole spectrum of what music could express was so exciting and powerful to me.

So I continued studying violin and advanced reasonably well, and at the same time I developed some curiosity about conducting. So in high school, I started asking people, “How does one become a conductor?" I became more and more curious about the role of the conductor and how he or she brought everybody together. I’ve always had a very analytical mind - I like to look at the big picture - but also a very visceral reaction to music. As a violinist, I was always very physical when I played. When I hear music that moves me, it’s like a bolt of electricity going through my body, and I feel compelled to do something physically in sympathy with that. That’s one reason why conducting was always a natural fit for me. And of course I was always curious about why the conductor made certain decisions - for example, asking the orchestra to play louder or softer, faster or slower than the printed music might indicate.

Emergence as a Conductor

SN: Then when I went to college at the University of Rochester and got a BA in Music, I studied over at the Eastman School of Music as well, which is the conservatory associated with the University. In my sophomore year, I took Conducting 101 at Eastman. We had both lectures sessions and lab sessions - lab sessions consisted of a kind of rag-tag ensemble made up of the students, which we took turns conducting. After our first lab session, I approached the graduate student teaching the class and expressed my strong interest in conducting. She invited me to meet with her to discuss my interest, and at the end of that meeting, she offered to teach me privately for free, which she did for the next two years. Her name is Christine Myers, and I will always be grateful to her for that. I lost contact with her after my time in Rochester, but I do know that she later conducted the Hofstra University Orchestra. She was a great teacher, who helped me develop my technique in a way that has been useful to me ever since.

At her recommendation, after my first year of conducting, I went to an intensive conducting workshop: The Conducting Institute of South Carolina. There, I was on the podium five days a week, and it really gave me a chance to improve my skills.

VLS: So then, as your career began to develop, you’ve had some fabulous conducting mentors.

SN: Yes - after that summer, I continued to study conducting at Eastman. I studied with Brad Lubman, who conducts the contemporary music ensemble there, Musica Nova. I studied with choral conducting with William Weinert . And then in my final year, I studied with Neil Varon, in his first year as chief conductor at Eastman. He was not teaching undergraduates, but I started hanging around his classes, and he got curious as to whether I could conduct, so he gave me a few minutes in front of the orchestra that played for the conducting students. He liked what he heard and saw and invited me into his class. I’ll always be grateful to Neil Varon for his guidance and support that year. He’s a wonderful conductor, and he was very generous to me.

During the time I was studying in Rochester, I also studied at the Pierre Monteux School in Maine, in the summers of 2001 and 2002. In 2003, I started at the Cleveland Institute for my master’s degree, studying with Carl Topilow. In 2004 and 2005, I spent my summers in Aspen at the American Academy of Conducting. In 2005, I won my first job, in Los Angeles with the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra. And then, my final training was my summer at the Tanglewood Music Center as a conducting fellow, where I studied with Stefan Asbury and, of course, James Levine.

VLS: So during that time, you’re getting some exposure to some of the best conducting teachers and mentors. My question is, what is it that you get from them that is so valuable? I’m thinking especially of David Zinman, whose conducting I admire greatly. What skills and intuitions do they share with someone they’re grooming and mentoring?

Going with the “Flow"

SN: Conducting is a very mysterious art. Your first task is understanding the interaction that is going on between you and the orchestra, and David Zinman is a very sharp observer of how that interaction works. He has the fantastic capacity as a teacher to zero in on those one or two things that are most key for a conductor at any given point. I also learned a great deal just by watching him conduct. Without getting too technical, let me say that he has an amazing ability to lead the orchestra in such a way that they are confident of the direction of where he’s trying to lead them. It’s a concept that I call “flow." He has this ability to show, not just the beat, but the music going between the beats. You feel this flow from him continuously, and that makes an orchestra feel so much more confident. When he taught and conducted very frequently at Aspen those summers where I was first in the conducting academy and then assistant to the festival, I could really observe how he maintained that flow.

VLS: I had a similar feeling when I heard you conduct the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony and the Jalbert Music of Air and Fire at Tanglewood. I could sense the feeling of flow from the orchestra. And I imagine that is very difficult to achieve, partly because the conductor has to take into account the varied delays in the sound coming to him from the different instruments due to the fact that sound takes time to travel from one location to the other. I’ve always wondered how conductors can adjust to that.

SN: That’s a very important issue, and it’s not just because of the delay in the traveling time of sound, but also because the way a great orchestra like the Boston Symphony functions - they have a not insignificant delay from when the conductor gives the beat until when the sound happens. The musicians of a great orchestra are always listening to each other with great concentration. They’re essentially waiting for each other all the time to make sure they’re not stepping on each others’ toes, thus creating this delay. And the duration of the delay varies, depending on the type and style of the music, and the tradition of the orchestra. Usually, the better the orchestra, the more the delay. So when, as a conductor, you first approach a really fine orchestra, it can be quite daunting to accustom yourself to this delay. But after a while it doesn’t bother you anymore. You learn to deal with it, and what you learn is to not wait for them! Because if you do, then things bog down and it’s hard to maintain that continuous flow. A fellow student in Aspen, I remember, had an interesting way of putting it - it sounds like terrible advice at first, but there’s an element of truth in it. What he said was, “You have to conduct as if the orchestra isn’t there!" What he meant is that the conductor must not wait for the orchestra, but at all times show the direction and move forward. Of course, that’s not the whole story, because a conductor must also always be listening to and reacting to the ensemble in real time. It’s a constant balancing act.

VLS: Would that apply as well to a soloist? For example, when you conducted the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Sarah Chang, did you lead or follow her?

SN: This is where it gets really tricky, because the soloist is basically in charge most of the time - at least that’s my philosophy. My job with soloists is to give them their best chance to put forth their vision of the piece. So I have to follow the soloist. But if I do so in the literal sense of the word follow, then the accompaniment will fall behind, given the natural delay of the orchestra - so I actually have to predict what the soloist is going to do. But the flip side of that is with a great orchestra that has a significant natural delay, they’re also listening to the soloist very intensely. So, if you as conductor commit to your prediction of what the soloist will do, and then the soloist turns on a dime and does something else, the orchestra is often able to compensate for that so that we all stay together.

VLS: So, in a way, the whole orchestra helps you to keep track.

SN: Obviously, everyone wants things to gel as well as possible. Occasionally with a soloist, I’ll actually ask the musicians of the orchestra to play with less delay. The delay makes things more challenging with certain kinds of complex, very rhythmic music. For example, a few years ago, I did a Bartok Piano Concerto, and with that kind of music, it’s simpler to forge a tight ensemble if the orchestra plays close to the conductor’s beat - that is, with less delay.

Encountering Maestro Levine

VLS: How was it that you were considered and then chosen by Maestro Levine to be his assistant conductor with the Boston Symphony? Do you know what it was that made him select you among what I am sure was a field of many fine young conductors?

SN: I was a conducting fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center, and there I had some encounters with James Levine. We connected well that summer, and he became my mentor even after that. We stayed in close touch over the next few years, and I had my eye out for an opening in the BSO assistant conductor position. Maestro Levine also felt that it would be a good post for my artistic development. So when the two previous assistant conductors finished their term, Maestro Levine recommended me to the orchestra as a candidate to consider. I was invited to the audition, and because of Maestro Levine’s need for surgery at that time, he was not present at the final part of the process. But a committee consisting of orchestra members and management recommended me to him, and he, already knowing my work, was happy to accept the recommendation.

VLS: Given that Maestro Levine is arguably the best opera conductor in the business, do you yourself have any interest in conducting opera?

SN: Yes, I’m very interested in conducting opera, and Maestro Levine has been very influential in that regard. I grew up hearing live orchestras, not so much hearing live opera, which was uncommon in Vermont. When I went Tanglewood as a conducting fellow, I thought I would be very intimidated by seeing Maestro Levine conduct opera. But it turned out to be quite the opposite – watching him conduct opera at Tanglewood made it much more accessible to me. I watched him go through the whole rehearsal process with Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte in a full staging and Verdi’s Don Carlo in concert opera format. Seeing him put them together, made me feel “Hey, I can do this." And that summer, he made a very persuasive case to me that the best thing for my development would be to pursue a dual track of symphonic and opera conducting. So, my goal is to achieve a balance between the two.

VLS: It seems to me that almost all of the great symphonic conductors in history conducted opera quite a bit.

SN: Absolutely.

Measuring up to a Challenge: Standing in for James Levine

VLS: Now, it was a news item when, in February, you had to replace James Levine, who had become ill, for four performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a piece of music which is a tour de force for a conductor in the first place! And my understanding is that Maestro Levine had for the most part rehearsed the orchestra himself. So you had the daunting task of getting the orchestra and yourself together on a moment’s notice! Was that a sturm und drang moment for you?

SN: It was certainly one of the most incredible weeks of my life, no doubt about that! But I didn’t walk into the situation completely cold. Earlier that week, Maestro Levine was unable to make the first rehearsal because he was getting medical tests in New York. So I took that first rehearsal for him. I had spoken to him that morning, and we decided on a plan for the rehearsal. Thinking that he would be back, I just took the orchestra through the first three movements, leaving the last movement for him. He did arrive for the second, third, and fourth rehearsals, and we were all hoping he would do the concerts, but he was in a lot of pain, and had to withdraw two hours before the first performance.

So I had some preparation from that initial rehearsal, but it would be daunting enough to conduct Mahler’s Ninth under normal conditions, and of course there was quite a bit of additional energy in the air because I was stepping in at the last minute. I did have some apprehension about the fourth movement in particular, because I hadn’t tackled it in the rehearsal. It’s a massive movement of incredible emotional depth and range, which I had spent a lot of time studying, but never conducted live with an orchestra. There’s no question that the first performance was both wonderful and an intense challenge. My job as cover conductor was to duplicate, to as great an extent as possible, the way Maestro Levine had been conducting the piece.

VLS: How on earth can you do that – duplicate another’s conducting?

SN: Well, it’s very difficult, especially in a piece with as personal an interpretation as the Mahler Ninth. I’d been paying very close attention in the rehearsals, making notes about how Maestro Levine conducted it, where he slowed down, where he pushed ahead, because I needed to be prepared for the eventuality of stepping in, and in that kind of a situation, you want to try to avoid disturbing the orchestra by throwing them curve balls. You want it to be as natural a transition between conductors as possible. So I had to try to mimic the way Maestro Levine did the piece, and that’s very hard, simply because we’re different conductors, and so even when we might be aiming for similar results in a given passage, we might not always conduct that passage the same way. Where he beats in four, I might prefer to do it in eight, and so on, given our different physical makeup and different styles of conducting, as well as just his vastly larger experience. So, it was challenging to try to step right into those shoes and attempt to do the Mahler the way he had been doing it.

What was particularly wonderful in that first performance was that the BSO was so flexible and supportive. And then, when Maestro Levine withdrew from the second, third, and fourth performances, I was called upon to do those as well. Now, once the orchestra and I had established a point of contact in that initial performance, then I could begin to tweak things and mold the interpretation, mold the drama, the line, the pacing of the performance more in line with my own vision of it and do it in a way that’s more comfortable for my style of conducting. From performance to performance, I learned so much from the experience of doing this amazing piece with this wonderful orchestra. And I felt like I was able to improve with every performance and pace it better and get inside the drama in a deeper and more exciting way. Those four performances were an incredible journey.

VLS: As the performances went on, you felt your oats more, going from Levine’s ideas and bringing more of your own into it.

SN: All four performances were still heavily influenced by the way he did the piece, but as we went along, there was more and more of my particular way of pacing and shaping the piece.

VLS: Did you feel the audiences were skeptical or supportive of you?

SN: I felt the audiences were very supportive. They certainly reacted wonderfully following each performance, and even from the beginning I sensed they felt the specialness of the situation - that I wasn’t James Levine, but that I would give all that I had, and that was okay.

VLS: It sounds like it was a very great experience of personal growth for you and the rapport with the orchestra sounds wonderful.

SN: They were very supportive. I spoke to them at that first rehearsal, and I said to them something like: “not to belabor the obvious, but I do realize that I’m not James Levine... and for whatever portion of this week that I am with you, I promise I will give you all of myself, and I know we can do good things together."

VLS: That’s lovely. Now, on occasion, you’ve been compared with Leonard Bernstein. Certainly, this “debut" situation directly parallels his own. To quote from his official website: “Bernstein was appointed to his first permanent conducting post in 1943, as Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic. On November 14, 1943, Bernstein substituted on a few hours notice for the ailing Bruno Walter at a Carnegie Hall concert."

SN: That’s true, and what’s also interesting is that with the Boston Symphony, there was another last-minute replacement many years ago with the Mahler Ninth when Kent Nagano stepped in for Seiji Ozawa! However, the comparison between myself and Bernstein was actually made before those concerts in Boston. It was a reviewer in Indianapolis who had attended many of my concerts, and she wrote my work reminded her of him. Personally, I don’t have the chutzpah to compare myself to Leonard Bernstein, but for someone else to make that comparison is very kind.

VLS: Do you see any parallels between Bernstein and yourself?

SN: Obviously, he was a fantastic musician and amazing composer who I admire tremendously. His style of conducting never particularly inspired me, but in his own right he was a great conductor.

VLS: One of his favorite composers was Mahler.

SN: And Mahler is very close to my own heart as well.

VLS: In a way, Bernstein was an entertainer, too.

SN: He was just an incredibly versatile musician: pianist, conductor, composer, traversing styles easily, truly a landmark figure in American music.

Personal Favorites

VLS: Let’s start with the desert island question. What recordings would you take to that desert island?

SN: I should qualify this in advance by saying that the specific recordings I’ll mention are those that I happen to own and love - it’s not as if I’ve done some kind of exhaustive comparison and have concluded they’re undeniably the best. And even more importantly, the answer to this question changes all the time. The first piece that comes to mind today is Schubert’s sublime String Quintet in C. I own the recording by the Emerson Quartet with Mstislav Rostropovich playing the additional cello part. Then there’s Ian Bostridge singing Schubert Lieder. I love Puccini’s La Boheme, and I own a wonderful Metropolitan Opera DVD with James Levine conducting. Another desert island choice would be Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas with Alfred Brendel. Then we could add the Brahms Symphonies. Two of my favorite versions are by James Levine with the Berlin Philharmonic and Charles Mackerras with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

VLS: It’s interesting that you haven’t mentioned any 20th century music.

SN: There’s certainly plenty of 20th century music that’s very close to my heart. For example, Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin Suite and Bluebeard’s Castle. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, of course. Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, the only Shostakovich symphony I’ve conducted as yet.

VLS: Who would you say are your all time favorite conductors?

SN: One who comes up high on my list and whom I share with just about every other conductor is Carlos Kleiber. A truly special musician, one of a kind - he had an absolutely magical way of making music. And I’ve been very fortunate to have a close mentor relationship with James Levine, who is one of the musicians I admire most. David Zinman, also one of my mentors, is a tremendous musician and conductor. He has been very influential on my development and my conducting.

Living Life and Envisioning the Future

VLS: Let’s talk about you, Sean Newhouse, the person. What do you do when you’re not making music?

SN: Music is one of the biggest things in my life, of course, but for example, I’m also a great lover of nature - I love being in beautiful natural settings, whether hiking a mountain or spending time on a beach - I love the outdoors. One of the nice things about being a conductor is that you get to travel to beautiful places, and get paid to do it!

VLS: Have you hiked the Green Mountains of Vermont, your home state?

SN: Of course. And during my time with the Boston Symphony, I get to spend summers at Tanglewood in the Berkshires, which is a wonderfully idyllic natural environment.

I also love all the arts, whether visual arts, films, or novels. And of course, spending time with people I care about is centrally important to me.

VLS: How do you envision your career and your life from here on in?

SN: As I mentioned before, I have a vision of a balance between operatic and symphonic conducting. I would ultimately like to have a music director position with an orchestra or opera company. In my first professional position, as Music Director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra, I learned that being a music director was very meaningful to me. Getting to know and building an orchestra, developing that relationship and rapport, where they understand you and vice-versa, is really a different type of music making than you can get as a guest conductor. Guest conducting can be wonderful too, of course, you can develop a kind of quick chemistry where lots of sparks fly. However, I definitely know that making music as a music director is something that I want to be part of my life in a big way.

VLS: Do you have any ambition to work with European orchestras?

SN: Absolutely. I’ve done a smattering of performances in Europe - I made my German debut in early 2010. And I’m actually a dual citizen of England and the U.S.

VLS: How did that happen?

SN: My father was born in Manchester, England, which means that I have English as well as American citizenship. So, yes, I definitely want to work over on that side of the pond as well.

VLS: By the way, do you have any interest in conducting chamber orchestras?

SN: Not as my primary activity, necessarily, but conducting chamber orchestras is wonderful because everyone can hear each other very well, and it fosters a very high level of ensemble. I’m going to be working with a chamber orchestra in Cleveland in March, and I look forward to that. We’ll have ample rehearsal time and thus should be able to work at a very high level, going deeply into the soul of the music. The program will include three works dear to me: Brahms’ Violin Concerto, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, and Mozart’s so-called “Posthorn" Symphony K. 320, that consists of three movements from the Posthorn Serenade.


Copyright (c) 2011 Vic Schermer and Sean Newhouse