A Conversation with Leonard Weiss

Photography by Chloe Tredrea

Leonard Weiss appears late in the afternoon, a Stravinsky score in hand, with a smile exuding enthusiasm for concerts that won’t take place for months. Already he’s excited and talking rapidly about the array of performances, each with their own programs, plans and possibilities.

There’s little in music that Weiss doesn’t appear to find either ‘exciting’ or ‘very exciting’.

We meet in the café at Llewellyn Hall to talk about the year ahead for the Canberra Youth Orchestra (CYO).

The CYO, which doubles as an ensemble for students in the ANU’s School of Music, is gearing up to celebrate its 50th year with an action-packed a concert series.

Weiss, who is the conductor and musical director of the CYO – among many other things – has a boyish eagerness about the Orchestra’s first concert, fast approaching on Saturday 8 April at Llewellyn Hall, which will feature acapella quartet The Idea of North.

‘They’re some of Australia’s best musicians … they’re totally amazing,’ Weiss says. ‘And for bonus points they were founded in Canberra, at the Canberra School of Music in about 1992, I think, when I was born, but that’s OK.’

On the program is a ‘bit of jazz’, which, Weiss tells me, ‘is so much fun. It’s so different from the orchestral language we normally see.’

‘When you have a piece of music that says “swung” at the top of it, and you put it in front of the orchestra some of them say, “Swung? What does that mean? How does that work?”

‘I asked for a show of hands of how many players had played jazz music before, and about half put their hands up, which is really great. They’re adapting to it really well; it’s such a key language.’

Weiss says that experience across a range of different genres is important for anyone playing in an orchestra. ‘You can’t walk into a symphony orchestra and say I’ve just played a lot of Mahler or Bach.’ Weiss stresses the importance of having a wide exposure to different possibilities of orchestral music.

This year, Weiss has a focus on contemporary repertoire. Perhaps ‘contemporary’ and ‘orchestra’ aren’t two words usually found in the same sentence, but Weiss quickly clarifies that, for the CYO, ‘contemporary’ means something written in the last 100 years.

Also on the CYO agenda in 2017 are Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. I’m quick to draw a link between the names, and wonder out loud whether this is the reason the orchestra will be performing Bernstein music this year.

‘It’s because I love Bernstein,’ Weiss tells me quickly. ‘It would have been his 100th year. That’s my excuse.’ Yes, Weiss admits, he’s been looking for an excuse for a while.

‘Pushing us into the 20th century is really important. It’s great to say, Hey! This stuff exists!’

Weiss agrees that reports of the death of classical music have been exaggerated. ‘I don’t think classical music is dying. I think people in charge of programming can be more astute to what the audience actually wants to hear.

‘Increasingly, I try and try out more contemporary pieces, more Australian pieces, or pieces by composers that we haven’t necessarily heard before,’ Weiss says.

It’s also important to see the visuals of film or video games stripped back from the music and to see how the music works to tell a story in five minutes, Weiss says. On 6 May, CYO will perform a concert of video game music at the Canberra International Music Festival.

‘Often,’ Weiss says, ‘music ends up being secondary to the story.’ He says CYO will have the chance to put it front and centre, and hopes that the concert programs this year will be attractive to young people who might be thinking of heading along.

‘Making a program that appeals both to the youth in the youth orchestra and the serious side is really important. It’s all a balancing act.’

‘I’d like to think there’s something in each of [the concerts],’ Weiss says, who is particularly excited for 11 November, when CYO will take to the Llewellyn Hall stage with James Morrison, the celebrated Australian trumpeter. ‘I’m really thrilled,’ Weiss says.

For many, the role of the conductor may still be a bit of a mystery. Weiss says the conductor has to create the space for making the best possible sound. ‘I think the conductor has quite a big effect. … I’m lucky as the conductor to pick the music and pick the soloists and have a fair bit of artistic license.’

‘If I walk in and I stand there for three hours, not really caring what’s going and not really knowing my score, then I think that’s noticeable.

‘And if I sit there and just start screaming my head off at people as soon as they play the slightest thing wrong then I’m going to get musicians in two week’s time who say, “You know what? I don’t need this in my life because I don’t need to feel any more burdened”,’ Weiss says.

Weiss believes the role of a conductor in his position is different to someone presiding over a professional orchestra. ‘It’s probably a bit different on a professional scene. For someone like [former Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Herbert von] Karajan, I’m sure they could just yell and scream at musicians, probably more 40 or 50 years ago than you could now. And you know, what can you do?

‘If you’re a rank and file player and you get your pay cheque, then you sit down and you shut up and you play.

‘In the grand scheme of things I would rather be a conductor that is fun to work with than a conductor that doesn’t enjoy it because they spend the entire rehearsal stressing and yelling at people.

‘And so far, that appears to be going well.’

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