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A Story to Tell

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David Effron Leads the Juilliard Orchestra

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As the head of orchestral conducting at Indiana University, a school where basketball is religion, David Effron uses a sports analogy to describe the youth movement taking over his profession. “It’s like LeBron James,” he said, referring to the 25-year-old N.B.A. superstar. “He’s very, very young and a magnificent player. He is having really bad press right now because he’s still a child and he doesn’t know how to handle this fame in such a good way. He doesn’t have good advisers and so forth.” 

Conductor David Effron will lead the Juilliard Orchestra in its season opener on October 4 in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.

(Photo by Courtesy of Indiana University)

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He added, “The same is true in our field. Some of these young conductors are magnificent. But under the stress of what it takes to be a music director, only time will tell if this works out.”

Effron was speaking by phone from his home in Bloomington, Ind., two weeks after the N.B.A.’s two-time reigning most valuable player announced he was leaving his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, for the shot at greater fame with the Miami Heat. It drew a wave of unflattering publicity, although Effron is careful not to stretch the comparison too far. 

“This is not a positive time for any musician because of cutbacks and general economic conditions and things like that,” he said. But, as orchestras from New York and Los Angeles to Seattle and Philadelphia are looking for a way to rejuvenate their audiences through fresh talent, “there’s a great calling now for young conductors.”

Much of Effron’s five-decade career in music has been dedicated to training young conductors at institutions like the Curtis Institute, Eastman School of Music, and most recently, Indiana. The idea of promoting stars in their early prime also shapes his programming. On October 4, Effron will lead the Juilliard Orchestra in its opening concert of the season, performing Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1, written as a graduation piece from the Leningrad Conservatory at the tender age of 19. Spiky, theatrical, and nimbly orchestrated, it’s a first statement in a form that later became a profound emotional outlet for the composer. 

Also on the program will be Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, by a 30-year-old Richard Strauss, and the Suite for Viola and Orchestra, by a 39-year-old Ernst Bloch.

“It’s a very challenging program for the orchestra, technically and musically, and there’s a lot they can learn from all of these pieces,” said Effron. In the case of the Shostakovich, “many musicians feel that’s one of his best works. It’s very different from the later symphonies, which are much like Mahler in that the orchestra is very huge. It’s a great combination of wit and humor. It’s very lively and very tragic. It’s a great musicians’ kind of piece.” The work also shows Shostakovich still beholden to influences like that of Stravinsky and Prokofiev.

In constructing the program, Effron had two primary goals in mind. On one hand, it should introduce students either to a key corner of the repertoire, as in the ubiquitous Till Eulenspiegel, or to a particular technique. The Bloch suite, he said, “is a very good lesson on how to accompany a soloist.” In the case of the Juilliard Orchestra, which attracts audiences accustomed to professional-level performances, there must also be some musical and dramatic interest for listeners—a program must tell a story. 

Effron has conducted each of these works throughout his career, and while he can anticipate pitfalls, as a teacher, he knows he also must constantly bring a fresh approach himself. “I’ve conducted Till Eulenspiegel many times,” he said. “But when I study it I begin as if I never knew the piece. There’s a correlation between one’s personal life and growth as a human being and how you view music. It’s impossible to do any piece the same way when you were 50 years old as when you were 30 years old.”

Born in Cincinnati, Effron studied piano at Indiana University and the University of Michigan. When he was 23 a Fulbright grant took him to Germany, where he began his professional career as an assistant to conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch at the Cologne Opera. “Being in a major opera house at that age was a huge deal,” Effron recalled. “It was like you woke up every day and you were in a fairy tale and then you realized you didn’t know very much and how much there was to learn.”

Returning to the U.S. in 1964, Effron joined the conducting staff at the New York City Opera, with which he remained for nearly two decades. He began working as an accompanist to opera singers including George London, Plácido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes, and Benita Valente. At the same time, he started to teach conducting, first at Curtis, from 1970 to 1977, before becoming head of the orchestral program at Eastman from 1977 to 1998. Since 1998, he has worked at Indiana, where, among other accomplishments, he led the 2006 premiere of Ned Rorem’s opera Our Town. Last January, he added the Juilliard Opera to his résumé, leading a performance of Copland’sThe Tender Land as part of the 2010 Focus! festival.

Returning to the city where he spent much of his 20s can be bittersweet. “Everything’s changed. There was a deli on 72nd and Broadway called the Famous Deli that I used to go to,” he said, referring to the Famous Dairy Restaurant. “It doesn’t exist any more.” Earlier this year, O’Neals, a favorite Lincoln Center area restaurant, shut its doors. Still, he said, “The greatest thing about coming to New York—aside from the fact that it’s an alive city and there’s so much going on—is seeing so many people I know.”

As to whether there are as many opportunities for conductors as when he was starting out in New York: “I would never ever dissuade someone from their passion, but I would in general terms speak about the difficulties of the position. I tell my students more than once if you can live one day without music—it being such a difficult profession and so hard to break into—you might be happier in the long run not doing it. But if you cannot live one day without music, like myself and many others, then you have to go into it and you have to pursue it.”

 

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