The Sydney Conservatorium of Music Chamber Orchestra begins its North American tour with a collaborative concert at Juilliard on October 18, featuring a combined orchestra of students from both institutions. The 34 visiting musicians will sit side-by-side with their local counterparts to present a program of Australian and American music, with both S.C.M.O.’s music director, Imre Palló, and Juilliard’s resident conductor, James DePreist, conducting portions of the concert in Alice Tully Hall.
According to DePreist and Palló, the collaboration began as a conversation between two fellow bassoonists: Kim Walker, dean of the Sydney Conservatorium, and Juilliard President Joseph W. Polisi. DePreist and Palló each proposed one native work for the other ensemble to learn and decided together on two pieces appropriate to the spirit of the project to be performed jointly. Thus, the combined orchestras will perform William Schuman’sAmerican Festival Overture with Palló conducting and Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestrawith DePreist conducting. In addition, Palló will lead the Juilliard musicians in a performance of Australian composer Richard Mills’s Sequenzas and DePreist will conduct Norman Dello Joio’s Meditations on Ecclesiasteswith the Sydney ensemble.
Both conductors say they believe the program to be ideally suited for the purposes of pedagogy and diplomacy. Mills, though one of Australia’s leading composers, is not well-known in America. In a recent interview with The Journal, Palló remarked that Sequenzas is “an ideal chamber orchestra piece. It features every group of instruments. If you have a good group—and I tend to believe I will have an excellent group—the students can show off.” The music of Schuman is not unfamiliar to anyone who attended Juilliard concerts last season, with 2010 marking the centennial of the composer’s birth. Schuman once served as president both of Juilliard and of Lincoln Center, and helped shape both institutions according to his considerable vision. “It’s only fitting at Juilliard to do the Schuman overture,” continued Palló. “I don’t think Juilliard would be Juilliard the way we know it without him.”
The Dello Joio work was DePreist’s choice. The composer had strong New York connections, having served on the faculties at both Juilliard and the Mannes College of Music. The Meditations on Ecclesiastes, premiered at Juilliard in April 1956, secured for its author the 1957 Pulitzer Prize in music. Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra has long been both an audience favorite and a useful teaching tool, featuring a catchy series of variations on a theme by Purcell which showcase the orchestra’s components and culminate in a rousing fugue.
Though the collaboration between the two organizations is the first, and this project is the first of its kind during DePreist’s tenure at Juilliard, connections between Palló and New York and between DePreist and Palló go back quite a long way indeed. The two venerable maestros met nearly 40 years ago. At that time, DePreist was associate conductor of the National Symphony under the eminent Hungarian musician Antal Dorati, whom Palló described as a “fatherly friend of mine.” “Since the early ’70s, [DePreist and I] have never lost sight of each other. To conduct side by side with my friend is a great happiness for me,” Palló said.
Palló brings a certain old world pedigree with him when he takes the podium. Born in Budapest in 1941, his father, Imre Palló Sr., was a prominent baritone and director of the Hungarian State Opera. His godfather was Zoltan Kodaly and his mentors included Ferenc Fricsay and Dorati. In addition, he served as assistant to celebrated conductors Herbert von Karajan and Karl Böhm at the Salzburg and Vienna Festivals during the 1960s. Palló’s career has spanned decades and continents. Following his North American debut with the National Symphony in 1973, he became one of the principal conductors of New York City Opera, a position he retained for 18 years.
This complements nicely DePreist’s distinctly American background. Born in Philadelphia in 1936, DePreist, the nephew of legendary singer Marian Anderson, was selected by Leonard Bernstein to be an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1965. The music director laureate of the Oregon Symphony, DePreist was granted the National Medal of the Arts in 2005, the nation’s highest honor for artistic excellence.
With such illustrious careers and plenty of laurels to rest upon, neither conductor chose the path of retirement and both chose one that includes pedagogy. “Conducting is teaching,” said Palló, who, prior to his position in Sydney, served as director of Indiana University’s orchestral program for 12 years. “Any conductor is also a teacher from the beginning.” After a taste of the teacher’s life at Indiana in the early ’90s, Palló said, “I truly fell in love with the whole situation. I realized it’s time to give back what the profession gave me. Now, I have gotten to the point that the greatest satisfaction for me comes through the success of my students.”
DePreist echoed these sentiments. “Teaching is a natural evolution of being an artist,” he said. “There is a time in a performer’s life when it seems absolutely logical to share [knowledge] in an environment where it can be of great use.” He also remarked that not all teachers are so lucky as he. “It is the uniqueness of Juilliard and the freedom I have in working here that makes it such an absolutely glorious experience.”
The Sydney Conservatorium Chamber Orchestra is making its second tour in two years, last year’s taking it to music schools in Vienna and Salzburg, Austria; Genoa, Italy; Lausanne, Switzerland; and Manchester, England. After their appearance at Juilliard, the Australian musicians will participate in similar collaborations at the University of Colorado in Boulder and the San Francisco Conservatory. The Juilliard community looks forward to welcoming the representatives of the Conservatorium and to the musical and personal exchange which is to follow.