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School of Music conducting grads and students earn accolades

What do a classical guitar prodigy from Bangkok and a 25-year-old doctoral student from Portugal have in common? Both studied orchestral conducting at U-M, have embarked on successful careers in music and, along with another doctoral student, recently were honored at prestigious competitions.

Rachel Lauber conducts a rehearsal. (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

The two also participated in the first ever Maazel/Vilar conductors' competition, which culminated on the stage of Carnegie Hall. Featuring 362 contenders from around the world, the festival awarded Bundit Ungrangsee (MM, '95) from Thailand as a first-place laureate, with a prize of $45,000, and Portuguese participant Joana Carneiro (DMA student) with a special opportunity to conduct during one of two final concerts. In addition, Mei-Ann Chen, another Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) candidate, won the Tokyo regional round.

Ungrangsee, Carneiro and Chen all have studied with Kenneth Kiesler, professor of orchestral conducting and director of university orchestras. Carneiro will graduate from the DMA program in winter 2003, and Ungrangsee completed his master's degree and two years of doctoral work at U-M.

Being in the spotlight is not new to the Department of Conducting. It has received accolades for years. Consistently rated as the top American program by U.S. News and World Report, the department attracts international talent in orchestral, band/wind ensemble and choral conducting.

Jerry Blackstone, director of choirs and chair of the department, says the placement of University graduates speaks volumes about the program's strengths. "It's great where the students have ended up and what they're doing in some very prestigious places," he says. "We have very talented students, which has been the case for years."

Kiesler supervises program planning and policies, but the groups are run independently by the doctoral and master's students, Kiesler says. That the students are directors of their own orchestras is a significant benefit of the program, he says.

There are several qualities that separate the University from other conducting programs, Keisler says. At many schools, students learn about music and the physical act of conducting separately, he says. On the other hand, U-M's program "places the highest priority on studying the score and the composers' intentions." In other words, conducting and score study are taught together. Kiesler says this provides the conductor with a closer connection to the music.

"One of the important things I teach is that physical gesture is generated from a spiritual connection with the music," he says. "The conductor doesn't give signals like a traffic copthe music flows through the conductor and then out through the hands."

Like Blackstone, Kiesler finds that experience beyond the classroom is essential to becoming a good conductor. Two of the school's most important lessons, Kiesler says, are to be self-critical and to elevate one's work to the highest standard.

"One of the things we pass along is the idea of striving consistently to improve oneself and to seek deeper meaning in the music," he says. "There are some things that can't be learned from someone elsethey can only be learned from the experience of doing it day in and day out with the professional musicians who know the music well."

While each area of the department is specialized, all three use the same application process. Potential students submit videotapes of themselves conducting rehearsals or performances, as well as resumès and background information. Doctoral candidates also must submit written analyses of a classical composition. After reviewing the applications, the School of Music faculty invites a few students to audition on campus.

The competition for entry into the program is intense. Annually, only one to three students in each area are admitted out of an applicant pool of 50 to 100. Blackstone says the program's small size creates a closer relationship between students and faculty and more individualized attention than at larger departments.

"The smaller we keep it, the more opportunities for these students to conduct," Blackstone says. "If we had 20 students, we'd have so few opportunities for them to stand in front of a group," he says. Reading about conducting is important, but making music is the only way to become accomplished, he says. "It's like playing a sportyou have to do it, and you have to do it at a very high level, and the only way you can do it is by getting constant feedback."

Students in the program not only work with its first-class faculty, but also with undergraduate musicians. While attending the University, Carneiro and Ungrangsee served as directors of the Campus Philharmonia Orchestra and Campus Symphony Orchestra, and both were assistant conductors to Kiesler during weeks of opera rehearsals and performances. Students also learn to conduct concertos and solo pieces, collaborate with student composers and conduct premieres of their works.

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