Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 23, 1996

Making Music Matter

Peabody: The Peabody
Symphony begins its
100th season with
Murai at the podium.

Mike Field
Staff Writer

Hajime Teri Murai bounces atop the conductor's podium of the Friedberg Concert Hall, waving his arms frantically as a storm of music roils about him. Onstage, surrounding and seemingly ready to engulf the lithe conductor, a hundred or so members of the Peabody Symphony play a rousing passage of Verdi's Overture to I Vespri Siciliani with the force of a hurricane.

Suddenly, the conductor's arms go limp, the bouncing movement stops, and the frenetic energy at the podium which seemed to pull the listener into the eye of this orchestral tempest becomes small, focused and quiet.

Just as quickly, the music dies away.

"Horns, you have to learn the importance of starting together clean," Murai says in the sudden quiet. He speaks quickly and in a tone that sounds surprisingly flat in the echoing concert hall. It seems impossible that one so animated only moments before can display such dispassionate detachment.

"This passage is where the listeners decide. If it sounds mushy at the start, it doesn't matter how well you play in the next 16 bars, you've lost them. Let's do it again." Murai lifts up his baton, bounces twice on the balls of his feet, and the orchestra is once more off and running, chasing their leader through the maze of musical notes that appear so deceptively simple on paper.

"You've all read in your musical histories that Verdi couldn't compose for the orchestra," Murai tells his charges at one point. "Well that's a bunch of B.S. Don't listen to it. I wish I could take all those musical history books out and burn them. With Verdi you have to learn to play the subtext."

Playing the subtext--and the overt text and everything in between--is what Murai teaches in the thrice-weekly, two-hour rehearsals of the Peabody Symphony. This season marks the group's 100th anniversary, and to celebrate they are tackling some fiendishly difficult music, including Mahler's sprawling Symphony No. 2, Resurrection, to be performed with the Peabody Singers, the Peabody Chorus and the Morgan State University Choir at the city's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on April 6.

Between now and then, however, there are three other concerts and a full-length opera to rehearse and perform, including the Sept. 28 season opener featuring the Verdi piece, Bloch's Schelomo and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10. All in all, it promises to be a busy year for the group, which is not one, but actually two complete orchestras, performing a total of 10 concerts and two operas each season.

"When I started my residency as director of orchestral activities six years ago, one of the first things I was asked to do was create a vertical orchestral department where students would proceed according to their level of orchestral development," recalls Murai. "At the time, we had more instrumentalists than room in the orchestra."

That situation, brought about by steadily increasing enrollments during the past decade, was remedied by splitting the symphony in two. Today, the Peabody Symphony and the newer Peabody Concert Orchestra each contain about 100 players, close to the maximum that can be comfortably accommodated on the Friedberg stage. At the beginning of each year, every Peabody instrumental student is auditioned and placed in a musical ensemble, including the symphony, the concert orchestra, wind ensemble and various other smaller consorts and chamber groups.

Younger students are generally placed in the concert orchestra and older, more experienced players in the symphony. But both play at nearly the same level, says Murai, who comments that "someone coming in off the street should not be able to tell the difference in the two. Chiefly the differences are in the repertoire chosen and the rehearsal time allotted."

Rehearsing an orchestra of students--even very advanced students--has its own challenges and rewards, says the San Francisco native. A student at the Aspen School of Music, Murai eventually went to the University of Santa Barbara for advanced study, there majoring in both biology and conducting until he realized he could live without one, but not the other. He served as associate orchestral director at the College Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati before coming to the Peabody in 1990.

"The technical capabilities of the students here are strong and just keep improving," Murai says of the musicianship he encounters. "The challenge in all American schools comes from a lack of experience with the repertoire. The knowledge of music history is generally less sophisticated among today's students than their level of playing."

In effect, Murai is faced with teaching his students the standard repertoire that forms the basis of nearly every American orchestra's season. "The biggest problem a conductor faces at a conservatory is that the students often have little historic or stylistic base to start from," he says. "As a guest conductor with a student orchestra you'll be lucky if a quarter of your musicians have ever played the piece before. So you have to teach them and help them discover these things for the first time."

Murai has been highly effective at facilitating that discovery process. Like much else at the Peabody, the skill level and morale of the symphony has been in a steady upswing in recent years, leading Baltimore Sun music critic Stephen Wigler to note that last year's symphony performed Mahler's Sixth "with an energy, stamina and accuracy that would have made a professional orchestra proud."

"The great advantage in working with these students is their desire; they are hungry to learn," Murai says. "So in a sense, each new work is a premiere. When [Baltimore Symphony Orchestra] maestro Zinman stands up in front of his orchestra he starts up where he left off last time they performed the piece. With a student orchestra, you can pull out a warhorse symphony and it will still be a new experience. They don't come to the music with much in the way of preconceptions."

Playing in the orchestra--or one of the smaller groups--is a critical part of every musician's training at the Peabody. "Ensemble training is very important, if for no other reason than there is only a small percentage of music in the repertoire for just one instrument," Murai says. "At the same time it can be very challenging. We like to say that the group is only as strong as its weakest player, which means everyone must stay on their toes."

This seriousness of approach is evident during rehearsals, which, for the most part, are extremely focused affairs. Murai, although a friendly presence in person, cultivates a direct, no nonsense persona at the podium where he expects--and receives-- complete attention.

"I was trained by great musicians who taught me the importance of discipline and of dedicating your life to the music," he said. "I try to foster this attitude of self-discipline by letting my students know they can't come less than prepared. They can't give less than 100 percent."

The result, Murai says, is great music. "There's no way an audience new to a piece can separate a bad piece from a bad performance. When we're performing a piece of work every performer needs to give their best, their total commitment. All conservatory students are opinionated, and have works they like and dislike strongly. That's how it should be. But in performance opinion doesn't count; nothing is more important than that piece of music in front of you."

It may be difficult, and some students have been known to grumble, but the results can be spectacular. Perhaps nowhere else in the university does the process of learning create such joyous sounds.

"I think the Peabody Symphony and the Peabody Concert Orchestra are this city's undiscovered treasures," Murai says.

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