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Composer Jason Robert Brown Switches Hats to Conduct at the Ahmanson

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(L–R) Jason Robert Brown, Elizabeth Stanley and, Andrew Samonsky at opening night for "The Bridges of Madison County" at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

Ahmanson Theatre audiences are getting a very special treat for the entire run of The Bridges of Madison County (through January 17, 2016): composer Jason Robert Brown, who won two Tony Awards® for the show (Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations), is conducting the orchestra. A former Angeleno, Brown is a big fan of the Ahmanson and is excited to be conducting here for the first time. “I thought it would feel really special to know that the music is happening firsthand. I’m really there, translating it for you as an audience,” he said. “I thought it would help the actors—it would help everyone on the creative team to stay really connected to what the original intentions of the show were and how they evolved.”

But besides knowing that Brown, who wrote the music, is making sure everything sounds as he intended, what else is he bringing to the performance? We talked with Brown, as well as with local composer, conductor, and orchestrator Dan Redfeld, about the job of a conductor, and what it means when a composer takes the baton.

The conductor’s job begins well before opening night, said Redfeld, when the conductor sits down at the piano to work with the singers. Rehearsal technique is key. “The concert’s not important. It’s how you prep the orchestra,” he said. Redfeld recounted watching the famous composer John Williams notice during a rehearsal that the French horn was out of tune—and wasn’t going to be fixed by the horn player. Instead, Williams said to the rest of the orchestra, “‘It would be wonderful if you could actually tune to the horn,’” said Redfeld. “When you work with a great conductor, you see that ability in rehearsal to solve so many problems quickly so you don’t have to deal with them later on.”

During the performance, the conductor’s main job is to keep the show moving, said Redfeld, and to make sure the musicians and singers know where they are in the music. When a beat changes, the players “can look down and get a cue from us as to where they have to land,” said Redfeld. “We also set the tempo of the show, the tempo of each song, and kind of help guide the orchestra in a certain way.” A key part of the job is to help with transitions from section to section and simple shifts, said Redfeld.

Brown’s understanding of conducting has changed over time. “As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that conducting is not so much about dictating how the pieces move but really just about making sure that they all move together,” he said.

Conducting is not so much about dictating how the pieces move but really just about making sure that they all move together.

—Jason Robert Brown

“I don’t have to hold the whole show together,” said Brown. The musicians are “so confident and so good at their jobs that I can watch them enjoying themselves.” He added, “That’s where it’s really honestly the most fun—where I see them thinking: ‘Oh I can take a leap here,’ ‘Oh I have the freedom to go this place,’ ‘The song wants me to go here.’ And that’s been happening a lot with this cast. They’re just smart and very gutsy performers.”

Redfeld said that the biggest misconception about the conductor’s job is the importance of dramatically waving around the baton. “Conductors go around and do all the crazy gesticulating stuff, and you’re putting on a show,” he said. Former New York and Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Zubin Mehta is “an incredible showman. But his rehearsals were very different. His baton was very clear,” said Redfeld. “By the time he’d worked with the orchestra for four or five days, he could go crazy.”

Not all composers are great conductors, said Redfeld, but those who are “can bring a really beautiful essence” to the music.

“The composer and the conductor are two very different hats, and you sort of can’t wear them simultaneously,” said Brown. “They inform each other, but when I’m conducting I can’t be the composer, or else I sort of can’t focus on the work I do.” If you’re thinking about switching chords or cutting measures, you get lost, said Brown. “You have to be a little bit ahead of the moment, and you have to be anticipating what that actor might do, what that musician might respond to.”

Los Angeles audiences, and Brown’s fans, are thrilled to have him being in and ahead of the moment each day at the Ahmanson. And Brown is thrilled to have this opportunity to return to The Bridges of Madison County. “Every night I’m very grateful that I get to be part of the show again,” he said.

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