John Klinghammer waited to make his entrance.
Earlier this month, a few dozen kids, from kindergartners to third-graders, attended an Omaha Symphony program called “Mission Imagination” at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in South Omaha. Seated cross-legged on a carpeted floor, the students faced a stage where the symphony's chamber orchestra warmed up.
Off to the left of the stage stood Klinghammer. In concert, the Omaha Symphony usually performs with music director Thomas Wilkins or resident conductor Ernest Richardson at the podium, but today, Klinghammer held the baton. He stepped forward at the introduction of Adam Goos, the symphony's head of education and community partnerships, and immediately launched the orchestra into composer AntonŪn DvorŠk's “Slavonic Dance No. 15.” The room swelled with the sound of 40 musicians in harmony, kids bobbing in place and mimicking Klinghammer's arm movements as he conducted.
The theatrical aspect of the show featured Goos in the role of “Professor Webersteinmahler von Strauss Jr.,” a scientist who enlists the help of the students, and the sounds of the orchestra, to build his “machine of music.”
Along the way, musicians from each section introduced their instruments and how they made their sounds. Strings. Brass. Woodwinds. Percussion.
Finally, Klinghammer stepped down from the podium to lead a group “conduct-a-long” and provide a few pointers to his young audience.
“Move one hand,” Klinghammer instructed, swinging the baton back and forth in a semicircle. “Then with the other, point and make ugly faces.”
He curled over into a hunch and glared at the kids with a comic scowl.
“That's it,” he said with a shrug. “That's conducting in a nutshell.”
Of course, it isn't so simple.
A few years ago, Klinghammer, the 41-year-old assistant principal clarinetist for the Omaha Symphony, approached Wilkins, the music director, with a request. He wanted to learn the craft.
They meet when Wilkins' hectic schedule will allow it, and in the stretches between, Klinghammer works on his own. Occasionally, he conducts the symphony's student programs, including “Mission Imagination.” He isn't sure where this new education will take him. For now he's content to learn.
Few roles in all of the arts loom as large as the conductor of a professional symphony orchestra, a position so weighted by history and larger-than-life personalities as to have created its own all-encompassing, all-intimidating, all-powerful composite character: the Maestro.
Most people know a conductor directs the vision of performance and establishes the orchestra's tempo — that's what all that arm-waving is about, right? — but what exactly does that mean? What makes a conductor good?
Klinghammer grew up in Eugene, Ore., a music and theater kid at an artsy high school where the drama teacher thought nothing of handing Tennessee Williams to teens. “I was the Richard Burton character from 'Night of the Iguana,' ” he said, recalling one production. “It was great to emote, get all your emotions out, even if you didn't know what it meant.”
Klinghammer loved the stage but couldn't envision a career path and so focused on music. He got a music degree from the University of Oregon, then master's and doctorate degrees from the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California, and his professional playing career took off. He joined the Omaha Symphony in 2001. For a few years, he also served as the principal clarinetist for the Des Moines Symphony, until the demands and overlapping schedules of the two assignments became unmanageable. These days he travels once a week to Vermillion, S.D., where he teaches a music class at the University of South Dakota.
While at USC, Klinghammer attended a concert featuring Zubin Mehta, the acclaimed Indian Parsi conductor, and marveled at Mehta's command over the sound. He started to think about conducting. Years later, he took his desire to Wilkins. It can be a humbling process, filled with intellectual, physical, social and psychological demands that make even the greatest question themselves.
But the effect can be magical. Klinghammer cites as one of his favorite conductors the late Carlos Kleiber, who studied scores relentlessly, demanded long rehearsals, and yet is remembered as a sort of mythic conjurer of energy. Placido Domingo called him “a wizard.”
Things you need to be a conductor: a piece of music (important), musicians (also important), a baton (not critical — Leonard Bernstein once conducted an orchestra using only his face — but in a way, yes, also important).
Klinghammer's work begins with the music. As a clarinetist, he studies and performs his part of a larger whole. As a conductor, he studies all the parts and synthesizes the whole in his head. He strives for the Mozart-like ability to open a score and hear a full orchestra. “But it's difficult,” he said.
Parsing the music comes first, followed by any number of decisions about how it should sound. Klinghammer then works on the gestures and body language that will best express those decisions.
Preparation leads to rehearsal, and for a professional orchestra, that might be as few as one practice before a performance. Leading professional musicians means walking the fine line between communicating what you want while respecting their talents and preparation. It also means knowing the tendencies and questions that might come from the different sections of the orchestra. Klinghammer, as a clarinetist, understands the woodwinds section. He's needed to learn more about the strings, about how and why and when they do the things they do in the course of a musical piece.
Next comes the performance, and here the conductor serves as the orchestra's energy. When they motion, where they motion, how they motion, where they look, how long they look, conducting styles run the gamut. There are some who flail wildly, others who keep their arms close to their bodies, as though their hands and elbows are constrained by an invisible box. Some look pained and brooding, while others seem to float at the podium.
If there's a commonality, it is often the unusual little baton they wave, and even then quirks appear.
Thomas Wilkins makes his own batons, adding layers of paint to the handle to arrive at the desired weight. Klinghammer tried that but didn't like the balance of his homemade baton. So he bought one online (www.batonz.com being a thing that exists). The baton itself is not significant. What's important is how the conductor feels on the podium. Russian conductor Valery Gergiev uses a toothpick.
The “Mission Imagination” concert posed a few challenges for Klinghammer. For one, it was a show he and the orchestra had performed before. It also included two performances, one in the morning, another in the afternoon. Klinghammer wanted to make sure he brought the same verve to the podium for each group of students. Even if they never looked up at him, he wanted the musicians to sense his enthusiasm for being there.
He also had a more specific problem, and weeks after the concert still doubted whether he'd made the right decision. It was a small thing, but he saw a moment in the score that he wanted played differently than it had been in previous performances.
“Ahead of time I liked my reasoning,” he said, but at the rehearsal he could sense some resistance. Several days later he still questioned himself. Was it the right decision? Or was he forcing it, a conductor looking to make a decision for the sake of doing it?
The grumbling didn't bother him; he would have been more concerned if the musicians didn't care enough to doubt him. But it made him look at his decision-making in a new way.
Klinghammer once asked a visiting conductor, standing in front of a dense Mahler score, notes piled on notes like black paint dripping down the page, how he approached reading such a thing. “What do you mean?” the conductor huffed.
Klinghammer, who believes the role of a musician carries with it the responsibility to teach, left it at that, but the experience stayed with him.
It is not by accident that Klinghammer so admires Kleiber, whose profoundly joyful conducting masked a famous capacity for self-doubt.
“I don't trust people who are always sure of themselves,” Klinghammer said. “I always think they're not taking everything into account.”
A few nights ago, before an Omaha Symphony rehearsal of Brahms' “Requiem” at the Holland Center, Klinghammer met with Wilkins for a conducting lesson in the music director's modest backstage dressing room.
Wilkins sat at a piano bench. Klinghammer stood facing him. Open in front of each was the score of Beethoven's “Symphony No. 7.”
After some chit-chat, Klinghammer began conducting the piece, motioning and looking out toward an imaginary orchestra. The only music to be heard was Wilkins humming as Klinghammer waved and gestured and rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet and occasionally flipped a page of his score.
“OK, good, good, good,” Wilkins said after five minutes. “I wanted to get all the way up to that part because there are a lot of events that happen.”
Throughout the lesson, Wilkins spoke of the symphony as a story to be told. When Klinghammer motioned for “more” at a crescendo, Wilkins stopped him and told him the loudness will happen regardless of what he does with his hands. Concentrate on the meaning.
“A crescendo means you're being carried to a place that's more exciting,” Wilkins said. “And that's really sort of the mindset you want to deliver.”
The next morning, Wilkins spoke about Klinghammer's development since they started working together.
“He is more human as a conductor than he was when we first started,” Wilkins said. “Sometimes when conductors get on a podium and you put a baton in their hand, they become dangerous. They take on whatever this 'maestro' persona is supposed to be, and in the process they put up a wall between them and the people they're actually trying to make music with.”
Now, he said, “John smiles more, for example.”
Wilkins, who also leads the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in Los Angeles and family concerts for the Boston Symphony Orchestra as well as guest conducts throughout the country, recalls the moment he knew he wanted to be a conductor. He was 8 years old, as it happens the same age as some of the kids who attended the “Mission Imagination” concert Klinghammer conducted earlier this month.
The young Wilkins hopped on a bus to experience what is now the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, just as those young students traveled to hear the Omaha Symphony.
“I had never heard the voice of the orchestra before, so I was completely captivated by it,” he said.
His eyes fixed on the conductor, the man in Klinghammer's role all those years ago, enthralled by his proximity to the sound.
“That's what I want,” he thought. “That's where I want to be right there.”