Skip directly to: Main page content

UC Davis Magazine

Volume 25 · Number 2 · Winter 2008

Student Jessica Bejarano

Graduate conducting student Jessica Bejarano (Photo: Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Making a Maestro

A baton, a podium and a trial by fire.

Restricted from this perspective by the boundaries of the television screen, D. Kern Holoman looks a bit like some crazed puppet directing an orchestra that exists only in his own imagination. After all, he can be seen only from the waist up, and he’s waving his baton in the air with a fierce abandon, occasionally nodding to musicians we can’t see, smiling at them, encouraging them, signaling one imaginary section to raise or lower its volume. But in the television screen he’s directly facing only us, the camera, but never acknowledging it.

But then again, this maestro-on-television is really meant for only one viewer — conducting graduate student Jessica Bejarano — and for her, Holoman’s gestures are both meaningful and important. She watches the television intently, despite the fact that Holoman himself is conducting less than 100 feet away; she need only turn around to see him directly. Nonetheless, Bejarano has been assigned the task of conducting an off-stage band of brass players. The trick will be to exactly match the pit orchestra and characters on stage in tempo and expression, and use that to create an effect that the music is moving off-stage during key moments of the performance. This is a stage trick of sorts to add to the audience’s appreciation and understanding of Georges Bizet’s classic Carmen, one of the most popular operas in the genre’s history.

When the moment draws near, Bejarano’s players seat themselves in a series of folding chairs in the off-stage darkness. Just behind them glows the video monitor that she will use to match Holoman’s tempo. She has a small podium and scans the score with a small desk lamp for the cues. Her musicians ready their own parts and whisper to each other in the darkness, sometimes laughing quietly. Bejarano looks up, signaling the musicians to prepare. Mouthpieces go to mouths and tongues. The cue arrives and, quietly and steadily, she begins to move the baton, all the while keeping her eyes fixed on the musicians and on the televised Holoman behind them.

Truth be told, it’s a shaky start, and it’s relatively easy to see why. With only the dim light of the podium to illuminate Bejarano, all that can be seen of her is a shadowy suggestion of a figure. Her brisk and authoritative baton moves are essentially lost in the darkness and the musicians manage to follow only vaguely. The section is short — less than a minute — and when it’s done she shakes her head, looking back at the score and then again back at the monitor. “We can’t see you,” one of the musicians calls to her. She nods; it’s clear that she’s already figured out what the problem is. Meanwhile, the televised Holoman — and, of course, the real Holoman behind her — begins the next section of the score.

Bejarano is one of only two graduate-level conducting students at UC Davis and the situation she experienced backstage at the Mondavi Center is likely only one of many such moments. Productions the size of Carmen — with cast, crew and musicians numbering in the hundreds — are bound to have many instances when the work threatens to derail. But the cast and crew aren’t distracted; they are trained to solve such problems quickly and efficiently. Their movements are hurried but not frantic, and instead of stress, the feeling backstage is electric excitement. The show goes up in just two days; time is running out to fix such problems. But then again, this is exactly what rehearsals are for. Bejarano’s solution is simple: Place the video monitor where she was standing so that the band is following Holoman’s cues. It means she doesn’t have the opportunity to conduct this particular section, but it’s the best solution for the piece on the whole, and so it’s something she accepts. After all, there’s plenty more to do to get the show running fluidly.

Bejarano’s experience underscores exactly what the high-pressure world of conducting is all about: building an artistic machine that works. There are always new pieces on the horizon, new shows to mount and new audiences to be reached. The schedule of the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, like the schedules of the many other UC Davis-housed ensembles, is filled with concerts, events and outreach programs. For each and every one of these, the machine needs to be built and oiled, revved and idled at various speeds. All the while, the conductor is listening, because ultimately, despite the ensemble nature of the performance, it’s his or her responsibility. The audience’s experience is shaped by the conductor’s vision and ability to draw that from the performers. Together they form the machine — the vehicle — that brings a piece of paper scattered with musical dots and lines to life as beautiful, glorious sound.

As a conducting graduate student, Bejarano is learning how to build that machine — and learning how to deal with the myriad little problems that exist during any performance, large or small. What that means is that, even in moments like this, while not actually conducting, she is being molded into a conductor.

In 1992, the UC Davis graduate conducting program handed out its first diploma to its first graduate: Michael Shahani. (Shahani is now a successful Bay Area-based conductor and is on the music faculty at the City College of San Francisco.) Since then, the program — one of only a handful of its kind nationwide — has become noted for preparing young conductors. From the very beginning, Professor Holoman has been at its heart, launching it in conjunction with well-known choral conductor Paul Hillier. Today he is joined by Jeffrey Thomas, who has been an integral part of the conducting faculty since 1996. Thomas is perhaps best known for his work with the American Bach Soloists, an ensemble that has presented some of the most definitive recordings of early music, including Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Handel’s Messiah. The interplay between Holoman and Thomas, and the recent addition of other faulty conductors, has cemented the graduate conducting program as both intimate and practical.

“We’re not the biggest dog on the block, but we are certainly a player,” Holoman comments. “The first three of four people who were in the program got hired away from us even before their degrees were done.” Likewise last year’s “senior” graduate conductor, Fawzi Haimor, went on to Indiana University’s graduate conducting program, among the most prestigious in the U.S.

Student David Moschler

Graduate conducting student David Moschler (Photo:Cheng Saechao)

It’s been a few months since the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra successfully staged Carmen and a new academic year has just begun. Jessica Bejarano is now the “senior” graduate student, and a new student, David Moschler, has entered the program. The current season is already mapped out around four big pieces: Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 4, Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Holoman will conduct two of them — the Berlioz and the Mahler — with Professor Thomas taking on the Brahms piece and University of the Pacific guest conductor Nicolas Waldvogel conducting the Ives.

Holoman, in a moment when he’s not behind the podium at the Mondavi Center, is seated in his music department office — a space filled with materials that make up a lifetime spent thinking about, performing and writing about music. Scattered amid the books and manuscripts that clutter his office bookshelves are some of his own projects: a critically acclaimed volume on Hector Berlioz’s life and work, for one, and a more recent multimedia textbook package called Masterworks.

From his office, Holoman recalls the start of the graduate conducting program more than 15 years earlier. Part of that beginning had to do with the basic needs of student musicians. “One hundred percent of all performers sooner or later have to conduct something,” Holoman noted, “leading civic or church groups, becoming high school orchestra directors or college and university types like me. The conducting programs that filter you into the New York Philharmonic are quite few in number — there are only two or three of them — and are very, very, very exclusive. So we started thinking about that. Lots of people wanted to stay because we have a very good orchestra, and some wanted to earn their spurs with podium time so when they were done they’d have professional qualifications.”

But what exactly must a student learn to be a good conductor? To the casual concert-goer, the conductor is the most visible member of the orchestra. The conductor is physically the highest, is in the center and spends his or her time waving a little stick around at the musicians, most of whom can’t really be clearly seen by the audience. The meaning of the stick-waving is likely lost on most listeners, although it’s probably clear that the motions have something to do with tempo.

What’s behind the stick-waving of a great conductor is a rare combination of artistic expression, superior listening skills, leadership ability and, perhaps first and foremost, physical grace. “You’ve got to have moves,” Professor Holoman explains. “Conducting students have to understand how their body looks and works and how their body gets to the musicians what is needed to be got.

“And then a lot of the rest of it is practicing how the ear works. What am I hearing, what are you hearing, what is the audience hearing?” This latter point is important, as it is this ability to really hear that guides the way a director shapes the overall sound of the ensemble — be it orchestra, chorus or something else. After all, the conductor must understand each and every part of the score, essentially reading music for the entire orchestra simultaneously — all the different parts, different clefs — and be able to synthesize that internally so that what is manifested externally — the orchestra’s sound — is as close to perfection as possible.

Holoman himself has spent years behind the podium, and he shares that experience with his graduate students, guiding them and giving them ample opportunities to conduct the symphony during rehearsal and often during a performance itself. In part, this is because of — rather than in spite of — the program’s small size. “Other graduate schools like Indiana and Northwestern have as many as 10 M.A. conducting students,” newcomer David Moschler explains. “If you can think of the symphony as the conductor’s instrument, imagine sharing two different instruments between eight or 10 people. Bejarano seconds that idea: “At UC Davis there are two conducting students. That’s the ideal graduate program because just one or two students means maximum podium time. It creates many opportunities for both of us.”

It is indeed “podium time” that is the most important aspect of the conducting program. “I can study Beethoven all day,” Moschler says, “but if I don’t actually get up to the podium I can’t ever really practice it. The way I think of it is that the orchestra or choir or band is the conductor’s instrument, and they have to have time to practice on that instrument just like a performer in a practice room, or they aren’t going to be able to put that knowledge to use.” As designed, the conducting program maximizes the availability of the podium, not only during the “big shows” but during the numerous UC Davis events and community outreach shows the orchestra and other ensembles stage on a regular basis in the area.

Conductor D. Kern Holoman

Music professor and UC Davis Symphony Orchestra conductor D. Kern Holoman (Photo: Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Of course, conductors don’t start out as conductors. They become proficient — perhaps expert — on an instrument first and perform regularly on that instrument, likely as part of an orchestra or band. Professor Holoman’s career in music began, for example, in bassoon performance; Bejarano is a trumpeter; Moschler a vocalist and tuba player. “I think what makes a good orchestra conductor is most of all sympathy and understanding of what it’s like to be on the other side of the music stand,” Holoman says. “To be the player trying to do what the conductor wants.”

That philosophy is at the very heart of orchestra conducting, for conducting is neither an autonomous nor authoritarian project. At its core, conducting is a collaboration. This can been seen during rehearsal: Holoman stops between movements to discuss sharper note articulation with a particular section of the orchestra. The conductor has the last word, but the dialogue can be a discussion of ideas as much as it is an exchange of music. Bejarano says collaboration is what she enjoys the most about conducting. “The joy comes from the very beginning,” Bejarano explains. “I have a new piece of music in front of me and we get to discover it together. The interpretation of it and being able to work with these musicians: From the get-go it’s a beautiful process. The podium is the reward, the culmination of our musical journey together.”

Certain music students gravitate naturally to the podium. For Bejarano and Moschler, the decision to study conducting was the logical culmination of years of study. Moschler double-majored in physics and music, but it was music, not physics, that held his attention. “When I studied conducting I realized that I really liked it; it made everything I was learning in music useful and tied everything together. I had studied musicology, composition, various instruments, theory and everything else. It made everything I studied make sense and put it all to good use.”

Putting it all to good use is, of course, the performance itself. That the culminating act of the long process of study and rehearsal is a public act is something that does not escape Holoman or his students. In fact, sharing music with others is one of the most fundamental joys of conducting. “The basic undergraduate student not only has never heard a Beethoven symphony all the way through but has never heard a classical concert all the way through,” Professor Holoman notes. “Going to the Mondavi Center for their first exposure is almost a religious rite of passage. It’s a really big deal. We do that for hundreds and hundreds of people every year. And many of them become serious consumers of classic music.”

Holoman is serious about this issue and speaks with near reverence about these moments of exposure. It feels like the correct tone, since, in the end, everything revolves around the people in the audience and what they experience. For his students, this is the message he hopes to bring home.

As this interview was reaching its conclusion, Professor Holoman was awaiting the arrival of Bejarano. Bejarano had conducted a concert with her Davis Summer Symphony a few days before, and Holoman had taken several pages of notes on the performance. Holoman’s comments spoke to both the artistic role of the conductor and the job of reaching the audience, in this case, junior high school students. “One of the things I’ll talk to her about when she comes in is: The outer voices were beautiful, the cellos and basses on the one end and the strings on the other end, but what does she think about the viola section? What does she think about the second clarinet player? What does she think about, for example, the fact that the second movement of the piece she was conducting is longer than the whole rest of the piece combined, a problem made all the more difficult when you are conducting to an auditorium full of junior high school students?”

The answers to these questions — and many others like them — will form the basis of Holoman and Bejarano’s next discussion and the ongoing education that she and Moschler are receiving. Such is the trial-by-fire nature of conducting. Conducting students, perhaps like students in any discipline, learn best from their mistakes. “I suppose on one end you can’t teach them anything,” Holoman says. “That is to say that conducting, even more than playing an instrument, is a matter of holding up successive hoops that students jump through sooner or later to find their voice. A lot of the didactic technique comes in giving people enough slack and enough pressure to arrive at their personal style on their own.”

Holoman is thoughtful for a moment, perhaps considering his two graduate students. He thumps a pencil against the desktop once or twice. Then he says, simply: “You can’t teach the thing that makes a great conductor different from all the other conductors.” It seems that, in the end, that’s the main work that Bejarano and Moschler are doing: finding their voice by giving voice to the orchestra and working to make it the most glorious sound in all the world.


Christian Kiefer earned his Ph.D. in English from UC Davis in 2006 and is a musician and freelance music writer. More information can be found at