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Conducting himself with enthusiasm
There's a new bundle of enthusiasm behind the baton of the McGill Symphony Orchestra. Conductor Alexis Hauser was born in Vienna and has that city's fabled musical energy wrapped around him like a sousaphone.
No stranger to Canada, Hauser was the music director for the London Orchestra for seven years. Although he enjoyed the position, he says outside of large Canadian cities "you never have enough strings. It's painful!" But at McGill, "we have 18 first violins," and for the first time Hauser complains about a cramped pit, not about how to fill it with enough musicians.
He is thrilled about the upcoming concert version of Falstaff, an opera he's wished to do for ages. "If we were to play it without singers, it would be still exciting to play. It's like any great symphony, it's got that kind of fabric in it." This devotee loves his all-embracing workload. "It's like a spectrum of everything: concerts, opera, and to teach!"
The orchestra's program will be chosen, Hauser says, from a purely pedagogical perspective, not based on personal obsessions. Anyway, he adds happily, "the older a conductor gets, the harder it is to name a favourite composer."
Hauser remembers how difficult orchestral playing is. "The first time, I couldn't hear myself -- I was in such a state of shock. I looked at my fingers to make sure they were in the right place!"
McGill's student members are "just at the beginning of their professional period. Therefore they should have a very good balance of the repertoire. Of all styles, and a certain focus should be on classical repertoire as a foundation for orchestral discipline."
Classical music, particularly Haydn and Mozart, "originally was not conducted at all, was performed like chamber music. I want to approach it also in exactly that spirit. To try to make myself ultimately completely superfluous on stage ... with the conductor being, at most, just a good 'animateur' for the orchestra." His biggest job will be to make the students listen to each other, to play the sound and make it intertwine.
Talking with him, you realize that behind every great teacher is ... a great teacher. In the '70s, Hauser studied under Hans Swarowsky, as did McGill's previous conductor, Timothy Vernon, as well as Claudio Abbado and Zubin Mehta.
"He was a born teacher, a born teacher, he loved to teach." Swarowsky's intellectual curiosity meant that even late in life "he had still that excitement of a young person who was willing to learn things." Hauser reminisces: "Even then, he still made discoveries. I still see him at his desk exclaiming 'Ah! By the way...'
"I got him at the period when he was at the height of his experience and knowledge. Everything could be explained, he had a very logical thinking, and he knew how to simplify, for students, very complex work." Swarowsky taught how to approach a score in the right order. "You have to find, first, the grand design and only then, once you have that completely in your head, then you go to the details."
Even today, Hauser loves nothing more than to study the scores. "Anytime I go back to a Beethoven symphony, any of the scores which I must have touched a thousand times ... I read them again and discover so many new things."
Hauser took summer courses with Franco Ferrara, an entirely different kind of teacher. "The man was a mystery. He never explained anything! No tempo, nothing!" Yet "Franco Ferrara was probably the finest musician I ever met in my entire life." When Ferrara conducted, "it was something you never forget. A simplicity in his exploration, but at the same time a strength, an aristocratic nobleness." As a young man, Hauser revelled in the chance "to inhale this kind of musicianship."
The two were a fantastic combination. "I can be nothing but grateful when I think of my teachers."
His TV-free childhood was spent playing music with his family and attending the Vienna Philharmonic. "This hall has such a magnificent acoustic. You feel the sound almost physically. It's hard to describe, but when you experience it you know what music is all about." Hauser still keeps the subscription, "because if you give it up, you'll never get it back."
He sums up his attitude towards teaching: "I have great examples from before, and whatever I can do, I do also from my heart with my total enthusiasm. Because I got so much, I want to give as much as I got."