When an orchestra finishes a musical performance, there’s usually a moment of silence and stillness. The musicians hoist their bows in the air, lift reeds and mouthpieces from lips and lift drumsticks off the kettles. The audience waits as the last note finishes rings through the hall before showering the ensemble with applause.
This scene did not occur Nov. 19 of 2019. University Philharmonia Orchestra conductor Adrian Slywotzky’s right hand, suspended in midair after delivering the final cutoff, came crashing down onto his podium. His baton, enclosed around his fist, came to a halt atop the final pages — the barnstorming ending, if you will — of Dvorak’s Sixth Symphony, finely completed under his direction.
“I remember that moment, too, because I sort of surprised myself when I heard the stick hit the stand … ” Slywotzky said. “By the time you get to the end of a piece like that in a performance, you feel the weight, the substance of all the work that was done … it’s a very triumphant moment.”
That moment, the polished performance which preceded it and a semester of seamless transition in the orchestra’s leadership, were statements Slywotzky — a first-year conductor at the U-M School of Music, Theatre and Dance on a one-year contract — made by letting his job performance do the talking.
But when he sat down to do some actual talking, he struggled to isolate his modus operandi. It took 20 minutes before it crystallized into words, though it’s apparent to anyone who watches him conduct a single measure. Slywotzky revolves around his love of the music and doing it justice. In an industry full of musicians with personal and political extracurriculars on their agendas, that is a beautiful thing.
Adrian Slywotzky played violin seriously growing up, but entered Yale University thinking he would wind up in a career that musicians call “something else.” Four years later, he graduated with a B.A. in architecture, but not all had gone according to that plan.
“Late in the game (I) made the decision to go into music instead,” Slywotzky said. “Getting my master’s in violin performance … that was a very long transition.”
A mainstay during this transition was Yale University professor of violin Kyung Yu, who taught Slywotzky throughout his time as a Yale undergraduate.
“The fact that Kyung was … able to support me and my violin playing … during a time when I didn’t think I was going into music professionally was crucial for me,” Slywotzky said.
His introduction to conducting was gradual as well, beginning as an assistant of a student-run ensemble. Slywotzky’s interest in conducting turned into a passion, and after a trio of graduate degrees — master’s degrees in violin performance and orchestral conducting at the Yale School of Music, and a terminal degree in the latter at U-M — Slywotzky boasted an extensive resume filled with study under the world’s finest teachers in both fields. Diplomas in hand, he returned to the Northeast and began racking up diverse work experience, be it in a prominent role with the nationally acclaimed Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras or leading a New Haven, CT-based series of contemporary music.
“The fundamental thing is the same for every orchestra — everyone wants to sound good, and the difference is how to help each orchestra get to essentially the same goal,” Slywotzky said. “We’re all on the same path.”
In his interim capacity, Slywotzky succeeds former School of Music, Theatre and Dance faculty member Oriol Sans, now in his first year as director of orchestral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His are large shoes to fill.
“I have the highest admiration for (Oriol) … I wanted to continue his work to the best of my ability,” Slywotzky said. “Naturally things are going to be different … (but) it wasn’t my goal to change anything.”
Slywotzky’s expertise when dealing with the string section, informed by his many years of playing in ensembles as illustrious as the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, is evident at every rehearsal and performance. Through repertoire spanning from Classical to 20th Century, he worked diligently to create a unique sound true to the musical period and composer.
Considering the group’s performance of Haydn symphony No. 99; written in the 1790s, Slywotzky elected to be faithful to the style in which it was originally played by doing away with any vibrato in the string sound. The process of weaning the strings from their vibrato, often used as a crutch to mask poor intonation, was tenuous, but ultimately a key ingredient for an authentic performance.
The freshman conductor made an administrative change invisible to audience members but instrumental to the growth of the violinists of the group: rotating the players all over the two violin sections.
“UPO players should have the experience of playing second violin and first violin and playing in the front and playing in the back,” Slywotzky said. “ … we’re all going to have those seats in our professional lives, so why not learn them here?”
His repertoire choices are far from fan favorites, but his conviction in their value bled onto his musicians and their audience if the standing ovations by the latter are any indication.
“The Brahms Serenade (No. 1) … it’s just a piece I’ve admired for a long time … I thought it would be a fun project for the orchestra,” Slywotzky said. “The Beethoven, I think the second symphony is a little bit underappreciated, partly because the third symphony made a huge splash and continues to be so influential … (in the second symphony Beethoven) expanded the dramatic possibility of the symphony.”
When asked about his career trajectory after this year, Slywotzky was tight-lipped.
“I’m very happy to be here, doing the best I can while I’m here,” he said. “It’s written somewhere in the stars.”
Even with jobs in his field shrinking, he radiated no concern about the future — only satisfaction in his current work. What more could a school want out of a professor?
In his three concerts last semester, Slywotzky served mainly as a conduit between composer and orchestra, aiming for high-quality performances true to the printed page. The phrasing he extracted from his players, especially in passages for solo woodwinds, was idiomatic, not overcoached. He strove for a blended sound in the low strings and low brass. In rehearsals at Kevreson Rehearsal Hall, he selected more boomy acoustics in Beethoven and Haydn and closed the curtains for anything Romantic or 20th Century in an effort to correct problematic articulations with greater ease.
But in the dress rehearsal at Hill Auditorium a few nights before the performance of Dvorak’s Sixth Symphony, Slywotzky spent the final few minutes putting a personal stamp on the music. He deemed that the coda of the finale — in which the beat changes to solemnity before descending to a cadence in G major, a cathartic moment — needed to be given more time. Dvorak gives no indication for tempo deviation in these measures; for one of the first times in his young tenure, Slywotzky decided not to “play the ink.”
“By the time we get to that ending, the music just deserves a little weight, the brass writing, the tutti writing feels like it demands a little more weight,” Slywotzky said. “ … what we had been doing in rehearsal — taking less time, being a little more forward about it — started to feel a little lightweight.”
Slywotzky will continue to rewrite the history of the UPO this winter. On Monday, Jan. 27, both conductor and orchestra delivered a mix of traditional and unknown repertoire; the program included Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture,” a piece built on virtuosic writing for the strings, and close with Sibelius’ “Pohjola’s Daughter,” a tone poem which showcases the Finnish composer’s abilities of woodwind orchestration. Paired with two 20th century works by Joseph Marx and Einojuhani Rautavaara, the concert comprises the biggest musical and technical challenge the UPO has faced in years.
“We have this wonderful stuff, that Dvorak and Haydn and Brahms have given us,” Slywotzky said, “and to do our best and bring it to life for each other, for ourselves and our audience, that’s just a great project to do.”