Salonen Fellow Angus Webster Talks Orchestra Concert Prep, Mentorship, and Future Goals

Angus Webster sitting on steps, smiling.

As a Salonen Fellow in the new Negaunee Conducting Program, Angus Webster has been working with mentor Esa-Pekka Salonen to prepare the Colburn Orchestra for its November 3 concert.

What do you do here?
I am in my first year studying with Esa-Pekka Salonen in the brand new Negaunee Conducting Program here at Colburn! Being part of the first intake, the program is still evolving, but at the moment most of our time is spent studying with and assisting Mr. Salonen for his projects and engagements around the world and serving as preparatory conductors for Colburn’s flagship orchestra.

Last month, I also presented and conducted a series of outreach concerts at local schools in Los Angeles with Colburn’s Zipper Orchestra, and we performed to around 1,500 kids, which was a really lovely experience for everyone!

Right now, we are in the middle of a very intensive week working with Salonen on his Wagner and Hindemith project with the Colburn Orchestra. My role has been to prepare the orchestra ahead of Salonen arriving and in assisting with the balance between the singers and orchestra, which is one of the big challenges we face when performing opera, especially Wagner.

How would you describe the process of preparing for an orchestra concert to non-musicians?
Before the whole orchestra comes together, we break everything down into the different sections of instruments—woodwind, brass, strings—for special individual rehearsals known as sectionals. These allow everyone to work out how their individual parts fit together within their own section, which in turn makes it much easier to play when we all come together as a full orchestra.

My responsibility as conductor in these rehearsals is very functional and is primarily concerned with making sure everything is in tune and fits together in the right place.

How do you prepare for those rehearsals personally?
In addition to studying the scores, I usually try and have a conversation with the conductor I am preparing for to discuss a few fundamental things such as tempo and style, just so it’s not a huge shock for the orchestra when they turn up and conduct everything at twice the speed we’ve been rehearsing at. It was particularly easy this time as Mr. Salonen simply emailed me an entire live recording he had conducted of the Wagner a few years ago!

What for you is the difference between working with vocalists and an orchestra versus just working with an orchestra?
I absolutely love working with singers! I spent much of my childhood back home in the UK working with choirs and singers, and I am so delighted our orchestra here has the opportunity to perform opera with three of the finest Wagner singers you can find in the world.

Playing this sort of music poses huge challenges for conductor and orchestra alike as every measure of music is elastic. The singers may take a little time here or there to breathe and everyone has to be listening and aware and ready to respond, which demands a great deal of concentration.

Can you tell me a little bit about the pieces?
We have an incredibly ambitious program! In the second half, we will perform the first act from Wagner’s Die Walküre, the second opera from his monumental Ring Cycle. The music begins with a raging storm, after which we meet Siegmund and Sieglinde, who fall deeply in love with one another despite being, erm, siblings! But the music is filled with such unbelievable romance and beauty you simply cannot resist it. It’s totally intoxicating, and we have all been totally overcome by its emotional intensity in rehearsals—there’s nothing else quite like it.

Preceding this will be Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, which provides a total contrast to the lush, unabashed romanticism of Wagner’s world. Each movement of the work was inspired by a painting from a beautiful 16th century altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald, which Hindemith translates into music using very classical and baroque forms (a very modernist reaction against the fantasy of Wagner). His music is so full of color and incorporates German folk songs and Gregorian chant, it’s really fascinating! We cannot wait to perform it.

Since you’re in the first cohort of conducting fellows, how did you find out about the program?
There was no avoiding the initial publicity storm around the new program! But several of my closest friends also forwarded it to me, and my manager at IMG Artists felt it was a wonderful opportunity so I had to apply.

Do you have any suggestions for people who might want to apply next year?
It was a very tough and competitive audition process… After an initial prescreening based on video footage, several candidates were invited to come to Colburn and conduct the school orchestra in front of Salonen.

And if that wasn’t scary enough, the final round consisted of conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, which remains to this day one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had. I learned so much just from listening to how they responded to my conducting, and being so close to that sound was an amazing feeling.

My only real suggestion would be to truly listen to that orchestra and enjoy its playing, regardless of the outcome.

What kind of mentorship have you been receiving now that you’re in the program?
The basic premise of the program is that part of our time is spent away assisting Salonen wherever he may be, and the remainder of the time is spent here at Colburn. There is no specific structure to how spending time with Salonen works per se, but you learn so much just from simply being around him and watching how he works.

In the meantime, here at Colburn we are also hugely lucky to have another world-class conductor associated with the program, Ludovic Morlot. His role has not only been to spend time studying scores with us, but also to help with the more practical side of conducting, such as how to really rehearse an orchestra and how to structure that time most efficiently, both of which are essential skills for the profession. He has also been able to come and watch us working with the orchestras here, and to have his immediate feedback there has been invaluable.

So it’s more like a true mentorship than it is taking a lesson and then rehearsing.
Absolutely. Studying conducting is very abstract because there is no one particular school of thought about how to do it. Actually, I’m more and more convinced nobody really knows how conducting works! But what matters most of all is the depth of your musical understanding of the score, and it’s communicating this to an orchestra that makes all the difference, no matter what you are doing waving your arms!

And musical understanding can be discovered in every corner at Colburn. There is so much to learn from all our incredible faculty here, and I try to spend as much time as I can listening to lessons and studio classes. I also play piano for as many students as I can here, in sonatas and chamber music, as there is so much we can learn from each other.

In addition, each and every student here is a fountain of knowledge about their instrument. The amount I have learned from talking to friends about things you would never even think about is amazing, like how on earth you make a bassoon reed for example! And earlier this month we had Beethoven Week where we heard all sixteen quartets played in a matter of days—where else could you experience that? All of this contributes to our development as musicians.

What made you want to be a conductor?
Oh, I’m sure I was just a power hungry little ten-year-old! [laughs] For me, it’s always been about the music and the sheer joy of playing music with other people. It just so happened that I had a natural affinity for bringing people together, which is at its very essence what a conductor has to do, so I just fell in love with conducting.

Besides the concert this weekend, do you have any projects coming up that you’re especially jazzed about?
One of the most unique aspects of the Negaunee Program is its partnership with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, where Salonen is principal conductor and artistic advisor. Next February as part of the program, Salonen has given me the amazing opportunity to conduct two concerts with the orchestra.

The programs include Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” and Brahms Symphony No. 2, two of the greatest ever composed, paired alongside Walton’s Viola Concerto with a wonderful young British soloist named Timothy Ridout. These concerts will essentially be my professional debut, so I am incredibly excited!

What are you hoping to do post-graduation?
I am very fortunate to already have been signed for management with IMG Artists, a well-respected agency, and together with Laura Liepins at Colburn Artists, we are working to achieve a gentle transition from studying into more professional work over the next few years.

Longer term, my aspiration is to become a music director of an orchestra somewhere, as it’s that sort of long-term musical relationship and rapport I am really excited to find.

Hear the Colburn Orchestra perform Hindemith and Wagner under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen on Sunday, November 3. Get your tickets today.