Angel Gil-Ordóñez, 59, is a conductor and co-founder of PostClassical Ensemble, an orchestra focused on 20th- and 21st-century works. He also teaches at Georgetown University. He lives in the District’s Chevy Chase neighborhood.
You studied engineering.
I had to build my own liberal arts studies. I went to the conservatory and a private teacher to study music, and at the same time I was going to the university.
To get your engineering degree? What kind of engineering?
Civil engineering. Can you believe that?
I was hoping it was electrical so I could make a joke about what makes a good conductor. What makes a good conductor?
Authority through knowledge. People respect you if you know what you are asking them to do. Then you have to be able to convey what you want. All simply. Through gestures and communication that goes beyond language. I think the orchestra is the most extraordinary achievement of humanity. Can you imagine something more sophisticated than that? One hundred people without verbal communication playing together for one hour? That goes beyond everything. Beyond thinking. To me [it] is the most incredible achievement. People making music together. It’s a miracle.
A miracle is what makes a good conductor. Okay!
I have to work every day. Like with an instrument, you have to play every single day. There’s an athletic component to playing an instrument. Somehow the memory in your body needs to go through everything. That’s the other thing about being a conductor in the 21st century: You are not only a musician, you are the CEO of a company. You have to do so many things that are not related to music. To me that was really difficult to accept at the beginning.
When you say you have to practice conducting in an athletic way — do you stand in a corner waving your arms?
Athletic in the sense of discipline. I have to do something every day.
What’s the something?
The something is going through the score and relearning what you have already learned. Studying a score is like reading a book with the difference that you have to tell the book to your friends later. I have to tell that story as accurately as possible. So then I have to really learn it.
Sometimes I just conduct by myself. You can see me in my office conducting, doing strange movements.
At that moment are you reading the score? Are you listening to a recording? Are you singing it to yourself?
My teacher didn’t allow us to listen to a recording. So what I do is — I’m a terrible pianist. But I go to the piano. I play — more important than the melody, because the melody I can sing, but the harmony. I try as much as I can to learn everything that way. I don’t mind listening to recordings when I am accompanying a soloist. Because when you’re accompanying a soloist, the soloist is the conductor. We are following him.
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