Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?
I studied voice in college and was a member an excellent college choir. I enjoyed the experience so much that I began wondering if I might be able to be a conductor myself.
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?
This is a massive question. Every person I’ve ever made music with, every teacher I’ve ever learned from, every piece of music I’ve ever sung, studied or conducted has influenced my musical life. The most significant influences are probably my two main conducting teachers, Donald Bailey, my college choir director, and Joseph Flummerfelt, the director at Westminster Choir College where I did my Masters Degree.
What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling?
The most challenging part is choosing repertoire that is rewarding for both the choir and the audience. A typical orchestra concert might have only two or three pieces on the program; an overture, a concerto, and a symphony, for instance. In “choir world” a program will often be filled with pieces that each lasts a mere 4-5 minutes, so a concert might easily consist of 12-18 pieces of music. Choosing that many pieces and assembling them in a way that makes a dynamic and engaging concert is a constant challenge.
The conductor spends countless hours in preparation for each rehearsal. In the rehearsal, the ensemble works tirelessly to take care of every tiny detail that goes into creating the performance. It is deeply fulfilling when the preparation and the musical artistry of the performers come together to create beauty. It is extraordinary. In Atlanta Master Chorale we strive to be “routinely extraordinary.”
As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the choir?
When I was a young musician, I used to think of musical interpretation in terms of “right and wrong”, “good and bad.” As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, I’ve realized that there are many ways to shape a piece of music and that distinctly different interpretations can each be “right and good.” My role is to study the score, to decide “how it goes,” and then to communicate that interpretation to the choir. Some things, like whether or not to breath between phrases, might be explained verbally, while other things, like the shape of a musical phrase, might be communicated entirely through the gesture.
How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?
Yes. This brings us back to preparation. In order to determine the vision of the composer, I must study the score to form an interpretation—“how does it go?” Then I must convey that interpretation to the choir, which at first is less about inspiration and more about communicating as clearly as possible 1000 micro decisions. Imagine a professional cellist preparing to play one of Bach’s unaccompanied cello sonatas. The player must decide how each note and each phrase of each movement should go. There are a lot of possibilities, many of them really good, but the player must choose the interpretation for this performance or for this recording. It’s a mind-boggling process for the most experienced of players. Now imagine that that same sonata is going to be played by 50 cellos at the same time, and that the performance of the 50 cellists is just as polished, just as nuanced, as the performance by one cellist. This is the rehearsal life of an ensemble. Every singer must understand and agree with “how it goes.” When the rehearsal process is moving the ensemble towards that goal, and if we are singing interesting music with great texts, then the inspiration part takes care of itself.
Is there one work which you would love to conduct?
I’ve been at this long enough that I’ve had the privilege of conducting most of the pieces on my bucket list.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
The Emerson concert hall in the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts on the campus of Emory University is the perfect size and acoustic for a choir concert.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I listen to great music a lot. Mostly orchestral and jazz.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?
It feels to me like classical music is simply “off the radar” for most people. It’s not that they can’t afford a ticket or that they don’t feel welcome, or that they don’t like the repertoire choices, they are just completely unaware of it. Or perhaps they are aware of it in the same way that I am aware of rugby. I know it exists, but I’ve never been to a game and I’m ok with that. The thing is, when we at Atlanta Master Chorale invite someone to come and hear us sing, they absolutely love it. “I had no idea this existed,” they say, “I’ll be back.” Maybe I would be a huge fan of rugby. I’ll never know.
YouTube has helped a lot, individual groups and artists have large followings. The Met in cinemas was a great idea. But I do wish that there was a way to turn on the TV and to stumble across classical music in the same way that you can stumble across a cooking show or a nature documentary. Wouldn’t it be great to have a channel with 24/7 great classical music performances from around the world? “Early Music” for an hour followed by “Great Symphonies” the next hour, then an interview with artists and conductors followed by the “Piano Recital Hour, etc.”
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
An in-tune chord.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Listen to the best artists on your instrument that you can find.
Practicing is never boring if you are moving towards a goal.
Perfection is not possible, but excellence is.
Work as hard as you can, but remember that there is a reason we call it “playing music.”
What is your present state of mind?
Post-pandemic, I am thrilled beyond measure to be rehearsing and performing live again.
Dr. Eric Nelson has served as artistic director of the Atlanta Master Chorale since 1999. He brings extensive training in voice and choral conducting from Houghton College, Westminster Choir College and Indiana University along with experience conducting choirs and clinics around the world. Dr. Nelson constantly finds effective ways to help celebrate the gift of singing – as he says – “shoulder to shoulder, voice to voice, one voice lost in another, each agreeing upon something beyond themselves.” Dr. Nelson is currently Director of Choral Studies at Emory University, where he is a recent recipient of the distinguished Arts and Humanities Crystal Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching.