“I felt literally that my hands were molding the way the music was sounding."
Photo: Jennifer Taylor
Vazan leads brass players on his first day as a conducting apprentice at the National Youth Orchestra.
At 6 feet 2 inches, Chris Vazan stands out in Concert Choir rehearsal. As the voices intensify, the lanky baritone starts conducting roundly with his left hand, not losing a beat in his singing. He shifts rhythmically from one green sneaker-clad foot to the other, causing a swirl in the back row. His eyes remain locked on the chorus director, Kristofer Johnson, with whom he seems to be conducting in sympathy.
“You must love every syllable,” urges Johnson after stopping the singers with a quick flex of the hand. Responding to the encouragement, the 32-strong choir does another take, filling Powell Hall with the clear, passionate sound of Brahms.
Concert Choir rehearsal warm-ups.
Vazan came to Exeter eager to compete on the Math Team. By the end of prep year, with three terms of upper-level math under his belt, he was on target to pursue his dream of studying medicine. Until one night, immersed in the sound of a Tchaikovsky violin concerto in his dorm room, he realized that his deep emotional passion for music overwhelmed the “purely intellectual pleasure” of math and science. “I don’t know why that piece was such a powerful trigger,” he observes. “In general I don’t like Tchaikovsky at all. It’s very hard to predict when you’ll get the chills and when you won’t.”
As a lower, after a year of conducting lessons with Benjamin Vickers — a New England-based conductor teaching at PEA for a year — Vazan, who had studied piano for years, began to recognize that conducting let him experience music in a stronger way, “in its entirety.”
Vickers encouraged Vazan to apply for the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA), a summer session organized by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute that gathers the nation’s most accomplished high school musicians. In January of his upper year, after painstaking preparations that included 200 takes of his audition recordings, Vazan was both delighted and stunned to be accepted as the first full-time NYO-USA conducting apprentice.
He lost no time at NYO-USA, conducting 15 brass players in “a glorious, huge brass sound,” a “golden sound,” on his very first day. A few weeks later, working with a broad section of the full orchestra in a 1,500-seat concert hall, he experienced his “best moment of physical conducting” – right down to goose bumps – with “Un Bal,” the second movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. “I felt literally that my hands were molding the way the music was sounding. That doesn’t happen in a piece that plays itself. Mozart is a good example of that — as long as the musicians read the notes on the page, it’ll come out. But this kind of music — dance — is so flexible, so freely flowing. … That flexibility mandates that the orchestra is in sync with the conductor. You feel like you’re part of the ensemble.” In a blog post from NYO-USA, Vazan explained this feeling further: “The pianist’s body creates the music; the conductor’s body becomes the music.”
After four weeks at NYO-USA — the last two, a performance tour of China — Vazan found himself changed. “NYO-USA was the first time I was in the presence of live orchestral sound day in, day out. After that experience, it became impossible for a recording to be sufficiently satisfying.” He’s now focused on conducting opera.
“The beauty, and in some ways the problem, with opera is that there’s so much going on,” he explains. “My personality is attracted to the omnivorousness of the experience.” Among his “many dead composer friends,” Wagner, an opera titan, takes the lead. “Wagner’s music is often overwhelming, and that makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable, but I revel in it,” observes Vazan, who watched the Metropolitan Opera’s six-hour production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg three times to fully absorb the beauty.
At some point, Vazan plans to study conducting in Austria or Germany. He hopes to establish himself in a career in Europe, where he feels culturally at home.
“You think of music as art and inspiration, but I think I’ve always approached it from the more mathematical, analytical standpoint,” he says, as he walks the Exeter campus on a bright autumn day, on the way to meet up with friends. Many of his close friends remain in the math and science community he was so much a part of prep year. He finds it hugely “gratifying” to hear them discuss advanced physics. “My mind still works fundamentally in a more scientific rather than artistic way,” Vazan says. “It’s an interesting balance. I don’t think my passion for math or science decreased at all; I think maybe it’s even increased. Music just took over.”