Conducting at Oberlin

Oberlin's conducting program has produced distinguished alumni as well as up-and-coming names including Maurice Cohn '17.

February 17, 2023

Joshua Reinier

Maurice Cohn '17
Maurice Cohn conducting the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
Photo credit: Sylvia Elzafon, courtesy Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

What we see a conductor do during a performance is just the tip of the iceberg—the real work starts years before.

When Maurice Cohn ’17 stepped off the plane to conduct the Cincinnati Symphony, he had only a few days to prepare. Strikes in France had grounded the orchestra’s regular maestro, Louis Langrée, and Cohn, 27, had been offered an opportunity to fill in for the performance of Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss. 

Maurice Cohn
Maurice Cohn.
Photo by Sylvia Elzafon. 

“It was terrifying, but also extremely rewarding and a lot of fun. The Cincinnati Symphony is a truly incredible orchestra, and I felt very lucky to get the chance to work with them,” shares Cohn, who currently holds the position of assistant conductor with the Dallas Symphony. “It was a wonderful high-adrenaline, high-satisfaction musical experience.” 

And audiences and critics agreed: The Cincinnati Business Courier published a rave review of the performance, writing, “Cohn’s leadership showed depth, musicality and expressive power,” and that his “auspicious debut left me wishing to see him return for another visit, and soon.” 

But what we see during a performance is a tiny fraction of a conductor’s real work. In a way, Cohn started preparing for that concert many years ago in Oberlin’s conducting program, led by professor Raphael Jiménez

Raphael Jiménez
Credit: John Seyfried

Jiménez advises, “I constantly tell my conducting students: Don't be fooled by watching conductors’ performances, because what you are watching is very faded.” Every small movement in a performance is just a reminder of what the conductor has already developed in rehearsal—so what might have required a big cue at first eventually just requires a wink. 

And conducting is so much more than the movements you make. Jiménez sees conducting as a service requiring a deep knowledge of the music, as well as your musicians. “You have a lot of talent in your hands, and it’s your job to get the best out of them. So you need phenomenal ears. You need to know the score extremely well. Your number one job is to listen.”

Jiménez spends a lot of time mentoring students, such as Cohn. Oberlin's conducting students start with four semesters of conducting classes, led by Jiménez as well as Professor of Music Education Jody KerchnerTim Weiss, the director of Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Ensemble; and Ben Johns and Gregory Ristow, who direct the vocal ensembles. 

The program works to develop conductors holistically, taking advantage of Oberlin’s well-rounded education. Jiménez shares, “Some first-year students come in and say, ‘Hey what is happening? I should be conducting now.’ But I say, you need to take a history class, you need to take music theory, and really understand the music. By sophomore year, they start to understand the huge responsibility it is to be in front of these people that trust you with their talent.”

Student conducting
Professor Raphael Jiménez coaches conducting student Immanuel Mykyta-Chomsky during an Oberlin Orchestra rehearsal. Photo by Joshua Reinier.

After finishing the sequence of classes, Oberlin students receive close mentorship and real-world experience for the rest of their time as undergraduates. Conducting students assist in preparation and in performances of the conservatory’s Contemporary Music Ensemble, Oberlin Orchestra, and Oberlin Opera; they conduct composition students’ pieces; and they have directed wind, brass, and choral ensembles, as well as the Arts & Sciences Orchestra and productions of the Oberlin Musical Theater Association. Out in the community, these students regularly serve as assistant conductors with the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra, which partners with Oberlin. Enterprising conducting students also find generosity among their classmates who participate in ad-hoc ensembles and they mount their own performances. 

Cohn—a double degree graduate who earned a his Conservatory bachelor's in cello performance—has a fond memory of conducting his cello professor, Darrett Adkins, when he appeared as soloist with the Arts & Sciences Orchestra—Cohn’s first big break, as the faculty conductor of the ensemble was away on sabbatical. He describes it as “one of the top three musical moments of my life: playing with [Adkins] after studying with him.” 

Mentorship continues long after students graduate. After Cohn conducted the Cincinnati Symphony, Jiménez gave his former student a call to debrief. “We’re talking all the time,” Jiménez shares. “It's something that I enjoy.”

Oberlin’s conducting program has produced many prominent names including Robert Spano ’84, Michael Morgan ’79, Jeannette Sorrell A.D. ’90, and James Feddeck (B.M. ’05, M.M. ’06), to mention just a few. And, that number is growing fast. Several recent Oberlin graduates, including Cohn, have received the prestigious Career Assistance Award from the Solti Foundation U.S.—Matthew Straw ’20, currently completing his master's degree at Eastman; Farkhad Khudyev ’08, director of the University of Texas at Austin Butler School of Music Symphony Orchestra; and Tiffany Chang B.M., M.M. ’08, faculty at Berklee College of Music and a frequently engaged guest conductor. Benjamin Martin ’22, now studying composition at the University of Chicago, recently returned to Oberlin to conduct the world premiere of Alice Tierney, a new opera by Melissa Dunphy and Jacqueline Goldfinger. Many other students are studying conducting at prestigious programs, including Alan Truong ’21, one of two conductors accepted to Juilliard’s conducting program this year, and Fanye Yuan ’20, now studying at the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler in Berlin. 

But like conducting itself, it’s not the awards that show the real work of a conductor—it’s the depth of your understanding, musicianship, and humanity. That’s what Cohn remembers so fondly about his experience at Oberlin. “A lot of schools will tell you they’ll help you become who you want to be. But more importantly, Oberlin helps you discover the kind of person you want to be. It changes your mind about what you think is important, what your priorities are. That’s not something that happens everywhere.”

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