Raphael Jiménez has a captivating tendency at the conductor’s podium: The director of Oberlin orchestras frequently leads his ensembles with no music score laid before him.
His audiences may not notice, but his musicians certainly do.
“When you first see that the music’s not there, you think, ‘Uh-oh! I hope we don’t fall apart!’” says violinist Gregory Gennaro ’17, who served as concertmaster for the Oberlin Orchestra’s 2016 anniversary tour in Chicago. “But we never fall apart. He knows the pieces inside and out.”
“Raphael is amazing,” says cellist Julia Henderson ’14, who played Stravinsky’s Petrushka under Jiménez’s direction. “He conducted the entire piece from memory, which is just absurd. To be sitting right underneath him and feel his intense concentration and energy was really awesome.”
Audiences can find out for themselves when Jiménez leads a pair of Oberlin ensembles on back-to-back nights in Finney Chapel on Tuesday and Wednesday, May 2 and 3. On Tuesday, the Oberlin Chamber Orchestra will perform Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune; Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36; and Ricky Ian Gordon’s ...and flowers pick themselves, which will feature Concerto Competition winner Amber Monroe ’17, soprano.
The following evening, the Oberlin Orchestra will perform Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante in E Minor, Op. 125—featuring Concerto Competition winner Aaron Wolff ’17, cello—and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116.
Both concerts begin at 8 p.m. The maestro has yet to decide what paperwork he will tote to the podium.
For Jiménez, the habit grew out of his own admiration for experienced conductors he observed as a student. He found that those who did not use scores seemed more fully engaged with their musicians.
“The most wonderful thing about making music in an orchestra is that it’s an experience that involves many people working toward a common goal,” he says. “A very important skill for a conductor to have is the ability to communicate efficiently to the ensemble without a word. Eye contact is one of the most powerful tools we have. Therefore, you want to keep your eyes off the score as much as possible.”
To reinforce this, he repeats an axiom shared with all aspiring conductors: The score should be in your head, not your head in the score. “You may have the score in front of you, but you shouldn’t be dependent on it. Eye contact helps you move the musical energy in a special way. It helps you connect with your fellow musicians.
“During a performance, we try to conduct or transmit energy from one part of the ensemble to another. You have heard the saying that the eyes are the window to the soul. If you pay close attention to the performers on stage, you will get to see the musical energy going in and out of the windows of this wonderful neighborhood that we call the symphony orchestra.”
For Jiménez, the energy derived from conducting without a score comes naturally. “I don’t try to memorize it, believe it or not,” he says. “I think that whenever you try to memorize a score, the stress it creates interferes with the process of trying to solidify the information.”
Instead, memorization occurs organically—with the right amount of preparation. “I try to use every possible source of memory that we have: physical memory, visual memory—every part of the memory process that we can use, I try to use it,” Jiménez says. “I know how many weeks or months I have before the first rehearsal. I divide the information by the amount of weeks I have, and I try to do a certain number of pages per day.”
Conducting from memory, Jiménez says, helps him to enjoy the music more deeply. But there are also practical advantages: With no score, he has no pages to turn. And with no notes to read, he doesn’t need to wear his glasses.
There are few hard and fast rules. Jiménez finds that he often conducts very complicated pieces without a score, and he sometimes conducts simpler pieces with one. Though he does not usually conduct concertos from memory—he needs to focus on interacting with the soloist—he almost always conducts the orchestra’s major piece that way.
In the Oberlin Orchestra’s 2016 performance at Chicago’s Symphony Center, Jiménez conducted Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring before an empty stand. For the middle piece on the program—Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, featuring soprano Marcy Stonikas ’02—the score came out.
“It depends on my level of confidence with the piece,” he says. “But I will never risk jeopardizing a performance. If I believe that the performance will benefit from it, I will do it. Otherwise I will not take a chance.
“I have a responsibility to the musicians: to set them up for success, to create the best conditions for them to perform at their highest possible level. In the end, they work very hard, and they have only one chance to demonstrate it.”