Kaspar Mänd: The Guy Between the Orchestra and Stage

Growing up, I had a very incorrect and naive view of the conductor. I didn’t see why the conductor was necessary. Can’t musicians just play together? After all, dancers dance together without anyone guiding us. Ballet masters only count for us when we are learning a piece. Why is it so necessary for the orchestra to have a conductor? Well, if you’ve ever tried to dance in a big group without music, you will see how quickly my poor theory falls apart. Music is the dancers’ guide! It is what unifies the corps de Ballet, it tells the girl exactly when to thrust herself into the boy’s arms, the speed at which the dancers’ muscles need to move, or not move, the length of the note that the singer needs to hold, it even determines the speed at which the stage crew has to change the set. It influences the energy the audience feels, the emotions. The conductor has a lot of power. How he does his job has a huge impact on how the artists on stage do theirs.

I quickly realized the importance of a good conductor when I started working in a professional company and performed to live music every night. It’s interesting how you begin to recognize who is conducting by the tempo. I found it crazy that those in the pit and those on the stage can work so closely and yet never know anything about each other’s work. This is what made me so excited to sit down with Kaspar Mänd and hear his side of the theater experience.

Kaspar was the first in his family to pursue a career in music. However, the love for music was instilled in him from an early age through his great aunt.

“I am the first one in my family’s history who is in music. But I remember well that my great aunt, she looked after me and my brothers when my parents were at work, had the habit after lunch to sit on the sofa and start to sing all sorts of songs from her childhood. I just started to sing along. So, I grew up singing and then she took me to singing class and from there on it became clear that I want to study an instrument. First I learned the recorded, then later the oboe.”

At the Estonian National Opera you will often see large groups of boys running around the theater halls, participating in opera, operettas, and even occasionally the ballets. They are a part of the National Boys Choir. Kaspar trained the instrument of his voice with the very same choir.

“For singing, I went to our National Opera Boys Choir. I’ve grown up in this house. And I did some productions as well when I was younger: Carmen, Boris Godunov, etc… some really awesome shows. And I remember, for example, in Boris Godunov where the boys choir had to sing in the beginning and at the end of the opera, during the middle we would just be backstage and watch what was going on. It was so epic and powerful. It was a really special experience to have this opportunity to already take part in these productions.”

It was during one of those times backstage that someone noticed Kaspar’s fascination with the conductor. He quickly added fuel to the flame and it launched Kaspar on a trajectory towards conducting.

“Backstage there are these monitors where you can see the conductor. At one point, I remember that a few of us friends, who were more enthusiastic about music, started to stare at the conductors. We noticed that with one conductor the music is one way, but next time, with someone else, it’s a bit different. And then we start to realize it’s this guy who’s manipulating it. And that’s when it got interesting. Our old chorusmaster noticed that this young kid is constantly watching the conductor. So he asked me if I would like to have some conducting classes. I was 13 at the time. That’s how it all started. I was so inspired by all these experienced conductors, Juti Alperten, Paul Mägi, and Arvo Volmer, I remember all of them through that monitor when I was just a little kid. That was cool.”

So Kaspar dove into music; he studied oboe, piano, and took conducting classes starting in Tallinn, and later Paris.

“I studied oboe, piano and choral conducting; that’s a real tradition here in Estonia, Most of the Estonian conductors, orchestra and opera conductors, have all started with choral conducting. But I knew from the beginning that orchestra music was what I want to do. So I studied at the Music Academy, then I had a shorter period in Paris, which was very inspiring! At the Paris Conservatoire, the competition was much higher! You see somebody who’s waking up at 7 am to go practice, you think like, ‘I must wake up at 6:30!’. It was tough in the beginning. But when you get into the rhythm, it becomes very enjoyable. When you focus on something, you get a lot back from it, you gain a lot.”

Photo by Tanel Meos

When Kaspar was in school his conducting classes consisted of a very humble “orchestra”; two pianos, and a music professor watching closely. But now the system has changed quite a bit.

“The conducting lessons are set up so the student is conducting two pianos while the professor is watching. But the chance to work with a real orchestra is rare because it’s rather expensive to hire 20 players. But now, the system entirely has improved and the Music Academy has these kinds of opportunities to work with more musicians every month or so. They now have this laboratory with an orchestra, which is useful. That’s where you can try things out to see what works and what doesn’t work.”

Not having access to an orchestra often results in learning on the job. When Kaspar joined the theater in 2013 he was faced with many stressful situations and challenges as he had to learn to communicate with an orchestra even when he had little to no rehearsal time.

“I remember when I first started working at the theatre, and I did my first shows, it was really difficult to get used to the fact that you might not get the rehearsal at all! You just go and do it. Of course, in the beginning, it’s tough for the nerves. But it actually helps you grow. I remember after the first few shows when I’d leave the orchestra pit I’d think, ‘Okay, remember, Kaspar, this does not work. Don’t ever do that again. And this might work.’ So every time I try to learn and open to adjusting my method.”

Kaspar joined the Estonian National Opera close to the time another conductor was stepping down. Though Kaspar was lucky with the timing of this job position opening up, it didn’t take away from the fact there was a lot of work to be done.

“I joined the theater when conductor Mihhail Gerts was leaving the theatre. The theater knew they would need another conductor in the near future, so they hired me as an assistant first. And then, within a year, I started to do many shows. I was really, really lucky. “

Coming from very classical training, Kaspar was shocked when his first show was to be “Ball im Savoy”! A piece totally out of his comfort zone.

“I was really bad at it. I had just got back from Paris, I had been focusing on contemporary classical music. And then my first piece is this jazzy score from the 1930s, a completely different world! I was on another planet at the time and so it wasn’t as smooth and swinging as it probably should have been.”

Kaspar began with “Ball im Savoy” but quickly his repertoire grew to all the classics. They proved to be yet another exciting challenge.

“I remember when they gave me all the scores of the repertoire, it looked like an avalanche! When I got the score of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’… I was used to smaller orchestral pieces or choir pieces, which are like 30 pages, but then you have The Sleeping Beauty which is like 1000 pages of Tchaikovsky! I just thought, how am I supposed to learn that? But no, it came quite smoothly. I took the first shows very seriously. Almost too much. I went to as many ballets and as many rehearsals as possible. Because let’s face it, I didn’t get it. I was just playing the music, and I see that the dancers are dancing. But I thought, ‘perhaps we should be together but why aren’t we? Is it me or is it them? Why are the ballet masters giving me nasty looks?’ But I remember what Vello Pähn, (the music director at the time) said when I got the job, ‘Kasper get used to it, for the first 10 years, it’s always your fault. So I’ve got one more year to go.”

If you’ve ever worked with dancers before you know how picky they can be about musicality and tempos. Kaspar explains how often striking a balance between the original score notes and what the artists wants can be a bit of a challenge.

“It’s really interesting this sense that, there are things which the composer has written that is his or her vision. But then you add the staging and singers or dancers. They are also artists, they have their individual pace, both in singing, in phrasing, and in dancing. And then it might depend on the day as well. So you can’t set something as absolute. Every time you have to feel it out and find a balance.”

Between Ballet and Opera Kaspar doesn’t find one harder than the other, just different. But with both, there is an enormous sense of pressure to support the artists that are on stage.

“I can’t say that one is harder than the other because both have very specific criteria and complicated aspects. But it’s when you see that something’s not right, you can only see it when the moment has already happened. It’s a real shame and makes you disappointed when you know that there’s a dancer who has worked so hard and prepared a long time for what he or she is about to perform, and then you manage to pull the rug from underneath them or do something that did not help them to achieve their maximum. It’s so dependent on the conductor because the conductor also is the guy between the orchestra and the artists on stage. I see what happens on the stage, and I react to that by giving a little impulse to the orchestra, and those 60 people also might react differently.”

Every artist has their “moment” of unfortunate mishap on stage. The beauty of live performances is the fact that you are extremely vulnerable; there is no retake. Kaspar had a memorable “moment” in Marina Kesler’s “Kratt”.

“I managed to make such a benchmark once. It was October 2016. I managed to probably set a record. I ended the show seven minutes early because I played so fast! However, it was my premiere without any rehearsal and I was super nervous. But later, weeks later, people would still come to me in the corridor and say, ‘Hey, Kaspar, by the way, that “Kratt” show was way too fast.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I know, I know. Thanks for telling me. Yeah, that was terrible. I remember.’ I’ll never forget Marina’s face… I was happy that she gave me another chance!”

Working at the Estonian National Opera provides a constant flow of revolving material and mixed genres. We don’t work in blocks but normally have three to five ballet productions and three to five operas running at the same time. This system provides many pros and cons, but for Kaspar one of the pros is that it never gets boring.

“Well, we have very interesting weeks. For example, in one week we can have Streetcar Named Desire, a modern, jazzy ballet, then a couple of days later, it will be Swan Lake, and then there’s an opera too. Every day you enter into a completely different world. It’s so colorful and interesting .”

Being a part of such a wide range of productions makes picking a favorite an almost impossible task. However “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, made a very special impression.

“I do enjoy “A Streetcar Named Desire” because I think, of course, the music, and the choreography, but also, the storyline itself. It’s a serious story that goes under your skin every time you play or watch it. I like the instrumentation as well. It’s more of a bigger band than an orchestra. It has a lot of piano and brass. It has a jazzy, kind of smug, whiskey feeling. Music like that is unique for us. But there are many others as well, for example, this Alice in Wonderland. I mean, the story gives so much space for fantasy, and also the music was from Tchaikovsky and Khachaturian. It was so cool to do it.”

When Kaspar is not conducting in Tallinn he heads up an orchestra in a town in the south of Estonia called Parnu and also teaches at the Estonian Academy of Music.

Photo by Tanel Meos

“I have an orchestra in Parnu. We do different repertoire there. It’s not a very big orchestra, but we can still do Beethoven symphonies and the main standard symphonic repertoire. And I teach at the music academy.”

Kaspar’s routine varies from day to day. Some days are preparatory, some are performance days and some were rest days that surprisingly turned into performances days. But his performance day routine is very similar to that of many dancers.

“When the shows are going on there are probably no rehearsal. But when a premiere or revival is coming then I take at least a week and a half to start memorizing the score. It’s not always very possible. There are emergencies sometimes times when you have only a day to start remembering it or even the same day sometimes.
But yes, normally after breakfast I work with the score a bit, then there’s probably a rehearsal with a soloist during the day. And before the show I usually try to have a little nap in the afternoon, which I feel helps. Then I try to do nothing, like really not think about anything so I can go out like a blank canvas.”

In the future, Kaspar hopes to travel more, and grow more artistically through new experiences in new places, as well as do more new works at home in the Estonian National Opera.

“Touring is great! You can learn from different orchestras. You get a sort of fresh feeling from these experiences. It’s always good to broaden your vision. I hope that one day, in the future, we can have opportunities to perform more Richard Strauss and Ravel Daphnis and Chloe and this kind of repertoire, which are revolutionary pieces from world history. They are challenging for everyone. Unfortunately, our orchestra pit is just so small that it makes it difficult.”

There is nothing quite like working in the theater. Kaspar knows both the pressures and the joys of live performances. It’s a strange relationship at times, bittersweet, wonderful, and stressful. But still, there is nothing quite like it.

“I think that we have a unique place in life, to work every day in this theatre magic. You know, the audience must not see or hear the mistakes. For them, it must be a brilliant show. There are probably details, which they might not notice at all, but you know, and to you they are huge! The people must not know that I haven’t had any rehearsal. And somehow, people, even to our own surprise, find some incredible ability to make it happen! I think artists kind of like working under pressure.”

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