Young American Conductor Steps Up to Czech Podium

Marlon Daniel, photo:

Marlon Daniel is on a roll. The young American conductor recently played New York's Lincoln Centre, and made his debut at Carnegie Hall in December. Now, this Tuesday night he'll have another 'first' when he conducts the Praga Sinfonietta in the Dvorak Hall of Prague's famed Rudolfinum. Kate Barrette met with Marlon between classes at the Prague Conservatory of Music to find out more...

Marlon Daniel knows the opening bars of American composer Hampson Sisler's Rondo Symphonique very well. The piece is at the centre of Tuesday night's program at the Rudolfinum. It's the first time this modern American work will be performed in the Czech Republic, and the composer is flying all the way from America to be at the concert.

But for Daniel, who moved from New York to Prague in October to study in the post-graduate programme of the Prague Conservatory of Music, the Rondo will be just one of Tuesday night's challenges. He has chosen a difficult program which includes Dvorak's "Carneval" - a piece the knowledgeable Czech audience will know well.

Daniel says the Czech perspective has changed his approach to Czech pieces. He talks about his studies with conductor Tomas Koutnik.

"I brought him 'Vltava', which is almost like this Czech National Anthem. What was on the page, I brought it to him perfectly prepared, and he said, 'No, that's not Czech,' and he showed me how to do it, and it's the Czech way, and it's a whole different piece when you think of it that way. You just have to know it, and people who are Czech conductors just know it because they've lived it, they recognize some kind of folk theme in the music that I wouldn't - because I'm from America, and anyone from another country would miss something, very essential."

But Daniel is hoping to prove that American conductors can perform Dvorak with the best of them.

"So I've taken a lot of time to keep the Dvorak Overture in the Czech style, more so than with a lot of pieces. I want it to be where they say, oh, wow, this American conductor really knows how the Czech music goes, and I really want to have that feeling. I think that's the best feeling you can have - to be embraced by the public and musicians, in a country where the music is very idiomatic, and for them to say, you really understand it."

Daniel is slated to be here at the Prague Conservatory for two years. He says that if he were to get a good position with an orchestra here, he'd be willing to leave NY behind and stay in the Czech Republic. But being an African American - he says he has an uphill battle to fight on the European classical music scene.

Rudolfinum - the Dvorak Hall
"It's so biased, but that's the way conducting is in the world. The top conducting spots are all usually held by white, European males. Since I'm neither of those, I think it's going to be a hard time finding my way. If people are open to it, I'm ready to take up my spot as one of the top young conductors. But I'm not European, and I'm obviously not white - I'm African American. So, I think they need a little colour, in their spectrum. And what better place to start than the Czech Republic, where there are so many great conductors?!"

The young maestro will close Tuesday night's performance thinking of fire, with Stravinksy's "Firebird".

"It's tricky for the orchestra and the conductor. I figure if I'm going to show myself as a conductor, what I can and cannot do, I will try the firebird. It's a showpiece and it's just absolutely beautiful."