Meet our DFCC 2018 candidates: Teddy Poll

Teddy (29) recently joined San Francisco Opera as a conducting fellow after finishing his tenure as a Rita E Hauser Conducting Fellow at the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied with Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Most recently, Teddy has conducted in performances and workshops with Opera Philadelphia, the Glimmerglass Festival and the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music.

Teddy Poll baton pic

Where are you at the moment and what are you currently working on?

I am in San Francisco working for the first time with the San Francisco Opera, assisting Maestro Leo Hussain on Tosca.

When did you first become interested in conducting? 

There was a struck-by-lightening kind of moment when I was 1. I had already begun seriously studying music, with an view to making it my life's work, when a pair of Brahms orchestral concerts struck me so completely that I couldn't stop wondering how I could get closest to these pieces and to the musicians who make them, which led me down the path I'm on now.

How have you been preparing for the competition? 

It depends on the piece and on the composer. Many I've studied before. But if I'm utterly unfamiliar with a score and it's from before 1865ish, I can get a pretty firm sense of the work from reading it in silence. There are some formal patterns that are inextricable from the grammar of the music of that time, so scoping out the structure of these works is like playing hide-and-seek with somebody who wants to be found.

I'll test sonorities on the piano, air-bow and sing through wind soli, and try to bring the piece to life in my body by finding pulse and hypermeter. In more recent scores, the grammar of ‘first-Viennese-school’ composition starts to disintegrate in favour of more expressionist forms; each piece has more peculiarities to grasp per measure of music, bigger orchestras mean new combinations and more transposing, more notes per chord, richer harmonies, stranger textures. These pieces are more demanding on my ear and take a bit longer to grasp, and time permitting I'll write out a reduction of a big score in order to ‘get it under my fingers’. It's much harder to miss something this way, and it helps me understand the architecture more intimately, like making a Lego model of the real thing.

Then, and only as a treat, I'll listen to a recording or three, often to listen for the things that are consistently a little off in the ensemble … some notes are hard to tune and certain figures don't intuitively form in the hands. Since I don't play all of the instruments, the best way for me to learn what's hard is by listening. Sometimes composers write lovingly for the mechanical faults of the instruments, like the way Verdi writes for a singer's passaggio, and it's merely a matter of encouraging the ensemble to lean in. Others, like Beethoven, beg a performer to disguise (or better yet, triumph over) the manual difficulties of illustrating the written line. At any rate, it helps to know what's difficult and what's possible before I think out what I could ask of an ensemble. 

What are your thoughts on the repertoire? 

I adore the Meistersinger overture … it's Wagner at his headiest and giddiest, reaching the peak of his contrapuntal prowess. It's also his most ‘ordinary’ piece, nearest ontologically to our universe (no magic potions, no dwarves or gods or swans) and yet there's this singular awe in the living magic of the ordinary … elevating simplicity, like Mozart breathing the divine into the ordinary. Instead of bringing Valhalla into our presence, the piece shows us the divinity in the common things like love and wisdom, inspiration and non-violence. Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto – I love the near-Nordic restraint he uses painting with the orchestra. It spends much of its time either quite high or very low, giving it a sort of charmed hollowness. And that gorgeous second movement – like Bellini in a snow-globe in purgatory.

But I'm excited for everything. I'm still the kind of person whose favourite piece is the one he's doing at the moment.

What is the piece that made you fall in love with music, either while performing it as a musician or experiencing it as an audience member?

There are several scores that sit on my very top shelf – Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, Brahms’ Third Symphony, Don Giovanni, Falstaff, Tristan, Beethoven’s Third Symphony and Stravinsky’s Petrushka – but but Wagner’s Götterdämmerung is my absolute favourite. It's a greedy choice because there is so much of it, like if you asked me what my favourite foods were and I picked ‘all-you-can-eat buffet,’ but the pathos and logic of the music, the vastness and vividness of the worlds and underworlds that Wagner conjures, and the way the immensity of the whole unfolds in beautiful rays of colours have turned me into a weepy nerd over and over.

How do you relax? What are your hobbies?

I love to read (particularly in other languages!), and I love the plastic arts, in particular French painting around 1900. I love cooking (particularly in other languages!) and eating, swimming, skiing, walking in nature, passionate discussions with friends, speaking nonsense to my adorable dog … it's too bad I'm not single. This would make a passable dating profile.

If there is anything you could change about classical music, what would it be?

The simple misconception that classical music is only for people who know it and can afford it. I can't believe that this art form that has so strongly and repeatedly punched me in the gut could be alienating of its own accord; I try to reassure everyone I encounter that they possess the capacity to be utterly transported by the great works of our heritage. There is no intellectual or emotional barrier to entry when it comes to this stuff … this music can be at its most accessible and intimate on a first listen.

What advice would you give to other budding conductors?

I was hoping I was still in the ‘budding’ category, but … there's so much to learn and to know about EVERYTHING before I feel well-acquainted with a score. And there are times when that work is laborious and slow-going. But the love of music and the desire to share that love – the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’ – is the thing that has kept me focused and reassured even when I study scores without a hope of conducting them. So I would say never to depart from that deepest motivation. 


Meet the other candidates

Find out more about the competition in 2018