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Penn State Conductor Pursues Perfection Through Music

by on August 31, 2014 12:00 PM

Benjamin Firer took the stage of the Esber Recital Hall, bowed slightly to the clapping crowd and turned wordlessly to the orchestra behind him.

A graduate student in orchestral conducting, Firer raised his hands slowly and the sound of the orchestra followed. A chorus of wavering strings followed his gestures as he guided the orchestra through Samuel Barber’s 1936 composition, “Adagio for Strings.”

As the music grew louder, Firer’s motions became faster and more urgent – but never frantic. Even with his brow furrowed and his eyes shut tight – as if he were in pain – his conducting never lost its focus, and the musicians followed suit.

Firer is what some may call an overachiever.

In addition to his current master’s work at Penn State, he holds another master’s degree from Yale in trombone performance, works as the music director for the Central Pennsylvania Youth Orchestras and also conducts the symphony orchestra at Juniata College.

Professor Gerardo Edelstein, Firer’s conducting instructor, says that since Firer began studying conducting at Penn State last year, he has “grown tremendously.” Satruday’s recital – in addition to helping kick off the Penn State School of Music’s “Trombone Labor Days” event – was also a graduation requirement for Firer. He picked the music, the musicians, arranged practice times and even designed the program.

“The conductor alone must be the person who knows and understands every single part in a piece of music,” Edelstein says. “Their task is to unify the players and their sounds into one common idea.”

Firer says that conducting is difficult, involved work.

“Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” he says. “It’s influenced by the world the composer lived in, so you have to try and get into their mind and figure out what was going on in their country at the time – A war? A revolution? Some kind of social movement?”

But his work doesn’t end there. What were the philosophical trends of the period? What literature was the composer reading at the time?

Firer says that even some modern noises we take for granted – the sound of a passing car, for instance – didn’t exist at the time. Since “the world was slower and quieter” during the time of many influential composers, Firer must account for the way the modern ear hears music and ambient noise. 

“He has a special gift for this, I feel,” says Joe Firer, Benjamin’s father. “I see how he comes to the orchestra first, and uses them to convey the emotion and tone of the music to the audience.”

Micah Albrycht, one of the performers in Saturday’s recital, agrees and says that Firer has a “very mature” way he approaches conducting. Though Albrycht only met Firer a mere week before the concert, Firer vision was strong enough to unite all 50 members of the orchestra into a coherent group.

“He really has an infectious passion for the music,” Albrycht says.

Firer describes commanding an orchestra like a platoon of soldiers. As their leader, his conviction on how to interpret a piece of music must be strong enough to unite the disparate playing styles and techniques of the members of the orchestra.

If he works hard, he hopes to achieve a level of authenticity with each piece he conducts. But Firer says his pieces rarely work out exactly as he had them planned.

“When I approach a piece of music, in my head I have perfection,” Firer says. “But the beauty of art is that it doesn’t necessarily fit to that, and instead you get to see where it leads in the pursuit of perfection.”


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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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