Spotlight on the Artist: Eliott Sohn

What would you say are the advantages to attending a liberal arts school if you are interested in music? What are the disadvantages?

One of the greatest advantages of being at a liberal arts school (and Williams in particular) is the incredible amount of opportunities to be involved substantially in music performance, even if you’re a non-music major. For instance, at larger schools like the University of Washington [which Sohn attended as a freshman] conducting a full orchestra is not exactly one of the interest boxes you can check as an undergraduate. Roles like that are usually given to either senior music majors, or more often, graduate students. One of the down sides of being at a small school is that the number of seriously dedicated musicians is small, but this means that the musicians who do have the drive to play will be in many groups and get the opportunity to stand out. That’s another thing: if someone wants to form a new group – best exhibited by the countless number of a cappella groups on this campus – or just get together to jam, its pretty easy to find people who are interested. Williams definitely has its share of talented musicians, and it’s serendipitous to find some student I hardly know in my class who plays in chamber groups or sings in the chorale society.

You and Greg Bloch ’99 are both in charge of the Student Symphony. What goes into running such a large and active student organization?

Well, as director, lucky Greg deals with much of the organizational and logistical aspects of Student Symphony, while I get to just conduct. But leading the Student Symphony is a difficult and often time-consuming task. We constantly talk about and deal with issues ranging from trying to stabilize attendance at rehearsals to making sure people have sufficient time to practice their parts.

What exactly goes into conducting an orchestra? Did you find it difficult to go from being a member of the orchestra to being a conductor?

When I conducted in high school, I must not have grasped all the things it took to be an effective one because it seems so incredibly complex now. Actually, I haven’t even grasped everything now. A much wiser and experienced conductor told me something that made me realize that conducting is indeed the most complex and difficult of all individual musical endeavors: a conductor must know everything each member of the orchestra knows. Now this really scared me, because I didn’t really know much outside the realm of woodwinds and brass. So I’ve done quite a bit of learning from string players, other orchestra members and even Ron Feldman, the conductor of the Berkshire Symphony.

How do you pick the music for Student Symphony?

Greg and I will usually pick out an assortment of pieces that we feel would be fun and challenging for the orchestra to play. While we also solicit the opinions of the orchestra, the important limiting factor is difficulty. We realize schoolwork is the highest priority to most students, so we keep the music within reason. It’s not like well give them Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and tell them to learn their parts. But as our final program should show, we try to perform music that is entertaining and has some recognition. We also usually include a 20th century piece on each program, though the upcoming concert is an exception.

What are your musical goals after Williams?

I’d like to continue playing the clarinet by performing another concerto next year with the University of Washington symphony, but I don’t know whether the music department there lets medical students even audition. When I was there, the med students were not at all involved in the music department. I hope to change that, and if I have time, perhaps play in their university symphony again. If not, I’ll audition for other orchestras in the Seattle area. Conducting doesn’t really seem plausible, but I’d certainly jump on any opportunity.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Come to the Student Symphony concert this Saturday at 4:00 p.m. Its a weird time, but that should make it easier to remember. It’ll be a great concert.