In a former life, in the Poland of his ancestors, the conductor Kenneth Kiesler must have been a ruddy, red-bearded rabbi—not a pale Talmudic scholar but a muscular Jew who would cut down the trees to build a wooden synagogue, work miracles with infertile couples, and dance in solitary bliss to the glory of the Creator. In this life Kiesler, who was the musical director of the Illinois Symphony for twenty years, heads the conducting program at the University of Michigan's School of Music. Like most conductors (and like any rabbi), he combines the roles of leader and teacher. Each summer for the past five years Kiesler has run a two-week conductors' retreat at Medomak Camp, on a lake in Washington, Maine. The retreat attracts about forty students, who live either in spartan cabins or in Tibetan yurts and dedicate themselves utterly to music from nine in the morning to ten at night.
Considering how few full-time jobs there are for conductors, it is surprising that conductor training has become a big operation. Conductors' institutes at the Tanglewood and Aspen music festivals attract not only the most promising aspiring conductors but large audiences as well, on the lookout for the next Lenny. Most conductors discover their calling only after they have mastered an instrument, which is why almost all university conducting courses are graduate programs; so conducting students have just a few years in which to move from the rudiments of technique to a career. Conducting workshops condense this phase, immediately putting student maestros before the public; at Medomak (the name rhymes with "the comic") participants ranging in age from sixteen to sixty work on their craft far from the public's gaze—in front of their colleagues (there are no private lessons) and under Kiesler's intense scrutiny. "I'm never nervous when I conduct," one relatively experienced conductor told me. "But here I'm scared to death."