Is Bradley Cooper a Maestro?

Iverson Eliopoulos, A21, shares his thoughts on the Oscar-nominated Bernstein biopic and the art of conducting

There’s been plenty of buzz surrounding Maestro, the Leonard Bernstein biopic in which Bradley Cooper plays the charismatic, complicated conductor. But long before he became a world-famous musician, Bernstein grew up in Boston, where he taught himself piano. As a teenager, he saw a Boston Pops orchestra performance, and he was captivated.

Iverson Eliopoulos, A21, has similar memories. He grew up in Medford, taking cello lessons; at Tufts, he studied music before going on to the New England Conservatory to earn his master’s in conducting. Eliopoulonow manages the Round Top Festival Institute, a renowned summer orchestra festival based in Texas. He took a moment to reflect on the movie, music, and what it takes to be a conductor.

Tufts Now: What did you think of Maestro?

Iverson Eliopoulos: I really liked it. It was similar to Oppenheimer, which wasn’t about the bomb. It was about an emotional journey. In the same way, I liked that Maestro wasn’t a collection of career highlights and achievements. In fact, it almost pushed those things to the background. It was really about Bernstein’s relationship with his wife and family. It was more of a character study than just a montage of the cool things he’d done.

A lot has been said about how much time Bradley Cooper spent learning conducting for this role. I could really tell that he had spent time studying Bernstein’s movements. Truthfully, if you put Cooper in front of a real orchestra it would probably be a mess. There were many gestures that didn’t make sense or extra beats he added into the music, and it wasn’t as clear as it could be. But I have to say it really did look like Bernstein in the way he used his arms and body, and I was amazed to see how close a non-conductor could get to looking like the real thing.

Was the movie true to the profession?

Probably not for the average conductor like me, but I would say it’s very true to the profession for someone who has reached the highest level, as Bernstein did. Music for him was about emotion, and he spent his whole life pursuing various forms of artistic expression. Especially in the beginning of his life, he was more than a conductor. He was always putting on impromptu musicals that he would make up. He just loved expression through music and through art. And that really came across in the movie. 

What qualities does a good conductor possess?

I think you’ll get different answers from everyone. In the time of Bernstein and before, the conductor could sometimes be a tyrant and a dictator, and there are a lot of stories of conductors doing things that just wouldn’t fly today. 

I think that a conductor has to be a leader but also a collaborator. If I was called up to conduct the Boston Symphony tomorrow, I couldn’t go in thinking, ‘I’m going to show them all my ideas.’ They’re the musicians; they’re the great artists. I think you really have to be a collaborator to pull out the top level that they can reach. 

Bernstein perfectly embodied that. He was tough, certainly, but he wasn’t a tyrant on the podium. It was very clear to his musicians that he really loved and felt the music. He was a formidable figure in that sense, because of his charisma and how much he knew about music.

What does it take to make the leap from musician to conductor?

The biggest question that people who aren’t musicians ask me is: ‘Why do you even need a conductor?’ Ninety percent of what a conductor does is in rehearsal. The conductor is crucial because every one of those musicians has their own idea about how every bar of music should go. 

You need someone to unify that. You need someone to bring in their own vision and say, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’ The conductor gives life to the notes on the page. The composer wrote down this number of bars and this number of beats, but the conductor can make that flexible and can stretch the time to make beautiful phrases. They’re like a coach, in a sense, helping musicians play the best that they can, trusting musicians to be their best. 

How did you become interested in conducting?

I grew up in Medford and have played cello since I was young in orchestras around Boston. I could have gone to a conservatory after high school. But Tufts was really cool in the sense that they offer many kinds of music education, not just classical. I studied with people who did ethnomusicology, Middle Eastern music, or film music. In addition to the Tufts orchestras, I played in the Klezmer Ensemble and the Early Music Ensemble. 

But I wanted more than the experience of sitting in a cello section, only being one person out of 100 being able to influence the overall sound.

Conductor [and senior lecturer] John Page and I had amazing conversations about music and conducting. With his help, I went on to get a master’s in conducting at the New England Conservatory.

What’s your dream job and dream piece of music to conduct?

Probably Mahler’s second symphony, which is featured in Maestro. It’s the pinnacle of symphonic work. But, these days, I’m happy making any type of music with anyone. My dream job would definitely be the Boston Symphony. It’s my favorite orchestra. I think it’s the best orchestra in the country, and it’s one of the orchestras where Lenny got his start as well.

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