There’s a certain awesomeness about orchestra conductors - an aesthetic grandeur that demands admiration and discourages silly questions.
At 26, Leonard Weiss doesn’t look like the average conductor - or maybe he does, because of course, there’s no such thing. But when setting up a photo shoot, it seems prudent to request the full shebang - white tie, tails, baton. Weiss himself is relieved - it saves him having to decide what to wear otherwise.
And, in fact, dressed up and conducting an imaginary orchestra with just the photographer’s instructions for background noise, Weiss looks every bit the traditional conductor. He may be blonde and slight, with an easy smile and a diffident manner, but he’s in control, and he’s having fun.
He says seeing himself conduct, whether on recordings or in the mirror, is always disconcerting.
“The thing that drives me nuts about watching videos of me conducting is that you should never sit there and think, what did I do right?” he says.
“It's like any artistic field, it's always, how can I improve?”
Still, it’s the best way to learn, in the same way that he always enjoyed watching other conductors rehearse, a process he finds far more constructive than the final performance.
“You learn an amazing amount watching people rehearse, and seeing what they get out of the orchestra and the techniques they use to get it,” he says.
Almost Canberra born and bred - he moved here with his family at the age of two - Weiss studied music from an early age, but he was never what’s commonly described as a prodigy.
“I'm not the sort of person who stayed in their room and practiced for eight hours. There's more to music than that,” he says.
His parents were both musical, and encouraged him to experiment. He eventually settled on the French horn and, improbably, the harp.
“Mum played violin, so I started with that and decided very quickly that violin was not for me,” he says.
“Then I picked up harp. My parents kindly indulged my curious desire to learn it, and we sought out a little one and it sort of worked. And then I got bigger, and we got full-sized pedal harp.”
So, French horn and harp, which are usually found side-by-side in a traditional orchestra, and are both odd and unwieldy, at least for the uninitiated. Later, he would move on to composing and conducting and, somewhere in there, learned how to compose for and play the Carillon, possibly the world’s most bulky instrument.
But a career in music wasn’t always a foregone conclusion. He studied at Canberra Grammar School, an institution that prides itself on its musical curriculum, but it wasn’t until his final years of high school that music seemed to be dominating both his studies and his spare time.
It was when he was in year nine, and had composed a piece for the school’s guitar orchestra, that he was told he had to conduct it.
“It was really terrifying,” he says.
“I have a video of me doing it and it's awful. It actually sounds quite good, but I just remember I stared at the person directly in front of me for the entire piece. There was a whole ensemble and I just eyeballed the one person in front of me, did not take my eyes off them, and just mechanically moved my right arm, did nothing with my left arm. It was so horrendously stilted.”
Nevertheless, he went on to study composition at the Australian National University School of Music, after which he did a teaching degree at the behest of his practically minded mother. Today, he’s one of Canberra’s busiest conductors, leading the National Capital Orchestra and the Canberra Youth Orchestra. For a time, he also directed the Canberra Gay and Lesbian Qwire and the ANU Choral Society, although his preference is conducting orchestras.
“You can get choristers who are so engaged, when they're really just locking into what is their engagement with you for 35 or 60 minutes in a concert, that's incredibly powerful,” he says.
“But I think orchestrally, there's something to me about the sound palette you can get from the orchestra which is so immense.”
And while he’s drawn to the classics, he’s also passionate about contemporary music, and has conducted works by some of the country’s most prolific modern composers.
“I'm always such a sucker for anything that's romantic, and anything that has some sort of emotional or inquisitive nature, or otherwise makes you feel something,” he says.
“For me, that's the power of art in general, not just music. So I gravitate to these pieces quite easily and very happily.”
Concerts are just the tip of the iceberg for a jobbing musician. Like many working artists, Weiss has a cobbled-together tapestry of tasks and commitments and rosters that give structure to his days. He performs, composes and conducts, and, because he doesn’t perform as regularly as other musicians, he actually plays the harp to relax in his spare time. He also teaches at the School of Music and at his alma mater, Canberra Grammar.
“Not only is it practical, but I think it's necessary, and you do find that even some of the most highly revered performers and conductors and whatever still take a few weeks out of their schedule every year to teach and to give masterclasses,” he says.
“Without that tuition and that flow-on of information you would just get such a stagnation of development for other artists. So it's really important to keep teaching and engaging in that way as well.”
As a young conductor, Weiss is in good company in Australia; Nicholas Carter, the director of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, is, at 29, Australia’s youngest principal conductor, while Mexican-born Alondra de la Parra, at 38, heads the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. But he does appreciate, at this stage of his career, working with younger people in an industry that values experience.
“There's definitely pros and cons, but either way I've been incredibly fortunate to have both the National Capital Orchestra and the Youth Orchestra trust me in that capacity,” he says.
“I think now I'm so much further ahead in my own knowledge of music, and my own confidence to just walk into a rehearsal and know exactly what I would like out of that piece.”
Ultimately, he says, he likes working with and learning from people, leading a collective even while he hones his craft as an individual artist. He's about to spend his summer in Tasmania, after being selected for the 2019 Australian Conducting Academy Summer School, working with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.
As he loosens his bow tie and packs away the various batons he’s brought in for the photo shoot - they are narrow and surprisingly light - he tells a story of a conducting audition he had some years ago.
He remembers pulling out his baton, and before he did anything else, one of the men on the panel offered him some advice.
“He said, ‘Go home, buy a bucket of white paint, dip your baton in that and then come back’,” Weiss says.
“And I thought, wow. It’s practical advice, in a sense - it's about being easy to see - but some people are set in their ways.
[But] it's a strangely individual thing, and you find what works. As with so many elements of art, there is the technique, and the right length and formal training, but then you find that that sort of goes out the window, because if you can succinctly communicate to the musicians, then it doesn't really matter as much.”