Coached to Coach

Coming Full Circle

Dorothea Figueroa, Cello

Dorothea Figueroa, a German-born cellist who has been a member of the MET Orchestra since 2002, attended the Verbier Festival first as a student, and a number of times since as a coach. She shares the unique experiences and inspiration she gained from the Festival, not least of which was meeting her eventual husband (and stand partner!), Principal Cellist Rafael Figueroa.

Verbier changed my life in many ways. It is a truly special place, and as I look back on my time there, it seems that fate propelled me in one direction - and left me wondering what would have happened without it.

Dora (L) and Sabina

Dora (L) and Sabina

It all started in the fall of 1999, shortly after I began my Master’s studies at Juilliard. An Azerbaijani violinist friend, Sabina, and I heard about the founding of a new international youth orchestra. Meeting in Switzerland, it would be composed of some of the best musicians in the world, and would be conducted not only by its new Music Director, James Levine, but by such illustrious guest conductors as Zubin Mehta, Paavo Järvi, Wolfgang Sawallisch, and Yuri Temirkanov.

Excitedly, having passed the initial round of recorded excerpts and essays about music, we lined up alongside hundreds of other musicians for a live audition, New York being just one stop in the festival’s worldwide audition tour. Here we could already catch a glimpse of the vibe that was going to come: young musicians eager to excel and a jury with welcoming smiles, also excited to be forming this terrific new ensemble. Everyone wanted to get in, since this was not only a great musical opportunity, but it was even paid well by its sponsor, UBS. In the end, the orchestra would include musicians, aged 17-29, from 29 different countries.

Playing music, the universal language, is an amazing way to make new friends, especially in this quiet, remote village in the Swiss Alps, with fresh air and cows grazing on the meadows. Besides playing orchestral and chamber music in newly-formed groups, we bonded through activities including hiking, mountain biking, and swimming. Every night we'd meet at the local pub, where the soloists would join us - we could have a drink with Mischa Maisky, meet Evgeny Kissin at a party, or listen to a jam session between Nigel Kennedy and Roby Lakatos. All of a sudden, I felt like I was part of the bigger world of music, not just a product of New York and Leipzig (my hometown), but immersed in an intense, multicultural meeting of ideas and interpretations. Great stars were equal to everyone else, mingling with one another within one big "Verbier family.” We became more than friends, and those relationships have lasted more than 15 years.

Pelléas et Mélisande from the 2012 Verbier Festival, conducted by Charles Dutoit

The incredible atmosphere, sizzling with contagious enthusiasm, was one of learning and growing in unison, driving us to play as a group beyond any of our individual abilities. This atmosphere was cultivated by the coaches from the MET Orchestra. In the first year, the celli were taught by Associate Principal Bass Leigh Mesh, who became an inspiration and a friend. Later, in New York, he gave me tickets to a dress rehearsal of Pelléas et Mélisande. This proved to be a defining experience - in Pelléas, everything is not only communicated in words, but is given an underlying emotional context through the music. Maestro Levine gave each and every shiver a different character, a different nuance. I had been to the Met before, but it was on that day that it became my goal to join the MET Orchestra when there was an opening.

As it turned out, that happened in my second summer at Verbier. Someone saw the ad for an upcoming cello audition, and we all had to send our applications directly from Verbier, since the deadline was so close. If I had not been there, I would have missed it!

The VFO 2000 cello section

The VFO 2000 cello section

Having toured the previous year to Paris, London, Berlin, Madrid, Milan, Barcelona, Monaco, and Zurich, we had yet another tour just before the Met audition - an all-American sojourn through New York, Toronto, Miami, Chicago, Mexico City, São Paulo, and Buenos Aires. What a fantastic time - traveling at this age opened my mind to different cultures and nationalities. I felt very privileged to go on such a remarkable journey through the world’s best concert halls. In each new city, I would show up early for the evening sound check, preparing excerpts and a concerto on incredible stages in the best acoustics possible. I was already imagining myself playing at the Met! The constant performing also refocused me on what I had learned from the Met coaches: to play with a focused sound, with a lot of character and vocal qualities. I like to imagine that I am saying words through my cello, as if I were a singer.

Two weeks after returning to New York from this remarkable tour, I won the position of Associate Principal Cello in the MET Orchestra on December 22, 2001. It was an incredible Christmas present for my parents, who are opera singers themselves, and we got to celebrate together when I returned home to Germany on Christmas Eve. A dream came true and I joined my favorite orchestra six weeks later.

There I found myself sitting right next to the cello coach from my second year at Verbier, Principal Cellist Rafael (Rafi) Figueroa. As time went on, we fell in love, and are now married with two little children: Anton (two years) and Annabelle (six months), who come to Verbier every summer with us, enjoying the fresh air and feeling the power and tranquility of the Alps and the music. I became the cello coach in 2009 and feel that I have come full circle. Now, it is I who am responsible for the cellists, and through my coaching and friendship have the opportunity to impact their future. Many of them have gotten major positions in orchestras in Berlin, Cologne, Utah, Washington, and Montreal. And almost everyone tells me they fell in love with playing opera in Verbier; influenced by the festival’s connection to the Met, founder Martin Engstroem always programs at least one opera every summer.

What could be better than giving the love of what I do to the next generation, helping to inspire them to great musicianship, friendship, and harmony? I am grateful for Verbier for directing my life toward the Met and Rafi. And who knows? Maybe our kids will be inspired by listening to open rehearsals in Verbier, and will one day want to perform there, too. Then we would have come full circle once more.

Sublime Schubert

Nathan Hughes, Oboe

I first experienced the amazing musical power of Verbier in 2000 as an oboist in the newly-formed Verbier Festival Orchestra. There was enormous excitement (and, at first, a bit of trepidation) among this international group of musicians, all coming from vastly different musical playing styles. We wondered whether this group could form a cohesive and refined ensemble. 

Enter the MET Orchestra coaches and James Levine.

Nathan conducting a woodwind sectional at Verbier

Nathan conducting a woodwind sectional at Verbier

By the first rehearsal with James Levine on the Schubert C Major Symphony (the “Great”), I knew this was going to be a unique experience that I would remember forever. The MET Orchestra coaches got us to listen closely to each other and to view our stylistic differences as mutually beneficial influences, stretching us and forcing us out of our respective comfort zones. The galvanizing force of Maestro Levine enabled us to direct that raw energy into the remarkably high-energy musical experience that this powerful group could create. It became clear that whatever talents we had as individuals were multiplied exponentially when brought together and focused. 

What I didn’t know at the time is that I would soon be appointed Principal Oboe of the MET Orchestra, working with the same coaches and music director who had mentored me that summer. Now I act as a coach, returning every summer to Verbier, where I enjoy witnessing that same raw energy, excitement, and magical transformation that originally inspired me. (It’s also a great place to hone my conducting skills!)

For me, the Verbier Festival represents a place where music truly brings people together and where magic is tangible.

Opera in the Mountains

William Short, Bassoon

Tosca from the 2011 Verbier Festival, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda

Verbier has provided me with a host of seminal experiences over the years, not least of which was falling in love with opera. See, my relationship with opera had a long gestation period. When I performed it as a student, it was often in cramped, unflattering pits, from which I could barely hear (let alone see) the stage. Moreover, it was such a foreign experience, requiring so much flexibility and style and sensitivity to what was going on around me, that it could be disconcerting—discouraging, even.

Then I went to Verbier. As a student, Verbier always stood apart from other festivals. It was a unique opportunity, an exclusive club into which only a lucky few were admitted. As it happened, in each of the three years I attended, the highlights were operas: Salome in 2010, Tosca in 2011, and Pelléas et Mélisande in 2012. Valery Gergiev, rather than try to control every detail, trusted the orchestra to play with the commitment and precision necessary to render a thrilling performance of Salome. Gianandrea Noseda pulled the cobwebs from Tosca, drawing from us a passion that made it sound as if we had never heard Puccini’s masterpiece before—which, as it happened, many of us hadn’t. And Charles Dutoit brought his uniquely-suited sensibilities to bear on the sound world of Pelléas, immersing us in Debussy’s masterful orchestration and delicate blurring of voice and orchestra.

Salome from the 2010 Verbier Festival, conducted by Valery Gergiev

What a thrill, what an honor, it was to experience these performances at such a defining point in my development, when I needed more than anything to be stretched past my comfort zone, to be pushed out of what I knew and presented with new repertoire, new styles, new approaches to making music. And what a special opportunity it was to return as a coach, to have the opportunity to work with young musicians with whom I still identify so strongly, to learn from them better ways to help them actualize their own musical ambitions.

For me, Verbier embodies the blurring of lines between teacher and student. The formalized hierarchy of traditional pedagogy is lessened and a collaborative atmosphere pervades every aspect of the experience. As a student, I became a better musician and a more open person. As a coach, I was reminded daily that we are all on the same musical continuum, always working toward being better.