Tag: conducting

Alice Parker: Feeling the Same Emotion at the Same Time

 

It is difficult to think of anyone more loved by the musicians with whom she works than composer, arranger, conductor, and teacher Alice Parker who has been a fixture of the choral music community for eight decades. Since becoming an arranger for the legendary Robert Shaw Chorale when she was fresh out of college in the late 1940s, Parker has devoted herself almost exclusively to music for the voice, since she strongly believes that people find their common ground through singing together.

During an inspiring conversation over Zoom, Parker explains how our lives become enriched when we can share a communal music-making experience.

When we sing something perfectly lovely together … and it really clicks, you have this marvelous feeling of brotherhood in the room. We are all human beings. We are all feeling this emotion together at the same time. And this is uniting us. We are not separate.

Sadly though, as she also points out, singing is no longer something that most people do: “As a society, as a culture, we don’t sing. … [W]e simply have gotten so dependent on having music there without our having to make it ourselves that we have forgotten that the value of making it ourselves is far beyond what the music is about.”

Music has been a presence in Alice Parker’s life since growing up in Boston in the 1920s, attending concerts by the Boston Pops as a little girl, attending an African American church sing while staying with her grandparents in Greenville, South Carolina, and hearing African-American lyric tenor Roland Hayes sing spirituals in a concert in the 1930s. Soon after she began taking piano lessons, she started to compose her own music, though her teacher had to find another instructor to help her write it down. But Parker doesn’t think that made her special.

“The ability to compose is not a huge, unusual gift,” she claims. “I think everybody would if they were encouraged to. And I was encouraged to, right from the beginning.”

Parker formally studied composition at Smith College before studying choral conducting at the Juilliard School, deciding to switch majors because she did not want to compose the music they wanted her to compose.

“They were trying to get me to write 12-tone music,” she remembers. “I was resisting like crazy. I simply couldn’t do it. And I had the satisfaction of living long enough to realize that I was right, and they were all wrong in the sense that what really lasts is not necessarily tonal music, but modal music. Somehow or other, that peculiar mixture of whole and half steps is much closer to musical truth than any system that is drawn out of equal half steps or equal whole steps. That’s too much. Henry Ford making everything exactly match. Things in nature don’t exactly match. The leaves on a tree are all the same except each one is different from each other one. And the snowflakes are all different. And the way water behaves is always different.”

Perhaps the most tell-tale sign of Parker’s lifelong humility is her devotion to creating music for and with community groups rather than for big celebrities. She has no interest in writing music unless it serves a purpose, as she explains:

If someone offered me a whole lot of money to write a big, important orchestral piece, orchestral-choral piece, to be done in Carnegie Hall, I would turn tail and run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I don’t see any purpose for it. In a church, there’s loads of purpose. It’s all around you all the time. In school, there can be, or there cannot be, but if you’re in the good schools, there’s lots of purpose. And certainly in the community groups, there’s almost always purpose.

Although she was writing music up until 2020 (you can hear a performance of her glorious hymn “On the Common Ground” which is embedded in the transcript below), her deteriorating eyesight has made it impossible for her to either enter notes on staff paper or even on a computer. But she’s enjoying spending time with her four great grandchildren and has become obsessed with Wordle.

  • We simply have gotten so dependent on having music there without our having to make it ourselves that we have forgotten that the value of making it ourselves is far beyond what the music is about.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • My general prescription for the healing of society is that we establish a Department of Peace in Washington to go beside the Department of War.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • When we sing something perfectly lovely together ... and it really clicks, you have this marvelous feeling of brotherhood in the room. We are all human beings. We are all feeling this emotion together at the same time. And this is uniting us. We are not separate.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • If you can speak, you can sing. And the singing may come first.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • Music is only sound. It is nothing else but sound. We spend a whole of our education talking about sound and not making sound.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • Somehow I was able to withstand the strong conditioning that I got certainly when I got to college, and was trying to major in composition, and they were trying to get me to write 12-tone music. I was resisting like crazy. I simply couldn't do it. And I had the satisfaction of living long enough to realize that I was right, and they were all wrong. ... Things in nature don't exactly match. The leaves on a tree are all the same except each one is different from each other one. And the snowflakes are all different. And the way water behaves is always different.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • I am not telling my music where I want it to go. I'm listening for where it wants to go.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • The ability to compose is not a huge, unusual gift. I think everybody would if they were encouraged to.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • There is absolutely no difference between brain tissue from male and a female. It's just my feeling about race is actually close your eyes, and can you tell whether it's a black person or a white person, otherwise from the language? You can't. Color has nothing to do with it. Nobody chooses where they're born. ... You come up where you are. What you can do is of course enormously influenced by your surroundings. If your parents say right away, "Well you can't do that; girls can't do that," you're pretty much taken for granted or else you're a terrible rebel and you risk the ire of your society all around you.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • I've always said if someone offered me a whole lot of money to write a big, important orchestral piece, orchestral-choral piece, to be done in Carnegie Hall, I would turn tail and run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I don't see any purpose for it. In a church, there's loads of purpose. It's all around you all the time. In school, there can be, or there cannot be, but if you're in the good schools, there's lots of purpose. And certainly in the community groups, there's almost always purpose.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • I think music is food for the ears, just as food is food for the stomach. And I want to feed people's ears. I want to nourish them through the music. I'm not interested in scaring them or frightening them, or stretching them beyond their beliefs. I need to find the thing that they will just love.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • Somebody called me an entertainer once. I said, "I am not an entertainer." Music isn't an entertainment art for me.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • I think so many kids have never heard their parents sing, just for the fun of it. We don't sing as we do the dishes. We always did when I was little. We don't sing as we do chores because there's always some background music on. And nobody's really listening to it. I think the way to get people back into it is just simply to get a roomful of people singing or a family.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor

Working to Create a Plurality of Voices Within Classical Music

Audience members in large concert hall

When I was a 17-year-old violinist and pianist, a committed music educator asked me if I’d ever considered conducting. He invited me to lead from the piano, and eventually, to properly conduct a movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 in performance. As soon as I was on the podium, I realized that this was my path. It was exhilarating to serve as a conduit for my peers’ music-making, to focus on the big picture, and to shape sound in this exceptionally collaborative way. By thoughtfully identifying potential in me and continuing to give me opportunities once I demonstrated aptitude and drive, this caring educator ensured a strong start to my trajectory as a conductor and musician. Without this early encouragement and experience, I likely would never have picked up a baton.

When I did not yet have the knowledge, connections, or awareness to pursue focused opportunities, this active encouragement steered me toward a professional career. With few female conductors in the public eye to serve as role models, I was exceptionally fortunate to have champions who intentionally propelled me forward. Today, I often still find myself the sole female voice in a room, and I see an even bigger lack of other types of diversity within my profession. How can we all work to bring a plurality of viewpoints to every area of our art form?

The American classical music industry’s funding and governance model makes us exceptionally averse to risk. In a typical season—3-4 mainstage operas or 6 subscription symphony programs—there is very little margin for error. Audience disappointment could very quickly mean the death of a donor-reliant organization, and industry leaders are under pressure to make choices that are perceived as safe and reliable. Often, this means hiring artists who fit the mold, adhering strictly to approaches that have worked in the past.

Compounding this conservative strategy, top-level hires are often chosen by board members, who generally are not industry experts and may feel insecure in their ability to select the right person. This uncertainty encourages safe choices that remind us of what we already know, further constricting the viewpoints represented in our field. In order to break this cycle, we must make an effort to go outside it.

The need for a plurality of voices within our field has become dire. If we do not begin to represent our communities and the world around us, our institutions cannot continue to evolve. As organizations across the nation attempt to deal with this issue, many continue to face roadblocks, despite incremental efforts. How do we break the cycle and move the culture of classical music into the 21st century?

I’ve had many wonderful conversations on these topics over the years, and would like to offer particular thanks to Jim Hirsch at Chicago Sinfonietta, Tracy Wilson and Julie Heard at Cincinnati Opera, and Afa Dworkin at Sphinx Organization for sharing their thoughts with me as I worked on this essay.

The Value of Diversity

Research has repeatedly demonstrated that a diverse group of employees and leaders creates more successful – and profitable – companies. Studies within the corporate world have shown that a business model enriched by a variety of outlooks and experience can capitalize on more creative ideas, a deeper understanding of a wider range of consumers, and the introduction of new problem-solving methods. However, the traditional classical music industry faces a particular challenge: our model is largely built on finding individuals who can fit within an existing structure—musicians with particular technical skills, adhering to very specific stylistic conventions. This often means that musicians coming from outside an established training background must fold themselves into existing practices. As a result, rather than encouraging new ideas—as might be the case in a typical business model—non-conformist behavior is discouraged.

Jim Hirsch, CEO of Chicago Sinfonietta, has endorsed the value of bringing new styles of playing to the concert hall. One approach to tackling issues of diversity is simply acknowledging that there is not just one valid way to perform a given work. Consider the new interpretative ideas brought to standard repertoire by culturally specific organizations like Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. We tend to choose a single type of interpretation and believe that it is the only approach, but great art can come in different forms. We can see a clear representation of this by hearing performances on period instruments, or by comparing today’s practices to historical recordings. The way Mahler’s music was performed one hundred years ago is very far from our approach to it now. That older approach may be more ‘authentic,’ but it is not necessarily better. We have found something that speaks more clearly to our time and to our audiences, and that practice may continue to evolve.

Start with a plurality of viewpoints and ideas when first defining a piece of music.

Another, simpler way to increase a diversity of viewpoints in our performances is to promote and proliferate new work—to start with a plurality of viewpoints and ideas when first defining a piece of music. If a work of art embodies plurality from its nascence, it will likely continue to encourage diversity throughout its existence (see last week’s article on Shaping the American Operatic Canon).

The Porgy Problem

Opera companies have begun to make a concerted effort to promote a wider range of stories on their stages. Recently, operas about black baseball players and boxers, the wrongfully-accused Central Park Five, a black seamstress in New York, and the civil rights movement have necessitated the hiring more of more diverse on-stage talent. There have also been popular operas that feature gay and trans protagonists, individuals fleeing war in the Middle East, and more. It is wonderful that these new stories are making it to our stages. However, they are often accompanied by “The Porgy Problem”—the hiring of artists only for a racially specific project such as Porgy and Bess, while continuing to pass these artists over for standard work. While attempting to exercise plurality, companies are inadvertently creating a segregated environment within the artistic product.

The importance of actively battling this segregated approach to programming became apparent during the casting process for Chicago Opera Theater’s upcoming season. COT’s audition announcement always includes a statement of interest in artists from underrepresented backgrounds, but this season also features the world premiere of Dan Shore’s opera Freedom Ride, which follows a young African American woman during the Civil Rights Movement. The audition pool leading up to Freedom Ride included more superb artists of color than I had heard in the last several years combined. Sadly, artists’ or managers’ assumption that we would only want them for this project often limited the audition repertoire presented or included on their resumes.

As we were casting a leading role in Freedom Ride, a manager reached out to us about an outstanding singer who turned out not to be the right fit for the proposed role. At the time, I was actively seeking someone for a Russian-language project down the line. This singer seemed ideal, but since the agent did not propose her for anything other than Freedom Ride, I assumed she either was not available or did not have the requisite Russian language background.

I found the singer exceptional and decided to inquire. I am glad I did – not only was she available, she had sung this very Russian role before. This incident confirmed the importance of making a concerted effort to seek out diversity for every production.

16 members of the cast of Freedom Ride on stage in costume, some carrying suitcases.

The cast for the 2013 Marigny Opera (New Orleans) showcase of Dan Shore’s opera Freedom Ride which will receive its premiere with Chicago Opera Theater in February 2020 with conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya and director Tazewell Thompson. (Photo courtesy Dan Shore)

Intentionality

In conversation with colleagues who specialize in DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) issues, one theme surfaced again and again: intentionality. This idea, of going out of one’s way to create opportunities for diversity, resonates strongly for me. My own career was greatly affected by others’ commitment to this concept.

The conductor who first pushed me onto the podium, college conducting teachers who generously gave me lessons at no cost, mentors who came to my rehearsals and performances to offer feedback – all allowed me to try, to fail, and to learn from the experience. Established conductors overlooked my youth and relative inexperience, giving me opportunities to lead and to learn. They put me in front of major ensembles, in positions for which I would never have deemed myself qualified, and would never have sought out on my own. In every case, a leader’s intentional choice to give me an opportunity to prove myself allowed me to move forward in my career. Without these opportunities to work in environments that pushed my musical boundaries, I would never have grown as an artist.

Music is an inherently collaborative art form – and collaboration is made stronger through diversity.

Now, as I seek out young artists for various positions, I try to make a point of looking outside the box. Though it is impossible to be aware of the entire field of options and some of the best candidates may fly under the radar, it is our responsibility as artistic leaders to anticipate this and seek out those individuals whose plurality will make them an asset to the room, even if their differences give hesitation. Music is an inherently collaborative art form – and collaboration is made stronger through diversity.

Intentionality in Action

Alongside individual industry leaders, institutions can ensure that intentionality is at the core of their practice. At Chicago Opera Theater, we have taken some basic steps as an organization to put this concept into action. The first has been to include diversity initiatives in our strategic plan, which forces us to regularly examine and track whether our staff, board, artists, and audiences represent the diversity of our city. We have engaged in active dialogue on these issues by joining a cohort of companies, including Minnesota Opera, for annual conversations and sharing of ideas. We are actively working to recruit a highly varied pool of applicants for staff positions, our Young Artist Program, and our Vanguard Composer Residency. We believe it is important to make the changes from the inside out—focusing not only on who is seen on our stages, but also on ensuring that behind-the-scenes decision-makers represent a variety of communities. To ensure that our progressively diverse team is able to communicate and work together productively, we are including cultural sensitivity and harassment training in this season’s activities.

These actions are a start, but there is still a long way to go.

Programs and Initiatives

Albeit slowly, the field is trying to change. Organizations like Sphinx and Opera America, initiatives like Chicago Sinfonietta’s Project Inclusion and National Sawdust’s Hildegard Competition, and programs like The Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for Women Conductors and Marin Alsop’s Taki Concordia Fellowship are all moving the needle. In addition to grants and mentorships for women and people of color, these programs meet three critical needs: institutional recognition for those who fall outside institutional norms, the creation of a sense of community for those who feel marginalized, and training for groups that have been denied access to certain resources.

The greatest impact of diversity-geared initiatives is recognition.

Of these, I feel the greatest impact of diversity-geared initiatives is recognition. When I took part in The Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute, I already had a decade of highly varied experience under my belt, but was having trouble getting noticed by larger organizations and agencies. In searching for new management, I reached out to many individuals and institutions, only to be ignored or quickly brushed off. It was understandable—managers get hundreds of emails from artists; I did not fit a typical profile and they had not heard of me. However, the Hart Institute resources included mentorship by a retired leader from a major artist management firm. He was impressed by my resume, and immediately asked why I wasn’t represented by a bigger agency. When I told him that, lacking connections with major decision-makers in the field, I was having trouble getting management agencies to notice me, he suggested I write again, but this time including his name in the subject line. Suddenly, every agency I had emailed before responded—to messages with the exact same materials and content. Within a few weeks, I was choosing between four leading management companies.

Those of us in a position of power can easily make a difference by serving as references for emerging artists, making an effort to actively advocate for artists from a plurality of backgrounds. For an under-appreciated artist deserving of recognition, intentional advocacy and acknowledgment from a leading institution can make an enormous impact.

Six of the female conductors participating in the Hart Institute posing in tuxedos with batons for a photo shoot as two others help them adjust their positions for the camera.

Participants in the Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute. (Photo by Karen Almond / Dallas Opera, courtesy Verismo Communications.)

A Sense of Community

For me, one of the most valuable results of programs like the Hart Institute has been the opportunity to build a community of other conductors who have had similar challenges and experiences. The camaraderie that forms among a cohort can help build an essential network among artists. The existence of a cohort also ensures that an artist does not feel the constant pressure of being “the other,” or the burden of representing an entire race, gender, or culture. Building a supportive community allows an artist to flourish.

The importance of community-building goes beyond what we see on stage. In some of my earliest leadership roles—as Music Director at Harvard University’s Lowell House Opera and at Juventas New Music Ensemble—I worked in partnership with incredible female directors on the administrative side. These were women my age, whom I admired and from whom I learned a great deal. My colleagues were my role models and my biggest champions. In all levels of our organizations, ensuring that our artists find individuals who are like them—people with whom they can immediately find common ground on a visceral level—is essential. The more inclusive our environments, the more connections can be created among administrators, boards, audiences, artists, and our immediate communities.

Building Networks

At Cincinnati Opera, along with several other companies, this concept of community is also used in a broader sense. By hiring affiliate artists who are well-connected within a certain cultural sphere, an organization can use that artist’s network to identify and attract top talent. In Cincinnati, bass Morris Robinson emerged as a regular collaborator with a knack for establishing rapport with just about anyone—whether an opera connoisseur or a total novice. Robinson is also seen as a major role model for many African American opera artists, and is very aware of the top emerging talent. The company hired Robinson as Artistic Advisor—a role that involves him in many aspects of the organization’s artistic vision and outreach.

Eric Owens serves in a similar role at the Glimmerglass Festival, where the company benefits from the combination of his exceptional experience and expertise in opera with his access to a larger network of artists who may otherwise be overlooked. Both Robinson and Owens are operatic giants, who would be assets to any organization regardless of their race, but their backgrounds serve additional benefits—bringing new perspectives, new networks, and greater access to new communities for these organizations.

Networks can also be built through lasting institutional partnerships. At Chicago Opera Theater, we are using the shared thematic goals in the opera Freedom Ride to partner with Chicago Sinfonietta, who will serve as the orchestra for this production. The hope is that this partnership will expose us to new players whom we can bring back for many future productions.

The responsibility is on us all

Though the need for institutional changes can feel overwhelming, there is much we can do as individuals. Artists can use their influence, experience, and knowledge of various networks to make a difference. We can make a point of encouraging and mentoring emerging professionals who face the same challenges we faced early in our careers. We can recommend our colleagues to others in the field. We can promote and perform relevant and forward-thinking programs.

Consider your own daily artistic choices

Consider your own daily artistic choices:

What is the makeup of the students in your private teaching studio, and have you made an effort to seek out students who are representative of your community?

When programming a recital, are you (and your students) including works by composers of varied backgrounds, just as you would make sure to include works by composers of various periods?

If you are a stage director, when deciding on the place and time to set a standard work, do you consider non-traditional narratives, and do you take the time to present these narratives in an informed way?

As a librettist or composer, do you seek out subject matter outside mainstream narratives?

When making recommendations of artists for gigs, do you include individuals of varied backgrounds, just as you would include individuals of various strengths, so those hiring have a fuller gamut of choices?

About which artists do you speak to non-musicians?

Whose social media posts are you sharing?

Think of your personal network of colleagues and friends – is it representative of our world?

To whom do you go for advice or to share your latest achievements?

No single action will be enough. However, if each one of us takes ownership of these issues, committing ourselves—intentionally—to a diverse industry on every level, we can make a difference. Symphonic and operatic performance are examples of revolutionary artistic achievement. If we actively choose to work, again and again, to create plurality within our art form, we can ensure that this momentous artistry has the widest reach possible, and continues to captivate audiences through relatable, relevant and meaningful experiences. Homogeneity will alienate us from our constituents and push us into elitist obscurity. Plurality, on the other hand, has the potential to build a lasting link between creators, artists, producers, and audiences, ensuring that the awesome power of our art form persistently resonates across all social, cultural, economic, regional—human–boundaries, allowing music to fully embody its greatest strength—the ability to unify.

2018 Ditson Conductor’s Award Honors Oliver Knussen

Oliver Knussen

The Ditson Fund has announced that the 2018 Ditson Conductor’s Award has been awarded posthumously to Oliver Knussen. The citation will be presented to his daughter Sonya Knussen this afternoon. It reads:

In 1940 the Alice M. Ditson Fund was established by Columbia University to make grants “for Fellowships, Public Hearings and Publication” of the work of talented musicians the Fund deems worthy of assistance. To encourage public performance of the music of gifted contemporary American composers, the Ditson Conductor’s Award was created in 1945. With the 2018 Award, Columbia University proudly adds Oliver Knussen to the roster of distinguished conductors so honored.

Maestro Knussen, you are one of music history’s most eminent and influential composer-conductors and one of the few artists in history that is equally world-class at both occupations. Your excellence in composition and conducting inform one another, resulting in an extraordinary, graceful, stylish, nuanced catalogue of compositions and conducting that, likewise, is elegant, refined, clean, clear, detailed and energized.

Your deep understanding of and empathy with a composer’s intentions, allied to the precision of your intellect, communicative personality and conducting, result in buoyant, luminous, and lucid performances, which resonate and crackle with radiant, crystalline detail, nuance, and spirit.

You have helped so many younger composers to forge their voice with a generous and unfailing advocacy across a wide range of contemporary music aesthetics and styles.

You were appointed CBE in 1994 and received the Queen’s Medal for Music 2015 and have been the recipient of many honours and awards, including the Royal Philharmonic Society Conductor Award in 2009. You have recorded prolifically and presided over numerous premieres.

Having served as Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival (1983 – 98), Head of Contemporary Music at the Tanglewood Music Center (1986 – 93), Principal Guest Conductor of the Hague Residentie Orchestra (1993 – 97), Music Director of the London Sinfonietta (1998 – 2002), and Artist-in-Association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (2009 – 2014), your impact on the musical community around the world is remarkable, and is a testament to your unconditional generosity and inspiring curiosity as a musician.

Columbia University therefore recognizes your splendid record of dedication and accomplishment by conferring on you the Ditson Conductor’s Award of 2018 for distinguished service to American music.

Established in 1945, the Ditson Conductor’s Award honors conductors who have a distinguished record of performing and championing contemporary American music.

The Catalyst-Conductor: Conductors as Musical Leaders for the 21st Century

Photo credit: Steve Phillip

Our society has become increasingly characterized by its “gig economies”—short-term work, often defined by the worker herself. Recent studies have predicted the gig economy will represent 43% of the workforce by 2020, and the number will only rise. With the gig economy comes any number of difficulties, as modern workers are often compelled to be entrepreneurs, self-starters, self-motivators, and creators.

Conductors are no different. Indeed, they are well-positioned to take advantage of this new economic order, and many are already doing so, with outstanding results.

In addition to their traditional duties within established institutions, an increasing number of conductors run independent organizations, launch musical and civic initiatives, serve as catalysts for the development of new work, and use their positions to cross disciplinary boundaries. In bypassing institutional gatekeepers, these conductors have brought relevance, vitality, and an expanding number of previously unrepresented voices into the field. Indeed, the dynamic new “catalyst-conductor” could help bring the revitalization that the classical music industry so desperately seeks.

Conductors as musical leaders

The traditional role of the conductor was sharply delineated. A conductor would join a well-established institution, choose repertoire, maintain a musical vision, and lead other musicians in performance. Secondary expectations included some direct interaction with donors and audience, and marginal involvement in certain fundraising and marketing campaigns. The traditional Maestro arrived to rehearsal or performance with all logistics in place, all administrative details carried out, and focused solely on the interpretation of the repertoire he was to perform. Most of his time outside of rehearsal was devoted to score study. In his youth, the Maestro was likely an instrumentalist or composer. He attended a graduate study program and eventually found himself an apprenticeship with a more established conductor, under whom he served as an assistant before moving to an ensemble of his own.

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Many of my colleagues have thrived by following this focused route—studying standard repertory at a graduate program, attending a couple of prestigious festivals, serving as an assistant for a major professional orchestra, and then, following years of apprenticeship, winning a music directorship at an institution of their own. Some of these individuals now make great impact and bring creative programming to their newly found communities.

But while this path has become progressively more rare, other routes have emerged. In my early career, I embarked on a very different journey—one that has wholly shaped my music making today. Following college and graduate work, I was not apprenticed to a major musical institution. I never found an apprentice-based assistantship particularly attractive, but many traditional opportunities also simply did not exist for me. I was 23 years old, in Boston, surrounded by other young people, and wanting to create art. So that is what we did. I spent the first decade of my career running a new music ensemble and several small opera companies, in a cobbled-together career that involved conducting everything—from the largest standard works to tiny chamber music pieces of niche repertoire, from youth orchestras to professional choruses and community opera organizations. I performed with every small-budget musical collective around, while occasionally assisting at more established institutions. In my early years I never said “no” to a gig—if they wanted to see La serva padrona in a local ashram, I would conduct the opera barefoot to audiences who were sitting on the floor and sipping chai. If they asked me to put together a full-scale production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades in a university dining hall, there I was, moving solid oak tables onto a Harvard lawn. I was fortunate to be in a vibrant city, surrounded by other artists of the highest caliber, learning by doing.

For me, this entrepreneurial, gig-economy approach was the perfect way to hone my craft and launch a career. At the small-budget organizations I led, I was involved not only in the musical and programming activities but also oversaw marketing, fundraising, production, and other areas. I learned about all aspects of administration, moved percussion instruments, built opera sets, recruited board members, folded solicitation letters, and created budgetary spreadsheets. It was an insanely packed life that was only possible to sustain for a limited period. Throughout most of my 20s, my peak score study hours were 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., after the rehearsals and meetings were complete, emails were answered, and I could have a solid chunk of time without interruption.

Most of my teachers and mentors scolded my failure to specialize and discouraged my involvement in running organizations, launching initiatives, and collaborating with people outside of my field. They saw this as a waste of time that deterred from the development of a niche skillset. But what those teachers failed to grasp was the intrinsic value of a multi-disciplinary approach to life. My chamber music experience now informs my approach to even the most large-scale symphonic and operatic works. My administrative and production experience has shaped both my leadership style and my artistic ideas, giving me a more holistic view of my work.

And I am hardly alone. At the time, I was unaware of the countless other conductors following the same multi-faceted, entrepreneurial path. This new norm is one we should embrace and encourage, as it contains potential solutions to some of the issues facing classical music today.

Lidiya Yankovskaya in the pit

Lidiya Yankovskaya in the pit
IMAGE: Kathy Wittman

Development of the Catalyst-Conductor

The change in the conductor’s role has not been sudden—it has developed gradually over the last few decades. The first developments stemmed from conductors’ more traditional responsibility of seeking and promoting the work of the composers of their time. In the middle of the 20th century, as the contemporary music movement largely moved out of mainstream concert settings, this role became more vital than ever before and the catalyst-conductor emerged. In my mind, the definitive originator for this change was Pierre Boulez. As a composer-conductor, Boulez had a personal stake in recognizing and supporting contemporary work. As an exceptional musician and tireless advocate, he used his position to move the field forward, founding as many as five large-scale institutions of the highest level, four of which continue to thrive today. Those organizations—IRCAM, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Cité de la Musique, and the Lucerne Festival Academy—have served as central development and training grounds for European music. I find especially impressive Boulez’s founding of these organizations after he was well into an international conducting career. Even amid an incredibly full agenda as conductor and composer, Boulez took responsibility for opening doors to his contemporaries and creating opportunities for the most innovative music making of his time. His tireless dedication to music, above all else—both in terms of his contributions to the field and his own fastidious artistry—should serve as a model for all in our industry. If the music wasn’t being performed in a traditional institution, he created his own space.

Boulez demonstrated that a conductor could use his position, broad musical expertise, and management experience to serve as an influencer and founder of necessary and critical initiatives. Countless conductors and composer-conductors have since launched exciting new music organizations of various bents (some American examples include Tania León/Composers Now, Brad Lubman/Ensemble Signal, Alan Pierson/Alarm Will Sound, Gil Rose/BMOP, and David Bloom/Contemporaneous). In Britain, a group of conductors used the same method to promote Early and Baroque repertoire, founding the influential Historically Informed Performance, or HIP, movement (John Eliot Gardiner, Andrew Parrott, Christopher Hogwood, and others).

In more recent years, an increasing number of conductors have used a similar approach in mobilizing civic change. Large institutions play a critical role in preserving tradition and providing the building blocks necessary for high-level, large-scale performance. As the public faces of these institutions, conductors are well-positioned to serve as advocates, both within our field and for non-musical causes. However, the traditional organizations we represent rely on support from foundations and individuals representing a broad political and civic spectrum, so there is always a fear that, if a “political” or “social justice” position is taken, someone will feel alienated. Indeed, as an organizational leader, I recognize many limitations on what I can advocate within the confines of an existing institution without the risk of hurting our relationship with long-standing patrons and supporters. However, those same supporters, while wishing the institution to remain on neutral ground, generally have no issue with the conductor having separate projects that support a specific social agenda.

The most recognized example of a conductor-activist initiative is Daniel Barenboim’s long-standing work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded in 1999. The orchestra brings together Israeli musicians with Palestinian and other Arab musicians in an attempt to unite individuals torn by a deep political and ideological divide. The Chicago Sinfonietta, founded by Paul Freeman, has worked to address the lack of diversity within the orchestral world. There are also conductors like Kristo Kondakçi (whose work includes a chorus for homeless women) and Joseph Conyers (Philadelphia’s Project 440 and All City Youth Orchestra), who have dedicated the majority of their musical efforts to social causes. These individuals have used positions at big-name institutions to form outside projects that affect civic change. The institutions provide them with the necessary stamp of quality and legitimacy. But by working outside the institutions—and seeking music making in new venues, for new communities—these conductors are able to make a tremendous impact on society.

Bypassing the Gatekeepers

A major positive outcome of increased entrepreneurship among conductors has been the opportunity for those who may otherwise have been overlooked to gain recognition. While I eventually found musical opportunities in more established organizations, my early career was largely defined by my work in a never-ending array of smaller, dynamic organizations, which I was able to develop and grow. And again, I am hardly alone. For some conductors, when opportunities did not materialize, starting their own ensembles served as the ideal career launching pad. Sarah Caldwell raised money, directed, conducted, and produced countless performances with the Opera Company of Boston, at a time when women were almost entirely missing not only from the podium, but also from the orchestra and the administration. Marin Alsop credits much of her success to a decision early on to start her own ensemble, an experience that allowed her to gain the skills she needed to succeed. Nicole Paiement established her place in the opera field with San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle and Eve Queler with the Opera Orchestra of New York. Alondra de la Parra is another example, founding the Orchestra of the Americas, which served both to showcase overlooked Latin American repertoire and to hone and prove her abilities before she had other opportunities to do so.

Without an established authority’s stamp of approval, it is not possible to convince others to follow unless they truly believe in your work. A conductor who is unprepared, unmusical, uninspiring, rude, or unreliable will never be able to get away with these faults without a larger-looming prestige figure or institution behind them. Likewise, audiences will not tolerate anything short of a stellar product when the emblem of a major accrediting body is not on the performance. Early-career conductors who run their own organizations are forced to prove their excellence by making great art that earns respect of its own accord. They can then bring the enormous experience gained from this challenge to their positions at major institutions, further impacting the field in a positive direction.

By forming their own ensembles and bypassing the gatekeepers of the classical music world, conductors like Caldwell, Alsop, and Paiement put large cracks into some very thick glass ceilings. Other conductors have made strides in areas of equity and diversity by overseeing educational initiatives. Michael Tilson Thomas’s New World Symphony partners with the Sphinx Organization to train a diverse body of emerging professionals, Marin Alsop’s OrchKids gives high-level training opportunities to kids from the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore, and her Taki Concordia Fellowship supports emerging women conductors. In each of these situations, major conductors have used their position and expertise to create independent organizations with the purpose of filling a void.

The Future of Conductorial Entrepreneurship

Contemporary culture is built on entrepreneurship. Start-ups have defined and reshaped our social, business, and creative models. However, the structures inherent within the classical music industry have often left our field trailing behind, scrambling to keep up with the intense pace of modern cultural change. In order for classical music to thrive and move forward, we must find more ways to encourage and support individuals who are taking the difficult path of forming, running, organizing, and creating performance groups for a new era. If fully supported and embraced, conductorial entrepreneurship can be a solid pathway to increased diversity and stronger artistic leadership within classical music.

Although traditional conductor-specialists have an important place and will continue to flourish, conductor-entrepreneurs can spearhead the next wave of classical music. As mobilizers and catalysts for change, conductors from diverse backgrounds—spanning cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender boundaries—can have an opportunity to make an impact on our field, even when initially halted by gate-keeping institutions. Those who embark on this path can foster creativity and collaboration, open doors that may otherwise remain closed, increase the number of voices represented, and ultimately move classical music toward a more viable future.

Julian Wachner: Transcending the Sacred and the Profane


Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
As the director of music and the arts for Trinity Wall Street, Julian Wachner wears many hats. The 45-year-old composer, conductor, organist, and pianist oversees the music-making at this Lower Manhattan Episcopal house of worship, navigating both what the extremely versatile Trinity Wall Street Choir sings during religious services and a broad range of secular concerts held both in the main church and in St. Paul’s Chapel, which survived the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center across the street. But while religion is central to his musical as well as his personal life (he is a practicing Episcopalian and his wife, Rev. Emily Wachner, serves as a priest at Trinity), he also is a regular conductor for the PROTOTYPE Festival, earlier this month conducting Ellen Reid’s Winter’s Child. (His own opera Evangeline Revisited was showcased on the New York City Opera’s VOX series in 2010.) And in February he will conduct Charles Ives’s 4th Symphony and a rarely performed Alberto Ginastera choral work at Carnegie Hall.

“For me, all music is meant to induce a transformative experience upon the listener. … I want it to be life changing,” exclaimed Wachner, when we spoke with him at Trinity’s office shortly after the start of the New Year. He actually sees it as “moral responsibility of the compositional craft and the performative craft as well.” In booklet notes he wrote for the first CD devoted to his vocal music conducted by someone else, a 2010 Naxos disc containing both sacred and secular choral music performed by the Elora Festival Singers under the direction of Noel Edison, Wachner described an often-perceived schism between music he calls Apollonian (either music for worship or academic music) and music that is Dionysian (popular music or theatrical music including operas and ballets). His own aesthetic inclinations, he pointed out, have led him to ignore this schism and to freely mix approaches that have traditionally been polar opposites.

Cover for Naxos American Classics Wachner CD

This is in no small part due to his family background, how he first became involved with music, and how that involvement led to his own personal religious awakening. He describes his parents as “sort of California hippies” and remembers that there was “no religion in my life at all.” His mother “grew up Catholic but totally rejected that,” and his father had a Jewish background but was also a non-practitioner even though Wachner learned from his paternal grandmother, who had been a strong influence in his life, that among his ancestors “were all these chief rabbis in Germany.” But there was another important influence—a musical one. Wachner’s stepfather Robert Cole was a conductor and served as Michael Tilson Thomas’s assistant at the Buffalo Philharmonic during Wachner’s childhood. “So I had that whole world of post-Bernstein energy,” he acknowledges. An early piano teacher of his recommended that he sing as a boy chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo, so he started doing that at age seven.

“It was really just a performance opportunity,” Wachner explains. “When I went there, I thought of my identity as Jewish, even though I had never been bar mitzvahed or anything like that. But it was understood that that was what I was and it was cool with everybody.”

Wachner holds framed memorabilia as FJO looks on.

Wachner shares some family memorabilia with FJO.

But a few years later, he had an epiphany. By this time, he had moved to New York City and was singing with the St. Thomas choir:

Part of it was the music and the power of the liturgy. But the other part of it was the actual mission and message. We would sing the Byrd Mass in Five Parts and this incredible music by Howells, but then we’d go out and feed the homeless. That was part of our training. That whole gospel message really resonated and I became an Episcopalian at age 11 or 12.

After his conversion, however, Wachner remained deeply involved with a great deal of music outside of the Christian sacred repertoire. In high school, he even played in rock bands while sporting a Mohawk and an earring. “As I went through life, I had always a sort of wilder side and a more conservative side,” he confesses. At the same time he was immersing himself in the downtown rock club scene, he was composing his first polyphonic mass, a Missa Brevis for chorus and organ; he points out that “the Sanctus of it is has almost an ‘80s pop ballad chord progression which comes from the Depeche Mode/Smiths/Howard Jones world I was living in during that period.”

Wachner holding a page of music manuscript with a electric keyboard and a bust of J.S. Bach on top to his left.

Wachner studying a score in his studio.

That 1987 mass, which appears on the Elora Festival Singers’ disc, sounds more secular than parts of his ethereal cycle of Rilke settings, Rilke Songs (2002), or even his 1998 E. E. Cummings-inspired cycle Sometimes I Feel Alive, despite their texts. (Both of which also appear on that recording.) For Wachner, finding the sacred in the secular is as important as finding the secular in the sacred. In fact, he believes there is a fluid continuity between the arts, the sciences, and religions—all religions. That multiplicity of perspectives is something he aspires to tap into as much as he can in anything he composes or performs.

My definition of sacred is so liquid that I am able to interpret everything in that direction in the same way I see everything as theater as well, how action follows action and produces some kind of response or result. … I’ve been drawing on not only the Judeo-Christian tradition but also Islamic, the Buddhist world, the Martial Arts, as well as the scientific. I’m also a Feldenkrais practitioner. For me embracing all that is available to us now is actually a sacred act. The gift of intelligence and curiosity and seeking is a God-given act, if you want to say that, or that humans are endowed with as part of our make-up.

Cover for Musica Omnia Wachner 3-CD set

Wachner’s “little c” catholic interpretation of faith is the inspiration behind all of the music that is featured on a 3-CD set devoted to his vocal and instrumental works released last year on Trinity’s own Musica Omnia label. The track list includes extremely flamboyant settings of psalms, a majestic symphony, and a powerful trumpet and organ duo, Blue Green Red, whose only immediate sonic relationship to sacred music is that it features a pipe organ. Also included is Wachner’s over-the-top arrangement of the ubiquitous “Joy To The World” by George Frederick Handel (a composer whose sacred and secular works he has frequently conducted and whose own balancing of the sacred and secular is perhaps the most famous compositional precedent for what he is doing).

Yet despite his own musical omnivorousness and his firm belief that any kind of compositional technique can serve both sacred and secular music, Wachner admits that he approaches sacred and secular music differently as a performer.

“In terms of musical language and compositional technique, I think it’s all available to both areas,” Wachner explains. “In terms of what’s off-limits, I haven’t really found that yet. I interpret work theatrically; I tend to do that with everything. But if I were to do a sacred work in a liturgical setting, I tend to downplay my physical performance. I do that to draw more focus to the specific theater of the liturgy and not the theater of me as performer. I tone down my gestures; it feels more appropriate to temper the extremities. For me temperance comes in the performance; in the creation of a piece of music, the possibility of using everything at my disposal adds to the ecstasy of it and those ecstatic moments are the high point.”

Wachner standing in front of seven framed portraits on a wall.

As the music director of Trinity Wall Street, Julian Wachner is part of a long lineage of music directors and vicars at the church. Pictured behind him are portraits of seven of Trinity’s previous vicars.

Alone At The Top: What Conductor Susanna Malkki’s Success Means—and What It Doesn’t

Conductor Susanna Malkki

Conductor Susanna Malkki
Photo by Simon Fowler

Watching Susanna Malkki conduct the Chicago Symphony was moving in an unexpected way. It was moving in the way that I imagine the Northern Lights might be moving, or the Great Pyramids. It was like seeing a natural phenomenon that I had heard about, read about, but never actually observed in the flesh. My God, I thought to myself, like a pilgrim who has finally arrived at the holy site. So this is what it’s like!


I have been a musician for twenty years, and before Tuesday night, I had never seen a woman conduct a great orchestra. And unless you count the string teachers in my public schools, I’ve never worked with a woman conductor myself.

So I suppose it makes sense that every time Malkki presided over a roaring crescendo during Tuesday night’s Chicago Symphony concert, I felt a rush of unexpected emotion. Because, for all my years of playing, the sound of an orchestral crescendo has been associated with the sight of a man’s body on the podium. For my entire life, the sounds of timpani and brass seemed to be born exclusively from the waving of a man’s arms. But I now have living proof that this isn’t the case. And it matters.

Malkki’s program—Debussy’s La Mer, the Stravinsky Violin Concerto with Leila Josefowicz, Thomas Adès’s …and all shall be well, and Sibelius’s suite from The Tempest —was one of the most interesting of the CSO’s season. The young couple next to me were excited, enthusiastic, and fully engrossed in the concert.
“She’s only the second female conductor I’ve ever seen,” the woman said after the Sibelius.
“Yeah. Besides Marin Alsop,” her date replied. There was a long pause.

“That’s so cool, though,” the girl said in a hushed and excited voice. “She’s really good.”
Malkki is really good. She has an alert, intense podium presence and a clear and lively technique. For much of the program, her touch was perceptibly light; her years in the collaborative environment of Ensemble Intercontemporain were evident. Malkki allowed the orchestra to play. They seemed relaxed; principal string players often smiled at her as she cued their entrances. The Stravinsky in particular was transparent and enthralling: there was a sense of absolute assurance between Malkki, Josefewicz, and the orchestra.

At intermission, I circulated in the lobby, hoping to overhear an interesting comment or two about Malkki. But her presence felt like a massively successful non-event. Response to the Stravinsky was overwhelmingly positive. People were drinking champagne. A woman was on the podium, and everything seemed to be in order.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mei-Ann Chen, conductor

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mei-Ann Chen, conductor
Photo by Todd Rosenberg

It is a testament to Malkki’s prodigious gifts that Chicago’s music critics wholeheartedly embraced her return to the CSO stage as they did her 2011 debut: with barely a whisper about her gender. Their focus, rightly so, was on the clarity and focus of her interpretive work and leadership. But I have no interest in pretending to be gender-blind. Malkki is unquestionably a master; she is also, statistically, a unicorn. In 2011, she became the first woman ever to conduct at La Scala; she remains the only woman who has. There is no sense in attempting to remove Malkki from her context: she is a brilliant musician who has rightly risen to the top of her profession, in spite of obstacles placed in her way by classical music’s persistent gender problems.
Alex Ross recently wrote about Marin Alsop breaking another glass ceiling at the Proms, and his welcome attention to the issue generated some thoughtful responses. But I find that the discussion over female conductors is often rife with false dichotomies. While one person despairs over how few female conductors there are, another protests that there are plenty and shows off a long list of them. While one person can point to misogynistic comments and despair, someone else can point to artists like Malkki and brightly insist that times are changing.

We could go down a rabbit hole of cultural differences, too. Why is it, for example, that fully half of the recently accepted conducting students at the Sibelius Conservatory in Malkki’s native Finland are women, while female doctoral conducting students remain a stubbornly small minority in the US?

Perhaps the most useful thing we can do as a society, and as a musical community, is to examine the causes of women’s low participation in conducting. Alex Ross’s most astute recent observation is that “the art of conducting is wrapped up in mythologies of male power.” At the moment, conducting and maleness seem almost inextricably linked. They aren’t, of course—but the deep historical and sociological bond means that women conductors may face subtle and complex challenges in rising to the top of the field.

As recent research out of Rutgers University shows, when women succeed at “male gender-typed tasks,” they are usually met with negative reactions that adversely affect their careers. We must also remember that there’s a likability tax paid by every successful professional woman. And in a music director role–on the podium, in the press, and at meetings with donors—likability is an extremely important factor.

Another major factor is the difficulty that female aspiring conductors may have finding role models and mentors who resemble them. A study from the University of Toronto, titled “Someone like me can be successful,” indicates that young women’s self-assessment is deeply impacted by the presence of a successful female role model. Without accessible role models, many young women literally cannot envision a life in conducting; for this reason, many talented potential conductors may never even consider the possibility.

Once a woman finally gets to the podium—no small thing in itself—we would also do well to consider sociologist Rosabeth Kanter’s research on tokenism in professional life. While the word “token” has some negative associations, Kanter used the term to refer to a minority that comprises less than fifteen percent of a workplace. Kanter’s work indicates that if you are a token minority—which women in high-level conducting absolutely are—you will endure three difficult conditions. First, you will be subject to unusually high scrutiny; second, you will have stereotypes attributed to you; third, your individuality will be compromised, and you will be viewed as a representative of the minority group.

So when the thought popped into my head that I didn’t care for the jacket Malkki was wearing, that was a perfect example of unusually high scrutiny. When we posit that female conductors are more collaborative and gentle than their male counterparts, this is a perfect example of attributing stereotypes to them. And when we conflate Malkki, Alsop, and Falletta—or even when we praise Malkki as evidence that “women can do this”—this is a perfect example of compromising the individuality of each artist, forcing them instead to Represent Women, to carry the mantle of Woman Conductor.

So in this thorny and difficult context—which we must acknowledge and actively fight against, in order to make things better—the example of Susanna Malkki is indeed a bright light.

This past Tuesday night she became, for me and probably for hundreds of other women in the audience, a role model. She steered expertly through the dangerous waters of programming, demeanor, wardrobe. She illuminated the music. She made us feel that success was possible for “someone like us.” And then, I imagine, she boarded a plane and flipped open a score, on her way to do it all again somewhere else.