I wave my arms for a living. I’m a musician, but I don’t make any noise. How can this be? What exactly does a conductor do? And how did I stumble into it? I do consider myself a ‘legitimate’ musician, but really I am an enabler, a leader, and hopefully an inspirer.
Many people try to guess my instrument…so here is the truth revealed: I started the violin when I was two and a half, and the piano when I was five. I continued both throughout school. My California school didn’t have an orchestra, but I wanted to join something…my mom was still at that time a professional flutist, so she bought me a flute, gave me a few lessons, and sent me off to join the high school marching band, which was great fun. (My claim to fame was playing the piccolo solo in Stars and Stripes Forever).
I took an interest in conducting when I was in high school. I knew that my strength on the piano lay in interpretation and communication, not necessarily in pianistic technique, and I adored working with other musicians. I was decent on the piano - enough to gain a place at a top conservatoire, but I only went there because it was joined with an Arts and Science college, where I could take non-musical subjects that interested me. I took fascinating courses - Cognitive Psychology, Jewish Mysticism, and Art History. Apart from those studies, and my piano practice, I spent the rest of my time conducting - I’m not quite sure in fact, how I ended up with a piano degree, but I somehow managed it, and I’m thankful that I did. Piano skills are not only incredibly useful as a conductor, but I believe that one must achieve a certain level as a performer before turning around and waving your arms at them. One must be able to have empathy for a performer’s situation - the level of preparation, depth of musical exploration, and necessary processes required to perform at a high level, and what it feels like to perform at such a level. I took conducting classes at Oberlin Conservatory and sang in and conducted the choirs. Then, since clearly no one was going to hand me an orchestra on a silver platter, I put together my own ensembles - anything I could get my hands on. The first time I stood in front of an orchestra - conducting Mozart’s ‘Haffner’ Symphony - I knew that the ‘suit fit’ better than anything I’d tried on before, and I knew I could never look back. The conducting road has not been an easy one, and though I occasionally look over my shoulder, or down the road at intersections, I have never looked back.
I continued my studies at Northwestern University, and then as a Junior Fellow at the Royal College of Music, and founded and ran my own orchestra in London for ten years, which gave me valuable experience in running an orchestra from every possible angle, and also developed my skills as a fundraiser and an entrepreneur. I then secured my first professional jobs - at the Jerusalem Symphony, Houston Symphony, and Louisiana Philharmonic, all of which not only broadened my conducting experience through conducting and presenting concerts of the widest variety (community, family, education, classical, outdoors, etc.) but also taught me about orchestra administrations and the relationships between orchestras and their communities.
Back to the UK … and I started as Music Director of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Choral Society - I adore working with choirs, love the combination of words and music, and have greatly enjoyed the large-scale repertoire that this position has enabled me to perform.
I have always loved teaching, and have been lucky enough to work at the Royal Academy of Music’s junior department - where I have established a ‘Classical Orchestra’ dedicated to training young musicians in the music of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven - and at Royal Holloway University (RHUL), where I have established a new Orchestral Scholarship programme aimed at attracting students from all fields to come and study any subject whilst being able to participate in high-level orchestral activity. Also at RHUL, I have established a side by side programme that enables regular collaborations with the London Mozart Players, a Music + programme that will use music to stimulate cross-disciplinary projects with other departments, and I had the opportunity to organise and conduct a Magna Carta 800 at Runnymede - a concert for HM the Queen, other dignitaries and 4000 community leaders.
Meanwhile, I have continually developed my professional guest conducting profile - working with a wide variety of orchestras - from recording and performing an entire CD of CPE Bach symphonies on period instruments with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, to performing a new ‘cantata’ by Neil Hannon (Divine Comedy) at the Southbank Centre, to my BBC Proms debut with the BBC Concert Orchestra. I have since worked with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, City of London Sinfonia, and the London Mozart Players. After winning a conducting competition in Mexico, I conducted all the major Mexican orchestras and the ‘Teresa Carreño’ National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. I return frequently to the US - to orchestras such as the Huntsville Symphony, Reno Philharmonic, Bakersfield Symphony, the Chicago College for the Performing Arts and recently conducted the Nashville Symphony as part of the Bruno Walter National Conductor Preview.
In 2012 I started to develop my relationship with the Southbank Sinfonia, a relationship which I treasure and an organisation which I wholeheartedly admire. Together we have performed eclectic American repertoire, made our mark on classical bits of repertoire, and most recently started our crusade to include more female composers in the mix.
The 2017-18 season brings some returns to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the London Philharmonic, the development of my new position as Principal Conductor of the wonderful new Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia, and brings some debuts - in 2017 I debuted with the fabulous Uppsala Chamber Orchestra, and in 2018 will do so with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, Buffalo Philharmonic, and the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland.
So does all of that mean I know what I’m doing when I wave my arms? Well, after 20 years of professional conducting, I think I’m just about beginning to figure it out. You see, the concept of a young conductor is a strange one - because conducting is only about 10 percent arm-waving - the rest is about life, about people, about art. It’s about knowing the score from a hundred angles, it’s about applying life experience, other art experiences, and human interactions into creating and communicating a vision of a particular piece to the orchestra and, through inspiring the orchestra and getting them to listen to, communicate with, and lead each other, to communicate that vision to the audience and to move them in some significant way. Sounds easy, eh? I hope you’ll come this season and find out.
What do you love about classical music?
I love the structure, the narrative, and the varied orchestration and orchestrational contrasts of classical orchestral music.
What’s on your playlist right now?
Oooh, a bit of Bach (JS and CPE), bit of David Bowie, bit of Queen, some Martinu, Schumann, Stravinsky… and there’s always a bit of Beethoven hanging around….
Find out more about Rebecca here