Sunday, 10 July 2005—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
also Cox News Service
By Pierre Ruhe
ASO conducter makes podium work for her
ATLANTA — "I lack role models" is how Laura Jackson puts her unusual career choice into perspective.
But the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's 37-year-old conducting fellow insists she is not a pioneer. "Enough maestra have come before me to de-mystify the field, at least for musicians."
Still, she notes, "a lot of people can't wrap their heads around the image of a woman conductor. They'll ask, 'What do you wear?' and 'How do you hold the baton?' They literally have no vision of what it looks like."
In concerts this week, Jackson conducts her highest-profile ASO concerts to date. A petite woman with sharp features and puckish eyebrows, she leads the first weekend of the "Made in America" series.
She's hardly the first female to lead the ASO. In recent years, Marin Alsop — a frequent guest on the international circuit, formerly in charge of Denver's midsize Colorado Symphony — has been a regular Atlanta visitor.
Jackson, still in her formative years, gets high marks. "I was enormously impressed with Laura," says Alsop, who coached her in a weeklong session last year. "She's highly intelligent and adapts quickly to new musical ideas. On a personality level, she's non-defensive, which works to her advantage in this profession."
ASO cellist Jere Flint, who also conducts the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, says Jackson is the real thing. Her beat is exceptionally clear and, once she's on the podium, the players don't think about her gender. "Her style is personal to her," Flint says. "For a conductor, the early years are spent imitating other conductors before you're able to put a unique stamp on the music. Laura is still finding her own voice, but she was clearly the best of the [fellowship] candidates that we saw, male or female."
As an aspect of the much-discussed "glass ceiling," female conductors are far behind other leadership positions. Among Fortune 500 companies, women have cracked the CEO ranks: There were eight in 2004.
The lid is off for arts administrators, with ASO President Allison Vulgamore and her female peers at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, San Francisco Opera and others. The numbers are similar for concertmasters, where several women hold their orchestra's top violinist job, including the ASO's Cecylia Arzewski. Among rank-and-file orchestral musicians in major ensembles, women comprise almost half the work force.
Yet the number of women music directors in the history of the biggest 24 U.S. orchestras (with budgets over $10 million) is zero. Women have guest-conducted these elite institutions, but none has ever been appointed to the marquee job. (With a $29 million budget, the ASO is in this group.)
Surveying the second tier — the top 75 orchestras, with budgets over $2 million — four ensembles boast female music directors, including Santa Barbara, Calif., Buffalo, N.Y., and the Virginia and Maryland symphonies.
The persistent dearth of podium equality is often blamed not on the musicians or even the ticket-buying public, but on orchestras' notoriously risk-averse boards of directors — the wealthy donors who hire the music director.
"The classical music world is more tradition-bound than most," argues Michael Lawrence, who directs the American Symphony Orchestra League's fellowship conducting program. "There's still an attraction in some quarters to the old European maestro image. It wasn't so long ago that even American men weren't on the [music director] list."
Another element, says ASO president Vulgamore, is that "the steppingstone process has greater depth in most other leadership jobs. You can be on the city council before running for mayor. There is no prerequisite for a conductor, but once you get on the podium no one will quibble with a job well done."
Looking too 'girly'
Born in a family that wasn't particularly musical, Jackson started playing the violin in fourth grade in public school. Precocious and disciplined, she packed up for high school at the North Carolina School for the Arts while her family remained in a small town in upstate New York.
"On my own, I was a little nutty," she recalls. "I felt so far behind because of where I was from. I'd be at the door at 5 a.m. waiting for the janitor to open up so I could get to the practice rooms. I made astronomical progress as a violinist, but at a physical price" — repetitive stress tendinitis, a painful forearm and wrist ailment that she battled for 15 years.
At Indiana University, a mecca for budding fiddlers, she doubled her regimen — till her right arm gave out. At 21, with no backup plan, she quit college and returned to her parents' home, now in New Hampshire.
"My whole life I'd focused on this goal, and then my arms stopped working," she remembers. "When I got home, I rebelled from music school. I started working on cars, a Zen experience. I had a really cool puke-yellow '71 Dodge Dart with olive-green interior. It felt like the opposite of playing the violin."
One operation and several new, less rigid teachers later, she returned to the instrument. She eventually graduated from the University of New Hampshire, and along the way taught violin and played free-lance gigs up and down Boston's vibrant music scene.
Jackson had taken a few conducting classes at Indiana, but in 1988, on a lark, she auditioned for the job of conductor for the Nashua (N.H.) Chamber Orchestra, a community-based amateur group. She remembers feeling "ridiculous" when she auditioned against better-trained candidates. She won the job anyway and stayed 8 years, building valuable experience.
With a new focus, she returned to school — including a class with ASO Music Director Robert Spano — won several awards and remade her life. She completed her University of Michigan doctorate earlier this year....
Jackson came to the ASO last fall as a "conducting fellow," up to three years on a nonrenewable contract. The American Symphony Orchestra League, a New York-based service organization, funds her $30,000 salary.
Her ASO duties are varied, including the innovative "Symphony 360" concerts. She's also the so-called "cover" conductor for all main season concerts. For these, she has to learn every piece on every concert and be prepared to jump in if the scheduled conductor cancels at the last minute.
Among Jackson's awards was the Taki Concordia Fellowship, in Denver. The prize: a week of coaching with Alsop, followed by concerts.
"Marin said to me things no guy could say," Jackson chuckles. " 'Your left hand looks too girly!' or 'Elbows down, you look like a ballerina!' It's the same as 'you throw like a girl' — it's the way I was socialized, to move in a certain graceful, feminine style that isn't effective. What musicians want is a clear downbeat."
At the same time, mimicking a man's style doesn't always fly, either. "Strong, intense gestures — the sort of moves Spano makes all the time — make me look brittle. I'm built differently, which can be a problem for some male teachers."
That's where role models come in. "There are a different set of interpretive gestures for a man because society judges them differently," says Alsop. "If a person makes delicate movements, a woman is seen as frilly whereas a man is sensitive. We need to de-genderize our physical movement, so your strengths aren't related to your gender."
For her part, Jackson says, "If you avoid your femininity, you cut off an asset. It's not about male or female traits, it's about ideas and psychology, and finding ways to communicate."
Pierre Ruhe writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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