Conducting a Path to the Future
Sunday, October 2005—Atlanta Woman Magazine 4:7, pp. 52-53
By Judith Schonbak

“It’s not about me. It’s about the music. When I stand on the podium, there is nothing in my mind or being but the sound of the first note… That’s the place where the music is flowing htrough and I am a conduit. I am all about the music.” So says Maestra Laura Jackson, the young conductor who is working with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (AS) under music director Robert Spano as a conducting fellow, a two- to three-year program sponsored by the American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL).

Jackson is in rare company in the world of orchestral conducting. It is one fo the last bastions of male domination. But the gates have been breached. This past July, Marin Alsop, 48, made history when she was named to lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She is the first woman conductor of a major American orchestra. Laura Jackson, at the ASO, has the role, if not the title, of assistant music director. And nother of the four fellows in the inaugural ASOL program is also a woman, Joana Carneiro, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

The gender balance has changed dramatically among orchestral musicians in recent years. It was once a men-only club, but today women make up nearly half of the players, and they are winning top seats as well. At the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Cecylia Arzewski claims the concertmaster first violinist position. Christina Smith is the principal flutist for the ASO, now in her 15th season with the orchestra, she has seen the shift in the number of women musicians.

Laura Jackson is in the vanguard. In the opinion of many who have worked with her, she has what it takes. Among those supporters are Alsop, Spano, Jesse Rosen at the ASOL, and a host of musicians and conductors, not to mention the judges of the numerous awards, fellowships, and coaching opportunities she has captured. “Laura is a terrific person overall,” says Alsop. “She is interested, curious, and wonderfully receptive to criticism. She is able to establish a good rapport with the musicians [in the orchestra]. I was impressed.”

In spring 2005, Jackson won a week of study with Alsop throught the Taki Concordia Fellowship, a fellowship the maestra established that is geared toward women conductors. She worked with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, sharing the podium with Alsop on a subscription series. Says the ASO’s Smith, who has played under any number of conductors, including Alsop, “Laura is a very talented conductor. Her beat is clear. She balances the orchestra and brings out what is important, and she has a sense of the style of the composers. In addition, Laura has a real gift for speaking to the audience about music.”

Conducting—no matter the gender—is a demanding profession. In the words of Rosen, vice president and chief program officer for ASOL, the job description of a conductor/music director “demands knowledge of a large repertoire, musical style, history and performance practice and highly developed analytical and aural faculties.” On the podium, it is multitasking at its highest level. It means that while each musician must know his or her particular part, it is the conductor who knows all the parts and brings them together to create beautiful music.

There’s more. Writes Rosen, the conductor as a music director “sets the orchestra’s artistic agenda [with] imaginative and balanced programming, developing the taste and knowledge of the audience and stretching the abilities of the ensemble.” He adds that the conductor must be able to express the orchestra’s aspirations to diverse audiences, lead educational initiatives and, by keeping a finger on the pulse of the musicians, promote and ensure the artistic growth of the orchestra. It is a job only for the brave-hearted.

From the Ranks to the Podium

Music has driven much of Laura Jackson’s 37 years. She took the prerequisite piano lessons as a youngster and loved it. In fourth grade, she turned to the violin, and in that instrument, found the “voice of her soul,” she says. Going into high school, she left her home in a small upstate New York  town to attend the North Carolina School for the Arts to further her music studies.

Jackson went on to Indiana University, known for its outstanding violin program. She was in her element. Never mind that her right arm was ailing with tendonitis and forearm and wrist problems. “I was totally intending to be a professional violinist,” she comments. But a subtle path to the future opened up at Indiana. As an undergraduate, Jackson took courses in orchestral literature and music. “It taught me to look at the whole score [of a work] and interpret the composer’s intent.” She was hooked. “Every time I approached their work, I felt that I was brushing up against their genius. It was a powerful feeling. Conducting fascinated me. I really took to it.”

The arm problems put a temporary stop to her musicial pursuit, and she left school at 21. Jackson graduated from the University of New Hampshire, and for about 12 years worked as a freelance violinist in Boston and commuted to New Hampshire to teach violin, viola, and orchestral studies and conduct the community Nashua Chamber Orchestra.

Her experience on the podium cemented her desire to become a conductor. Leaving her career behind, in 2000 she went after—and won—one of the few spots in the prestigious program at the University of Michigan School of Music. After completing her master’s degree, she entered Michigan’s Orchestral Conducting Doctoral Program and grauated in April this year. Along the way, she was named music director of the University of Michigan’s Life Sciences Orchestra and garnered a number of awards and invitations, including a chance to conduct at the Aspen Music Festival and two consecutive years (2002, 2003) as a conducting fellow at the renowned Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts.

That put Jackson in the international spotlight and won her glowing reviews. It was her talent and promise, ASOL matchmaking and good chemistry that brought the young conductor to the ASO in September 2004. Of the nearly 300 applicants for the ASOL’s first American Conducting Fellows Program, she was among the four selected to be placed with a major U.S. orchestra after an arduous yearlong competitive application and review process for both the conductors and orchestras. Jackson clicked with the ASO. There is a chemistry,” comments Smith. “Laura has great support from the musicians.”

Notes Jackson, “I am challenged to operate at 120 percent. As much as 90 percent of that is sheer hard work. I have to deliver. I have a job to do. I am just beginning to work at the pro level. I love it.” She has the eyes of the industry on her, and she is at a place that will have a lot to do with her future. There is little question that Laura Jackson will deliver. Let the music begin.

Maestra, the downbeat, please.

Copyright 2005 Atlanta Woman