Sunday, 07 November 2007—Ithaca Times
By Jane Dieckmann

Taking the Podium


Laura Jackson, who is called "a consummate musician who creates stunning performances with orchestras" by a colleague and "a conductor to watch" by Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer, will be leading the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra in the second concert of its "conductor search" season. One of four candidates under consideration for appointment as the new CCO musical director, she will conduct the orchestra in works by old friends Handel and Schubert, along with a clarinet concerto by the virtually unknown English composer Gerald Finzi. The concert takes place at 8pm, Saturday, Nov. 17, at Ithaca College's Ford Auditorium.

Laura Jackson, who has never been to Ithaca before, is really looking forward to her visit here and to meeting the orchestra. A whirlwind schedule is planned for the week leading up to the concert, including receptions, meetings, a master class, not to mention rehearsals with her fellow musicians.


Photo of Laura

She starts with a reception at the Clinton House for subscribers, the orchestra board, and the community. She is especially pleased about the master class with three high school students (ages 14-18), two cellists and a violinist. "I just love it that they are having me do things in the community." The class, on Thursday afternoon at Ithaca College, is open to the public.

Jackson's visit to Ithaca is one of eleven conducting engagements this season, and she brings with her outstanding training and experience. Aside from the usual academic degrees, a BA in music history, and the MM and DMA in orchestral conducting, she has participated in classes and institutes at places as far-ranging as Tanglewood, the Aspen Music Festival, and the Conductor's Institute of Xian, China. She has shared the podium with the "amazing" Marin Alsop, the recently named leader of the Baltimore Symphony. Best of all, she was among the first four American Conducting Fellows (selected in 2004 from more than 350 applicants) in a new program designed by the American Symphony Orchestra League program to fill the gap between learning to "wave your arms" and getting a professional job. Her two-year fellowship was extended to three years and combined with the job of assistant conductor at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. So she has, as she put it, "a fair amount of experience," and that orchestra has invited her back for next spring.

Jackson's first serious musical training was the violin, and for a while she played in orchestras. But she found herself distracted by other sections and listening to the orchestra textures and colors and decided she really wanted to conduct. So it was back to school and advanced study at the University of Michigan.
As for the program with the CCO, the Handel Concerto Grosso is "going to be fun." Her first conducting job was a chamber orchestra, and she did it then. She describes it as a lively and varied "conversation" between the small group of two violins and a cello versus the larger orchestra. The Schubert symphony, with its ominous C-minor opening, was named "The Tragic" by the composer himself. It's his first symphony in a minor key, Jackson explains, and a really new thing for him. With beautiful melodies, it is a "charming piece."

The highlight of the evening could well be the Finzi clarinet concerto, which was composed following World War II. Michael Galván, the orchestra's principal clarinet (and, incidentally, the only first chair who does a solo with the orchestra this season), considers it at the top of his favorites list. "The first time I heard it," he told me, "I fell in love with the piece." Scored for clarinet and string orchestra, the concerto shows off the strings beautifully, he feels, and "we are more than equal partners." The music, somewhat in the English pastoral tradition, has elements of joyousness combined with poignant heartache about the recent war. There is both a "lush" texture and real "spice" in these beautiful melodies. Remarkably conductor Jackson and soloist Galván - who have yet to meet each other - used the same two words when describing the piece. This promises to be a special collaboration.

When asked about coming to conduct an orchestra she has not met yet, Jackson told me that she would of course prepare the music, but she understands well that this is a collaboration, and you are meeting your other half. Here is an orchestra with traditions and a special pride, and you must take in the reality of that ensemble. "It's like a blind date. You have to work together to find a way to communicate both verbally and musically. It's a gamble, but a fun one."

It sounds like an interesting challenge for the audience too, as the orchestra continues on its search. Listeners will be asked to complete and submit an evaluation. But don't forget to enjoy the music.

For further information about the schedule of events surrounding Laura Jackson's visit, call the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra office at 273-8981, or visit

Copyright 2007 Ithaca Times