Tuesday, 25 March 2008—SanFranciscoClassicalVoice.Org
By Janice Berman

Conducting a Career

Like freelancers in other fields — journalism comes to mind — Laura Jackson, one of the six finalists in the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra’s search for a music director to succeed Kent Nagano, flies in, forges bonds, does her job, and moves on. What she’d like to do is find a place where she can stay.

From 2004 to 2007, Jackson, 40, was assistant conductor at the Atlanta Symphony, where she was also an American Conducting Fellow, the League of American Orchestra’s program for promising young conductors. She made her first conducting visit to California in February, filling in at the Sacramento Philharmonic at the suggestion of Michael Morgan, who had to conduct in Buffalo.


Laura Jackson on the podium

“California is so awesome,” Jackson said by phone from her home in Ann Arbor. Her BSO tryout brings her back for two concerts exploring myth and literature: “Under Construction” on March 30 at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, featuring works by the symphony’s three composers in residence, and a second, more formal affair April 2 at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, where she conducts Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. She’s chosen to conduct two additional pieces by international prize-winning composer and singer Susan Botti: The Exchange, scored for tenor and harp and set to a luminous poem by May Swenson; and Translucence, a symphonic setting of The Exchange.

And then she waits, since this search will not end until December of next season, after finalists four through six have had their turn. But Jackson will not be letting the grass grow under her feet, nor her baton molder. The day after the Berkeley gig, “I run off to Florida,” she says, to lead the Boca Raton Philharmonic Symphonia. See her Web site for a taste of Jackson’s busy schedule: She started this season as guest conductor of Michael Tilson Thomas’ New World Symphony in Miami, then crisscrossed the country with stops in Texas, Montana, New York, Michigan, Wyoming, and Alabama, before ending back in Atlanta in May.

Itinerant conducting is “an adventure,” says Jackson. “All you can do is prepare for a spontaneous interaction. You can’t prepare a rehearsal. All you can do is know the music well, and be very open, and centered enough to take care of business. You need to figure out when an orchestra might need you, and when they don’t. It keeps it very fresh.

“It’s almost like a blind date,” she says. “That intimacy is what keeps me in it.”

Jackson began as a violinist, moving from public school in upstate New York to the North Carolina School of the Arts, and then to Indiana University, where her degree in performance was derailed by tendonitis of the wrist. Jackson went home to her parents, who had moved to New Hampshire, and, having recovered enough to teach violin and freelance in Boston, began conducting on the side.
The Power of Vulnerability

“The first time I conducted a professional orchestra, I was so amazed at how direct the communication was,” she recalls. “I had nothing in my hand except a stick. The vulnerability of that interaction! You have to give that vulnerability back to the audience. At the time, I was studying a lot of tai chi. And there’s something about the tai chi way of drawing energy from the earth — emptying yourself out, and letting the energy flow through you. I found it beneath my feet. It was just wonderful in a whole new way.”

Orchestras, she says, have personalities just like people. “Sometimes there’s a better chemistry than others. What is wonderful is that human souls are human souls. The basics of music are pretty universal.” When she was on a conducting fellowship in Xian, China, in 1998, “I would get up there and speak a few words of Chinese, and they would crack up. We would communicate through universal gestures, and through a little bit of Italian. So much is universal. They intuit the music the way people do in Wyoming,” she says.

Wherever she lands, “What I try to do is be clear, so that they’ll feel comfortable enough to play. Gosh, I hope it’s more than that,” she reflects. “I guess what’s most important to me is that the music is vibrant and alive, that no matter what piece it is, it’s still a very contemporary commentary. Music helps us process the life experience, the experience of death, helps us reflect on our society.”

Few experiences in life, she says, call upon people to be “as present as we have to be in a symphonic concert in order to get anything out of it. It’s so amazing that people get together and create beauty that lasts only the second it’s generated.”
The Woman Thing

The big question, always, is her experience of being a woman conductor, though she finds it hard to answer it, because “I’ve never woken up and been anything but a woman. I don’t think I’ve knowingly hit up against any walls yet,” she says. “I choose not to credit any failure of mine to gender, because if I lose an audition and I decide it’s because of my ability, I can work harder and I can improve. If not, there’s nothing I can do about it. I use everything as an opportunity to get better at what I do.”

She seems to be doing fine. Reviewers in Atlanta, Boston, and Sacramento have been lavish in their praise, and the opportunities have come thick and fast. One of her favorites was the Taki Concordia Fellowship, a week working with Marin Alsop, now music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, on Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet at the Colorado Symphony.

“It was great fun to work and chat with her,” she says. “She had tons of experience and wisdom. What was great was, she would say things no male conductor would ever take the risk of saying. [About] my left hand — which academically is used for dynamics, articulation, and expressiveness — she said, ‘Your left hand is just way too girly.’

“What was fun, too, is, I just so often get the question, What do you wear? It’s that women are so far from many people’s vision of what a conductor is, a Toscanini, with the wild hair and the tuxedo, so the first thing I asked Marin was, ‘What do you wear?’ She’s been a wonderful mentor to me. She’s definitely done what no woman has done. If there’s a glass ceiling, she’s pushed it.”

And what does Jackson wear? She laughs. “I have two tuxedos, but they’re women’s suits. One has a longer jacket and one has a shorter jacket. I used to wear a long skirt, but I was worried about catching my heel.”

Jackson is one of two female candidates in Berkeley, and she is the only one among six music director finalists at the Fairfax Symphony in Virginia, which will also make its pick in time for the 2009 season. To make the final cut at Berkeley, she sent in a resume, references, and an audition tape and answered written questions. Her resume, incidentally, includes a bachelor’s degree in music history from the University of New Hampshire, and a master’s degree and a doctorate in orchestral conducting from Michigan. She was a Seiji Ozawa conducting fellow at Tanglewood.

And it all started, she says, in the sixth grade in Plattsburgh, New York, on the shores of Lake Champlain. “I went to a little one-corridor elementary school, but it had a music teacher, and they put a violin in my hands,” she says. It’s why she believes music education is just as important as subscription concerts. “It’s the future. It’s crucial.” As is engaging and growing an audience. And multimedia interests her.

“Why not have a collaborative thing, an artist who designs a lighting sculpture. Not something that would move or distract — something where you can ruminate visually. Or, why can’t concerts be more theatrical? What if we had a screen that shows the keyboard with fingers flying around” during a piano concerto? She also believes in talking from the stage — not for every piece, but now and then. “You can establish a personal connection,” she says.

Her first conducting experience was with the Nashua (N.H.) Chamber Orchestra. “We rehearsed in the biography section of a public library, and we built that institution into a thriving orchestra,” she says. “They really taught me the power of music. It was all-volunteer. We had a young man who was 12 years old, people above age 70, a famous chemist, a grocery-store clerk, a car mechanic.” What struck her was “how much they needed it, how much they needed to come on Tuesday nights to that public library to do that. They really loved it. And then over the years, how we, together, developed a vision, and figured out how to increase the concert series and increase the audience size.”

So, when Laura Jackson lands, once and for all, as a music director somewhere — she’s also a finalist in Reno, Nev., and Ithaca, N.Y. — she hopes for “synergy between the orchestra and me. Do we have the potential to make something together that can change the landscape of a community? And then I will revel in the challenge.”

Senior Editor Janice Berman assigns and edits features for SFCV. She was previously editor in chief of Dance Magazine, and an editor and senior writer at New York Newsday.

©2008 By Janice Berman.

Permalink to Original Article