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Conductor On the Trail of Musical Excitement

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Currently dividing her time between London and Washington, D.C., the conductor Anne Manson is clearly a woman on the go. Her personal demeanor, like her conducting, exudes a sense of purpose and intensity befitting someone who has caught international attention as a musical trailblazer: the first woman ever to conduct at the Salzburg Festival, one of just a handful of women to serve as music director of a major American symphony orchestra, and a passionate champion of contemporary and unduly neglected music.

Anne Manson

(Photo by Nick White)

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Since making her New York debut with the Juilliard Orchestra in an all-Ives program for the 2004 Focus! festival, Manson has conducted at Juilliard several times and returns this month for a Juilliard Orchestra concert on October 11 at 8 p.m. in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. The diverse program—emblematic of Manson’s penchant for the new and unfamiliar—includes recent works by Zhou Long and Jennifer Higdon, alongside Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C, K. 503.

The concert opens with Zhou’s The Rhyme of Taigu (2003), whose title refers to a large Chinese drum called dagu. The work uses percussion instruments to reconstruct the drum ceremonies of the Tang Dynasty. “This particular piece by Zhou Long actually reminds me a lot of Bartok,” Manson said in a recent telephone interview. “It’s a drumming tradition that originated in China but you see, when you listen, that bits sound a lot like Bartok and specifically like Miraculous Mandarin. So I was interested to put them on the same program.”

Commissioned by the Women’s Philharmonic, Jennifer Higdon’s Fanfare Ritmico (1999) has been warmly received by audiences throughout the country. In a review of its New York premiere on an American Composers Orchestra concert in April 2000 that also included works by Copland, Sessions, and Antheil, Barry L. Cohen of New Music Connoisseur wrote that Fanfare Ritmico “drew the most enthusiastic applause of the afternoon and demonstrated just how uneventful it has become to have a good, independent selection by a woman nestled in among three male heavyweights.” John Rockwell of The New York Times praised the work as “full of percussive boldness and ingenious rhythmic interplay.”

Manson, 46, takes a special pleasure in introducing audiences to new pieces music—especially at Juilliard. “I find contemporary music very exciting, discovering new works and playing them for people. I also find it very exciting to discover non-contemporary works that are not well known,” Manson says.

Manson recalls leading Ives’ rarely performed Fourth Symphony at the 2004 Focus! festival concert. “It was anamazing experience. I had never done it before, and I thought I might never get another chance.” She continues, “I was and still am occasionally overpowered by the young musicians I meet at Juilliard. In the Ives symphony, there’s a quotation from a Christmas carol played by a trombone. The first time I heard it, I wondered if I had ever heard such a beautiful sound on the trombone.” Manson pauses, then adds: “And every time he played it, I thought the same thing. I think working with young people reminds us of why we do this.”

Manson traces her own youthful experiences of music to her home in Cambridge, Mass., where impromptu chamber music with her sister and mother (an amateur pianist) were the norm. But she caught the orchestra bug during a class trip to Boston’s Symphony Hall. “When I was fairly young, I heard the B.S.O. play Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, and it was an amazingly powerful experience. It was one of the first times I heard the symphony, and it was the piece, as well as the performance, that had a huge impact on me. It’s an oratorio written during World War II, so the subject matter is very powerful, and he weaves in his own musical language with some spirituals that he sets for the chorus. I still admire the piece a lot, and I’ve done it myself.”

Despite a growing interest in music—with a background in piano and viola—Manson entered Harvard with plans for a career in medicine. “To be honest, I was always more interested in music than anything else, but it didn’t really seem to be a practical option for me. That was partly due to the fact that my parents weren’t musicians … so I didn’t really know where to begin with a career in music.”

At least, not until she won a prestigious Marshall Scholarship to pursue postgraduate studies in London, where she had the privilege of studying with conducting giant Norman Del Mar at the Royal College of Music—an experience she described as “extraordinary, but quite difficult! What he conveyed to the class, and what I got from him, was how detailed your knowledge of a score needs to be to bring it across.”

One of the landmarks of Manson’s early career was stepping in for Claudio Abbado to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in Boris Godunov at the Salzburg Festival in 1994. Manson had become Abbado’s assistant at the Vienna Staatsoper shortly after finishing her studies in London. A door was opened for her when she was asked to lead a rehearsal for Boris when Abbado had fallen ill.

Soon after, Manson’s name was suggested when the Salzburg Festival needed a conductor for a performance ofBoris that Abbado could not attend. When the director of the Salzburg Festival approached the orchestra about the possibility of engaging Manson to conduct the final performance of the opera, the orchestra enthusiastically agreed.

What was it like to be the first woman to conduct at the Salzburg Festival, at a time when there was not a single female member of the Vienna Philharmonic? “The fact that I had already done that rehearsal made the performance much less of a big deal for the orchestra. It was still a fairly big deal for me—just imagine!” Manson adds, laughing. “I had a very supportive concertmaster, which is incredibly helpful in those situations where you’re jumping in. For a conductor at the very beginning of a career, it was really an incredible experience to do a big piece like that with them.”

Manson made waves for women conductors again when she was appointed music director of the Kansas City Symphony, a position she held from 1999-2003. Prior to this appointment, she had met with an agent in New York to discuss opportunities to conduct more in the U.S. (her early career had been exclusively in Europe), and she received some sour advice. “He told me it was very unlikely I would ever get an appointment as a music director because orchestras are supported by mounds of volunteers, most of them women, who love to have a man to worship.”

It would seem that Manson was up against a lot since, at the time, she was not merely a woman conductor—she was also a pregnant one! But when she was invited to conduct in Kansas City, her experience turned the agent’s warning on its head. “Kansas City was the first engagement I had in this country, and they offered me the job almost immediately, and I found just the opposite. While there were an awful lot of volunteers, and they were indeed almost all women, they were thrilled by the idea of a female music director, and the fact that I had a young baby made them even more excited.”

Over the course of Manson’s career, she has witnessed a dramatic shift in views about women on the podium. She muses on her experience as the lone female student in Del Mar’s conducting class. “I’m not sure he really thought that women could conduct orchestras. I’m not sure he would have ruled it out, but it was not necessarily obvious [to him] that a young, female musician could become a professional conductor.” Now, Manson sees a bright future for women in conducting. “To say that women aren’t encouraged to pursue conducting is no longer true. It probably was the case some years ago, and that’s why you don’t see that many women at the peak of their form right now. I think that will probably change, and in the next 10 to 20 years, we’ll see more women as music directors.

“Why it has taken so long is a complex question. I think that people are very conflicted, musicians included, about the role of a conductor and of a music director,” Manson explains. “In musicians’ minds, there are often conflicts between wanting to have a listening ear from the music director and also having a director who is absolutely certain about what they want, because that certainty is a really important part of being a conductor. The role of a music director is in flux a little bit at the moment, and that may provide some opportunities that weren’t there before.”

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