Date: 13 June 2014
Author: Sanda Vişan
If it crosses your mind to ask people on the street to tell you the name of a strong woman, it is likely that one will be Simona Halep. Because the emotion felt during one of the most beautiful matches of the last decade at the Roland Garros edition, has electrified the Romanians, who suddenly felt themselves placed on the top of the pyramid: a symbolic victory, which is difficult or impossible to achieve in each other’s life.
They felt victorious, as they would have obstinately worked for almost 20 years in order for talent to become fruitful. As if the State would have invested in her athlete career in order for her to achieve international recognition. The governors rewarded Simona with the title of Ambassador for Romanian Tourism and the revenue office will probably tax it, like anywhere in the world.
If we would ask this question, let’s say, in full swirl of the recent economic crisis, the answer would have been probably Angela Merkel. For Germany has played and is still playing a key role in financial policies by means of which the European Union tried to improve the situation and that also had an echo Romanian citizens felt in their everyday life. Fortunately, there are strong women in other fields, too (fields with a lower visibility than sport and politics, however).
I met one of these women in 2013. She Canadian, she has her marriage residency in New York, but travels all over the world in order to do her professional activity – the art of conducting – as a hobby. Her name: Keri Lynn-Wilson.
She wears the outer insignias of the guild: black suit, which is generally meant to make the conductor’s back rather “invisible” in order for the audience not to be visually thrown away from the absolute pleasure of listening (it will be the case if that back would belong to Sergiu Celibidache, in which case we are talking about a full spectacular performance, called Rhapsody No. 1 in A major by George Enescu, as recorded in Bucharest and archived by the Romanian Television Network.
When one looks at Keri-Lynn Wilson occupying her place in front of the orchestra and professionally smiling towards the audience, one could still have doubts, as the appearance of a woman at the conductor’s desk is actually an unlikely thing to happen. However, once she carried up the baton with a very dynamic gesture one understands that she’s strongly determined to lead the ensemble. An opera ensemble, especially, because I’ve watched her conducting “Otello” at the Bucharest National Opera House during the “George Enescu” Festival. Than I got her five minutes while preparing, hurried, frantic, to get off her conductor costume, under the calm glance of her mother, a former English teacher at the University of Toulon, from whom Keri-Lynn Wilson would have probably learned the musicality of the English language that she speaks in a low voice. For in the field of pure music she would have entered under her father’s guidance, coordinator of public schools of music in Winnipeg and conductor of the Youth Orchestra in the city.
Sanda Vişan: Is it hard to be a female conductor in a professional environment dominated by men?
Keri-Lynn Wilson: First of all, conducting is one of the most challenging artistic professions.
S.V.: Why is that?
K.W. – Because I am not talking only about talent and musical skills, but especially about the ability of leading. Conducting is, more than anything, being a good leader. It takes somebody a lot of power of persuasion, energy and ability to communicate in order to make a sea of people sing as one. And this thing can’t be done by gestures only. In the auditorium, people are fascinated by how we move our arms and as me: how can you do that? In fact, one can gesticulate with one’s finger. The way you manage to get the orchestra to play together is due to the force of your presence, to your personality, charisma and emotional way of communicating. That being said, it doesn’t matter if you’re a male or a female, since musicality, talent and capacity of leading don’t depend on gender. The fact that women don’t usually make part of this field makes appearances of this kind to be something new for the audience. Actually, the orchestras are increasingly working with female conductors. It has become commonplace, greater than it was four decades ago, let’s say, when rarely one could see at the conductor’s desk. I must say I was the first female conductors to work with a wide range of orchestras, but this is not a problem to me or to the people of those orchestras.
In 1989, Keri-Lynn Wilson made her debut tin the music world as a flautist in the “Weill” recital hall of the famous Carnegie Hall, in New York. She was still a student of Juliard School and she was only 22 years old. Five years later she left this school with two master degrees, double specialization – flutist and conductor, as a recipient of the Bruno Walter scholarship. Kurt Masure and Leonard Slatkin contributed to her musical education. After graduation, she was the assistant of a great conductor, recently passed away in November, Claudio Abbado, at the Salzburg Festival and she also worked with Seiji Ozawa, in Tanglewood.
S.V. – What made you switch from flute to conducting?
K.W. – My desire to play all the instruments. I learned to play the violin, piano, flute and I wanted more. Conducting is a “monstruous” profession compared to instrumental interpretation. I like challenges and I think that conducting gives me much more satisfaction.
Over the last 25 years since she’s at the desk of the opera and symphonic music orchestra, Keri-Lynn Wilson must have feel content many times. She conducted various ensembles, such as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, where she was a conductor until 1998, when she launched her international career, being invited in Europe and America in outstanding institutions, such as the Staatsoper Wien and the Wiener Philharmonik, the Mariinsky lyrical theatre St. Petersburg and Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. She also conducted the orchestra ensemble of the Rome Opera with José Carreras and Andrea Bocelli alongside her, as well as the Symphonic Orchestra in Hong Kong, accompanied by great violonist Isaac Stern. Over the last few years, Keri-Lynn Wilson included in her agenda many performances in Eastern Europe. She was the first woman to ever conduct the Philharmonic Orchestra in Ljubljana, thus becoming its principal conductor.
When it comes to touring all over the world, Bucharest is also on Keri-Lynn Wilson’s map, as she conducted, a few years ago, “Eugene Onegin”and “Manon Lescaut” within the “George Enescu” Festival and she recently added to her portfolio “Don Giovanni” at the Opera in Iaşi.
At the 2013 edition of the “George Enescu” Festival, the performance of “Otello”, by Giuseppe Verdi, was conducted by two women: conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson and director Vera Nemirova. It was an “Otello” approached through contemporary eyes, ethnic conflicts and migration flows in the Mediterranean. A dramatic up-to-date version which sparked confusion among some spectators, unaccustomed to be so close to theatre concepts in the way German director of Bulgarian origin Vera Nemirova tackled them, since such approaches are more often practiced elsewhere, but, of course, what matters most is a coherent vision.
S.V. – It is not often you see on stage a conductor with such a profound expression like yours. You sang along with the performers the entire libretto.
K.W. – It helps them for the difficult parts. For example, this evening there was a new soprano on stage. It’s my way of inoculating them confidence, as it is important for them to convey every nuance and syllable in their expression. Otherwise, the chemistry between voices and orchestra is not working well. You must be very careful to the singers, it helps me and them in terms of breathing. And in opera it’s all about breathing.
S.V. – Is the Orchestra more important than the singers?
K.W. – No.
S.V. – During the performance of “Otello” I had the impression that the Orchestra sometimes sang louder than the singers.
K.W. – This is a danger that always stalks. The balance between the orchestra and what happens on stage must be accomplished carefully and when in comes to opera, this is a real challenge, since there is only one voice singing and a hundred musicians. Thus, it’s a big responsibility.
S.V. – Why did you choose “Otello” by Verdi? Why not Wagner, for instance?
K.W. – The organizers of the Festival have chosen because it was the anniversary year. Moreover, “Ottelo” happens to be one of my favourite opera compositions. I conducted it several times and I grew up with this opera. And yet, I’m nervous whenever I conduct it. It’s like every performance would be the first one. One never gets tired of great operas. Thus, when I was asked to conduct “Otello” I immediately accepted and Verdi’s compositions are among the works I have conducted most often. I like Verdi, I consider him to be one of the gods of opera. Like Wagner, whom you mentioned earlier. He represents the top echelon of opera. They both use the orchestra as an integral part of the drama. Therefore I sing along with the orchestra, it’s very important for me, it’s a great satisfaction in term of symphonic music.
These days Keri-Lynn Wilson is back in Bucharest to conduct the first performances of the new production of the Bucharest National Opera House, “Tosca”, by G. Puccini, directed by Alfred Kirchner.
It’s an opera that she has directed previously in Vienna, Munich, Nice, Arena in Verona, Moscow and Oslo and the audience in Bucharest will thus be able to enjoy the energy she generates when, in front of the conductor’s desk, she handles the emotional flows of the musical score. And she may perhaps reflect on the fact that in other places – on the Hudson River, particularly, it’s possible to be the wife of a manager (Metropolitan Opera in New York) and yet not to have your name written down on the payroll lists of the institution, though having built an international career so far.