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Conducting Herself Well : Music: Lara Webber, 25 and still a USC graduate student, is the first woman to lead the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra.

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It's taken some time, but Lara Webber, 25, says she finally has her priorities straight. Although a serious graduate student in the conducting program at USC, Webber has decided to forget about getting good grades and instead focus her energies on her new position as conductor of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra.

Webber, selected by national audition last June from among 35 applicants, is the first woman to lead the orchestra in its 39-year history. She is one of a growing number of women to serve as music directors in Southern California, following the lead of JoAnn Falletta (who has led the Long Beach Symphony since 1989), Lucinda Carver (now in her second season with the Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra), Laura Hemenway (Antelope Valley Symphony), Lois Johnson (San Fernando Valley Symphony) and Yvette Devereaux (former head of the Southeast Symphony, who is now putting together the Los Angeles-based Progressive Symphony).

The 65-member Debut Orchestra, formed under the auspices of the Beverly Hills-based Young Musicians Foundation, is composed of instrumentalists under the age of 26 selected by audition. Conducting alumni of the Debut Orchestra include Andre Previn, Michael Tilson Thomas, Lawrence Foster and Webber's predecessor, Daniel Hege, who has gone on to lead the Chicago Youth Symphony.

Webber has been hired for a three-year term to conduct a four-concert season--as well as a number of invitational concerts--at various venues in Los Angeles. For her services, she receives an annual $5,000 conducting study grant from the Lionel Newman Memorial Trust, administered by the BMI Foundation Inc., and a matching $5,000 grant from YMF.

"It's hardly imaginable still that I get paid to do this," said Webber, who will conduct her second concert of the season Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Japan America Theatre. The program will feature Ives' "The Unanswered Question," Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto, with Cameron Stone as soloist, and of significance to Webber, Beethoven's Sixth Symphony. Although she previously has rehearsed parts of the "Pastorale," this will be the first time Webber conducts the work in its entirety.

"I'm told by other conductors that it doesn't matter how far you are in a career, there is always the first time with a piece," Webber said. "The Sixth takes enormous study, but I feel I am ready to do it."

Daniel Lewis, who chairs USC's conducting studies program--he is on a sabbatical but continues to coach Webber privately--said he has cautioned his protege about the difficulties of the work.

"I have told her that it's not a great audience piece unless magical things happen," said Lewis, who is also music director of the USC Symphony. "But Lara is very dedicated and is extremely musical. She learns quickly and communicates immediately with the orchestra. She's a natural."

Webber first took conducting classes as a student at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, where she majored in vocal performance and music education. Initially, she entertained ideas of becoming a choral conductor, but she was encouraged by one of her teachers to envision herself rather as an orchestral leader who could move more easily into the choral arena.

Above all, Webber cites the musical influences surrounding her as a child in Seattle as the source of her creativity. She would often go to the Seattle Opera House with her mother, soprano Carol Webber, who appeared in a variety of roles with the Seattle Opera during a six-year period.

"I never had baby-sitters--I was always in the pit of the opera house," recalled the younger Webber, who as a child studied cello and piano. "I was constantly at rehearsals from age 8. I used to imitate conductors with my friends, but I had no desire to be one."

Striving to leave her mark, Webber said she is "flooding" herself with repertory and is zealously undertaking many of the organizational duties at YMF. Despite her schedule, she remains committed to having a personal life and is engaged to marry geologist and composer Julio Freidmann.

"I want to have a family," she said, "and I don't know how much that influences the way I envision my career. I am the kind of a person who requires a home and cherishes my own space. I will cherish my own family, and I want to be able to always return to the same home. I know some musicians whose careers are so overwhelming they actually are 'homeless.' I want to be a working conductor with the best players, but I don't want it to overwhelm my life."

* Webber will conduct the YMF Debut Orchestra on Feb. 20 at Pepperdine University, Malibu , and on April 25 at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena.

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