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Conducting Herself as Anyone Would

Music: Elizabeth Stoyanovich, new at the Pacific Symphony podium, knows the score, and it has nothing to do with gender roles.


SANTA ANA — Elizabeth Stoyanovich is the first woman appointed to a conducting position in the 17-year history of the Pacific Symphony. But she isn't making a big deal out of it.

"I don't really see myself as a woman when I'm conducting," the orchestra's new assistant conductor said earlier this week in an interview at the Pacific's headquarters. "I don't think men think, 'I'm a man conductor.' They think about being a musician and trying to make the best they can of the ensemble as a collaborative team effort.

"I had all male teachers. I never had a woman conducting teacher. I never had a woman role model as a conductor. They were all guys. But I could translate that into what I needed. I could take the information and translate it."

Stoyanovich originally planned to be a professional oboist, not a conductor. She earned a master's degree in oboe performance at the University of Michigan and went to Tanglewood in 1986 to continue her preparation as an oboe fellow. Once there, however, she found a new calling.

"I saw those young conducting fellows, and I thought, 'I want to do that; I want to be in those shoes; I want to work with Leonard Bernstein.' I got to do that, later, in France," she said.

"I knew at that time I could either continue doing what I was doing or I could go into conducting and I would have to take a step back" in her studies.

"So that was the defining moment, when I went there and I said, 'I see what this is, and I love the oboe, and I love being an instrumentalist,' but I felt my calling was going to be in conducting."

So it was back to U of M to start conducting studies with Gustav Meier and subsequently Otto Werner-Mueller and Bernstein.

She served as one of two staff conductors at the Cincinnati Symphony for three years before taking the Pacific job. She started her duties here Aug. 1, among them conducting the orchestra's family concerts and leading the Pacific Symphony Orchestral Institute at Cal State Fullerton and the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra at the Orange County High School of the Arts in Los Alamitos.

She succeeds Edward Cumming, who took the same job with the Pittsburgh Symphony following three years with the Pacific. She's scheduled to make her debut on the Pacific's podium Nov. 9 at family concert performances of Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf."

Stoyanovich said that from the very beginning, "I was attracted to the whole process of making music, not just my part. I was interested in the dynamics of the group and the study of scores and learning the literature and all these kinds of things you don't have to worry about as an oboist."

She was the youngest of three children and got her values from her parents: her biology PhD father (working for a pharmaceutical company in their hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich.) and her mother, who "sang in every choir in the town [and] who taught me at the very beginning how to read music," she said.

Her brother, Robert, now 37, is a social worker in Northern California, and her sister, Margaret, 36, is an orthopedic surgeon.

"We were encouraged to dream and to develop our talents, but we were also required to be well-rounded and to try to understand the world as best we could."

For Stoyanovich, that has meant coming to terms with the way conducting has changed since the days of the great autocrats like Toscanini.

"There were times when Toscanini would go into these raving fits, throw down his baton and walk off stage. We don't have time to do that. We really don't," she said. "Because it costs too much money. You're wasting the time of the musicians, the management and the hall, the staff, all these people.

"You have to find ways to communicate, to work with the musicians in a contemporary sense, in a professional, business sense, in as respectable a way as possible to get them to play up to their highest ability."

To do that, she said, "you come prepared, No. 1. Second, you have to be engaged in it. There has to be a fire in your belly."

But how much personal fire can an assistant conductor express? "The job of the assistant conductor is to support the music director," Stoyanovich said. "That's my main job."

That means, for instance, taking notes at rehearsals about how music director Carl St.Clair conducts a piece "so if something happens and he's stuck somewhere in an airport, I've got to walk on stage and conduct, and it's got to be as close to what his ideas were [as possible]."

"That's my job. Because I'm covering for him. Because I'm an assistant. I'm not the music director. I have to help him make his vision come true."

She will have more latitude in her roles at the orchestra's institute and youth ensembles, but even there, "obviously, I don't want to go against the grain of the philosophy of what Mr. St.Clair is trying to do. But in terms of me using my own rehearsal time, I've got to find ways to get musicians to do their best.

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