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Conducting Herself Accordingly

Sian Edwards has leaped the twin hurdles of gender and youth to become a role model for female conductors.

March 30, 1997|Barbara Isenberg | Barbara Isenberg is an occasional contributor to Calendar

LONDON — When Sian Edwards started out, there were so few female conductors, she had to find musical role models elsewhere. "I was tremendously inspired by women who pushed themselves," she says, ticking off a few unexpected heroines. "Bette Midler's 'Stay With Me, Baby' is a great example of somebody giving 100%, and Tina Turner is an incredibly generous, high-energy artist."

Edwards, at 37, is today something of a role model herself. In 1988, she was the first woman to conduct at Covent Garden and, a few years later, the first woman hired as music director at the English National Opera (ENO). She would have been the first woman to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Music Center in 1991 had a scheduling change not sent Marin Alsop to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage two weeks earlier.

According to Edwards, who will be back at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Friday through next Sunday, female conductors are "still rare enough to be commented upon."

They also still face gender-related hurdles.

"How do you manifest authority?" she asks. "When you have a problem is when you suggest a way you'd like something to be played, and musicians disagree. When there's a man on the box, it's taken more easily."

Then again, Edwards says, youth can be more of a problem than gender. "Orchestras are hierarchal institutions," she points out, "and especially being young, I have to be aware of that formality. There is an artificial barrier between the orchestra and conductor. You have to respect the distance each needs and hope you don't lose your own spontaneity and character."

Not Edwards. Dressed in jeans, hiking boots and pullover sweater, the red-haired musician looks like someone who would be as comfortable at Wembley Stadium, where she saw Turner last summer, as in an opera pit.

Edwards shares a London flat with her husband, music historian Ian Kemp, and their 5-year-old son, Finn, though the family plans a move to rural Sussex where the conductor was born. In her study, shelves of books include titles on yoga and feminism as well as musical scores and biographies of composers.

Edwards began her musical career playing French horn. Then, after putting together a band in high school that played the music of Glenn Miller, the Electric Light Orchestra and more, she began writing arrangements and conducting. At the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, she concentrated on the French horn but did postgraduate work in conducting.

Impressed with the skills of Estonian conductor Neeme Jarvi, with whom she studied briefly in Holland, she followed his example and headed to the Leningrad Conservatory. "In Britain they felt conductors were born, not made," Edwards says. "Training was anathema to the state, which felt talent was a divine gift. Any talent is a gift, but it has to be nurtured."

In Leningrad, where her teacher was A.I. Musin, it was very different. "Professional orchestras were available daily to play for the conducting students. In this country, you were expected to know before you were taught, but there you weren't expected to learn until you were taught. It takes a long time to find the way to do things and, in Russia, I was given that time."

She was also given a specialty of sorts. Edwards says she had only "a vague interest" in Russian composers prior to her studies at the Leningrad Conservatory, but her musical selections and assignments would come to reflect her training. The Sunday Telegraph, for instance, praised Edwards' conducting of Prokofiev's "The Gambler" at her ENO debut in the 1989-90 season, noting both her pacing and "how much at home she is in 20th century Russian music."

Edwards won the prestigious Leeds Conductors' Competition in 1984. She made her operatic debut in 1986 (subbing for Simon Rattle on "Mahagonny" at the Scottish Opera), and spent the late '80s and early '90s in opera houses and on podiums around the world.

She conducted at the Royal Opera two or three times a year; she appeared at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, with the London Philharmonic, the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and the Ensemble Modern, among others. Her Haydn was praised in Pittsburgh, her Shostakovich in England, and her L.A. debut was credited as "a major musical event."

That same year, the English National Opera twice approached her about taking on the job of music director. Once her son was born, she decided that she liked the idea of being rooted in London. And, she says, "I was immensely flattered to be asked."

Edwards assumed the ENO job in August 1993, joining ENO's new general director, Dennis Marks. The two were novices at running an opera company and, for Edwards, who earned mixed reviews during her tenure, it only lasted until 1995.

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