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Steiner Leads By Example

May 18, 1997|Daniel Cariaga | Daniel Cariaga is The Times' music writer

Conductor Frances Steiner is often called upon to offer career advice to young female musicians. She is, after all, the first woman to lead an orchestra--the Glendale Symphony, in 1977--in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

So what does she say to girls who want to follow her onto the podium?

"I tell them, 'Go for it. But have a Plan B.' "

Tonight at 7:30, Steiner will once again lead the Glendale Symphony, this time in its May program at the Alex Theatre. In addition to more than 20 years conducting both the Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay and the Carson-Dominguez Symphony, the Glendale gig seems to prove that Steiner's advice is worth following.

Her own career was less a matter of design than serendipity--and talent. But as it turned out, her Plan B was playing the cello.

Steiner began her musical studies in 1945 at age 8, as a prodigy at the Curtis Institute, and she ultimately studied performance as well as composition and conducting at both Curtis and Temple University.

In those days, Steiner recalls, "My role model, even though we didn't think in terms of role models, was Elaine Page"--the nationally known leader of the choral department at Temple.

Later, Steiner's cello playing took her to Fountainebleu summer camp outside Paris on a scholarship, where she continued her conducting and composition studies with the legendary Nadia Boulanger. In 1958, she got a master's degree at Harvard under composer Walter Piston.

"I rode my cello into lots of opportunities," she says now, including the Glendale Symphony. Steiner had been principal cellist of the orchestra for several years when she was tapped as Carmen Dragon's unofficial assistant conductor. She served in that capacity until Dragon's death in 1984, and it was in that role that she conducted in the Pavilion. Later, she was Daniel Lewis' official assistant conductor; then came the head job, in 1973, at the now-defunct Compton Symphony, and a few years later, at the two ensembles she still leads.

Now, she says, for female conductors, "progress is still being made, and many more women are at the helms of American orchestras. In the '70s, they were community orchestras. Today, they are larger, more visible, regional symphonic organizations."

Steiner's program tonight lists Rossini's "Gazza Ladra" Overture, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," with former L.A. Philharmonic concertmaster Sidney Weiss, and, with 12-year-old violinist Howard Zhang, Lalo's "Symphonie Espagnole."

Steiner says she chose the program according to an old conductor's dictum, no matter the gender: "I try to use the talents of the players I have now.

"This orchestra," she says, "can play this music stunningly."

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