Take it from the Top

By Hannah Wallace February 1, 2010

asset_upload_file709_31026.jpgWhy conducting? I was playing clarinet in the sixth grade. The band director asked us if anybody would like to conduct. I went up, and I immediately loved it. I seemed to have an intuitive ability—the other students commented on it. From that point, I was very focused on becoming a conductor.

How does the Sarasota Orchestra compare to your other gig, the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut? Waterbury is much smaller than Sarasota, but it’s just as idealistic. Our budget with Sarasota Orchestra is about $7 million a year; theirs is about $500,000.

Onstage fiascos? Years ago here, we were doing an incredibly serious piece, and I’d forgotten my suspenders. As a stopgap, we procured a bunch of baby pins and pinned my pants to my shirt. At the end of this slow, sad, cathartic piece, the baby pins had become dislodged. I felt my pants slowly, as though in deference to the music, migrating south. When you’re conducting, one of the best uses for the left hand, besides turning the pages, is keeping your pants up.

People say you practice conducting while you’re on the elliptical at the gym. When I was a student at Yale, I’d go for these long walks through a cemetery when I was learning a piece. I guess the elliptical is just like that, only in one spot.

In 1988, Leonard Bernstein selected you to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. What did you take away from that experience? He had that politician’s ability that when he spoke with you, he made you feel like you were the only person in the room. I don’t know how much I learned in terms of actual conducting, but the ability to completely disarm the orchestra is something I always remember about him.

Any superstitions? For a while I had a pair of socks I’d worn when we did Boléro a few years ago. The whole 14-minute piece is a chain of very exposed solos. We did four performances and no one made a mistake. The socks I was wearing at the time, I wore them until they completely wore out.

Do you enjoy pop culture? I really enjoy the Harry Potter stuff—the books and the movies. That sort of fantasy. Where Harry Potter can fly, that’s where the arts live, too. That’s where sounds can describe a storm and a violin can have an emotional effect that doesn’t reflect the reality of a bow scraping a string. It is magic.—Hannah Wallace

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