…conducted by Carolyn Watson

This is an introduction to look out for in Sydney as conductor Carloyn Watson builds her career after  two years of studies in Europe.

She has a gleam in her eye. “I absolutely luuurve opera and want to do more…. it has to be the most fun you can have with your clothes on! For me it is the ultimate, a wonderfully intricate art form, with so many of the details ‘between’ the notes”. Whilst opera may be her first love,  Carolyn Watson is the sort of musician who is excited by all kinds of music “I just want to conduct!” Seriously, I strive only to do good work – to quote The Goodies, “anything, anywhere, anytime and with anyone who wants to work with me!”

Working with some of the best in the world, Watson got to know them well – Sir Charles Mackerras, Simone Young, Daniel Barenboim, David Zinman, Yoel Levi and respected Hungarian composer and conductor Peter Eötvös. To Carolyn Watson, they are teachers and mentors who have passed on elements of their art within the hallowed rehearsal rooms of The Royal Opera, Covent Garden and Glyndebourne, Berlin Staatsoper, Hamburg Staatsoper and at prestigious international master classes in Israel and the USA. She enjoys a privileged relationship with Marin Alsop, Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. “I send her my DVDs and she tells me what she thinks….I mean, she really tells me what she thinks!”.

In an ultimate test of her work, Watson found herself on the rostrum, baton in hand in front of musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic last year. “Not the whole Berlin Philharmonic” she is quick to point out, “but an orchestra largely comprising players from the Phil, supplemented by the other major Berlin orchestras with a few from the Dresden Staatskapelle…actually, it was a quite a stressful weekend!”, she quips.

These experiences are a world away from Watson’s initial experiences in conducting. A violinist and pedagogue, she was motivated to “learn a bit more about conducting”, and enrolled in a Master of Music programme at the Sydney Conservatorium. Intending to do just that and no more, Watson’s plans were thwarted by the arrival at the Conservatorium of Professor of Conducting, Maestro Imre Palló.

Palló was committed to establishing a course capable of producing conductors of an international calibre. With a respected conducting career and more than ten years as Chair of the Conducting Faculty at Indiana University, Palló was well qualified for this task. Watson’s success is a testament to his vision. “Imre had this idea I should be a conductor. It wasn’t my intention at all….but he was so persistent and so frustratingly persuasive that I gave up arguing after a while and took his advice. Palló was spot on. “His intuition amazes me”.

A swag of scholarships and prizes followed. Among them, the Nelly Apt Conducting Scholarship, Charles Mackerras Conducting Prize, Opera Foundation Australia’s Bayreuth Opera Award, a Sheila Pryor Study Grant from the Australian Opera Auditions Committee and support from the Dame Joan Sutherland Fund, all of which enabled Watson to travel throughout Europe for two years, honing her skill.

Now back in Sydney, she is juggling a busy schedule of teaching and performing. Watson has recently been appointed inaugural Conductor in Residence at the Conservatorium High School. “It’s a fantastic opportunitity and a wonderful initiatve of the Con High. I work with the orchestra which is joined by the choir for combined concerts, and I also teach conducting. The students plan, produce and perform their own concerts in Term 4 with senior students conducting ensembles. Each house devises and presents a 1/2 hour concert independent of staff.  It is my job to give the kids the skills necessary to conduct these house concerts”.

“When I work with the orchestra and choir – we perform concerts and also work to develop the musical and orchestral skills of the young players. We choose the repertoire very carefully and plan programmes around specific teaching aims. In the time I’ve been there, ensemble has definitely improved in the orchestra – they are really beginning to work together as a cohesive unit”.

Is it possible to pick conducting talent at an early age?  “Good question. I think so! It’s a bit hard to tell at high school stage – yet I look at my own comparatively late development.  Being a good, intelligent musician is the essence. Understanding what the music is about, what conducting is about and how the two go together.”

Inevitably there are questions about working in a male dominated profession. Times have moved though, and as more women  enter the profession, it is more pertinent to ask whether attitudes towards women conductors have changed in the 21st century.

“It means that my generation doesn’t face the struggles which prevailed in the past. Marin Alsop for example, tries to help emerging female conductors for precisely this reason – so that it’s easier for them than it was for her. Attitudes are now more progressive – at least in Western Europe, Australia and the US”.

As a performer, Watson has conducted numerous ensembles in Sydney – Rockdale Opera, Willoughby Symphony Orchestra and the SBS Radio and Television Youth Orchestra. She’s presently Associate Conductor of the Tasmanian Discovery Orchestra and Assistant Chorusmaster of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, with whom she will work as part of her role assisting Simone Young, Brett Dean and Alexander Briger in preparing for the Australian World Orchestra concerts later this year.

There was little point in talking about downtime. “Relax…sleep …I don’t know really…I try to swim….I .love reading but don’t have the time for it…outside current PhD material, that is. I’m hoping this will change…!”

For her PhD Watson is researching the work of her idol Carlos Kleiber. “He is beyond comparison! I am analyzing his gestures as they correspond to the music – in as much as one can ever attempt to analyze genius. I recently gave a presentation entitled ‘The Art of Carlos Kleiber: Perfection as Gesture” which offers some clues as to my topic.

In the past, musicians who left Sydney to study and work overseas rarely came back. Increasingly, they are returning to pursue meaningful careers (see our post on the Australian World Orchestra). Given the financial predicament in which our ensembles find themselves (see post from The Australian) it remains to be seen whether this optimism is justified.

Watch for Carolyn Watson’s post on her work as Conductor in Residence at the Conservatorium High School, and our post on the Australian World Orchestras concerts.

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