Woman of Note

The Baltimore Sun

Quick quiz: Name a long-established, full-sized professional orchestra in Maryland and its female music director known for her energetic style and championing of contemporary American repertoire - besides the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Marin Alsop.

If you haven't been to Hagerstown lately, you might have trouble coming up with the answers. That's where the Maryland Symphony Orchestra has been going strong for 25 years, and where Elizabeth Schulze - the ensemble's second music director and first female conductor - has been on the podium for eight.

In that city, where signs of revitalization are common, the MSO is a valued asset. And Schulze, former associate conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, is a popular local figure who has helped make the notion of a woman with a baton - still newsy in some places - seem downright normal.

Brendan Fitzsimmons, president of the orchestra's board of directors, reiterates that point with a story about the time he and his 7-year-old daughter were watching a PBS broadcast.

"It was an orchestral program with a male conductor," he says. "My daughter turned to me and said, 'Daddy, I didn't know boys could conduct, too.'

"She has grown up going to Maryland Symphony Orchestra concerts the whole time Elizabeth has been music director here."

Schulze, an outgoing woman, arrived in Hagerstown with a resume that included stints as music director of regional orchestras in Iowa and Wisconsin. Conducting may well be in her DNA.

"My great-great-grandfather was a conductor," Schulze says. "In 1870, he walked from what is now Lithuania through Poland to Leipzig to study. Then he came to the U.S. and conducted what would become the Cincinnati Symphony."

That genetic advantage didn't kick in right away.

"My mother told me she always had a dream that I would be a conductor," says the Illinois-born Schulze. "She noticed when I played the violin that I would try to conduct the whole piece. But I majored in philosophy at college."

At 19, Schulze saw a woman conducting at school. "I knew then I wanted to do that," she says. "I played a lot of catch-up."

Schulze, now in her late 40s, soon earned graduate degrees in orchestral and choral conducting.

As she carved out her path in what has always been a mostly male environment, she encountered little sexism. "It was usually an older generation teacher who would make a little comment about being 'timid,'" she says. "But that was rare."

Schulze was a conducting fellow at Tanglewood, the summer music center in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, where her mentors included Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa. One of her fellow fellows at Tanglewood was Marin Alsop.

"We don't know each other well," Schulze says, "but I think she's great. It's going to be a marvelous new era for the Baltimore Symphony."

Taking chances

Schulze and the MSO, joined by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, wrap up the orchestra's silver anniversary season this weekend at the Maryland Theatre, a delectably ornate 1915 landmark, with Carl Orff's blockbuster cantata Carmina Burana.

"We haven't had a huge professional chorus like this perform with us," says Schulze, sitting in a reception area of the MSO's spacious storefront office near the theater. "When we did Beethoven's Ninth [Symphony], it was with church choirs from around the area."

Carmina Burana isn't heard often in Hagerstown, a city of 37,000 where the MSO presents five classical programs each season. "A lot of works cranked out all the time by the big orchestras will be new to many people in our audience," Schulze says.

"When we do Tchaikovsky's Sixth [Symphony], and it's the first time they've heard it live, that's very exciting."

Schulze also likes to program music that would be new to many listeners even in more populous areas. During her first MSO season alone, she found room for the likes of notable contemporary American composers Joan Tower and Christopher Rouse, as well as eminent French composer Henri Dutilleux. Subsequent seasons included works by, among others, Charles Ives, Samuel Barber and John Harbison.

"It was a little bewildering for some people," the conductor says. "I was approached by some members of the board who asked me to reconsider my choices. I understand completely why they did."

Schulze took the advice philosophically. "I am not someone who feels I have to carry the entire weight of the 20th century on my shoulders," she says. "Plenty of major orchestras have the time and finances to play a lot of that repertoire.

"But when Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is considered 'too out there,' I start to worry."

Schulze switched to more conservative programming for a few seasons. "There's nothing wrong with performing Beethoven," she says. "And ticket sales increased, I must admit."

Nonetheless, she continues to squeeze in some remarkable repertoire. Early this season, a program based on humor in music matched works by Mozart and Beethoven with William Bolcom's witty Commedia for (Almost) 18th Century Orchestra.

In February, Dvorak's familiar Cello Concerto was paired with a less frequently encountered masterpiece by Aaron Copland, his Symphony No. 3. The latter received an admirably expressive performance that reflected Schulze's passionate style and the strengths of the orchestra.

Still, "some people complained about the Copland," Fitzsimmons says. "Others thought it was wonderful. To Elizabeth's credit, she has insisted on at least one 20th-century piece every year. Part of our mission statement is to educate as well as entertain."

The burgeoning MSO

Today's MSO has an annual operating budget of $1.3 million, double what it was a decade ago. (The BSO's is about $25 million.) There is no debt.

The success story starts with a small group of music lovers in Hagerstown, including a former BSO horn player, who envisioned a professional orchestra for the city in the late 1970s.

One of the world's greatest horn virtuosos, Australian-born Barry Tuckwell, agreed to become the founding music director, and the ensemble bowed in 1982. Tuckwell had a strong run for more than 15 years before a dispute with the board over a fundraising gala led him to resign.

After hearing Schulze conduct the NSO at Wolf Trap, a board delegation approached her about taking the post of music director, starting with the 1999-2000 season.

"I felt very much wanted," Schulze says. "And there was something that seemed to be a good fit. I had been associated with orchestras in other blue-collar communities, and I felt experienced enough that I could make a big difference here."

That difference includes the expansion of repertoire and the upgrading of personnel, drawing on a large pool of mid-Atlantic freelancers that includes military band members from Washington. (Base pay for MSO players is $5,000 to $6,000; they typically work for several different orchestras each season.)

"Just in the two years I've been there," MSO principal flutist Kimberly Valerio says, "I can hear the level getting better and better."

Although it is possible to encounter some complaints inside the orchestra about perceived shortcomings in Schulze's conducting technique, the Arnold-based Valerio downplays them.

"I think we all make mistakes," she says. "The orchestra really respects the fact that Elizabeth gives 100 percent. She's fantastic and so enthusiastic about connecting with the audience."

The board clearly has no doubts about Schulze's value. The music director's contract was recently renewed through 2012.

Another big fan of Schulze's is Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. Schulze served as his associate conductor for several years in the 1990s.

"She exhibited such authority and command right at the start," Slatkin says. "She needed to broaden her repertoire, as everyone does, but her curiosity about every aspect of music was wonderful. I just think she's terrific. And she is dealing with all the problems any music director would have to face."

A conductor's life

Schulze makes her home in Williamsport, a town of about 2,000 along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, a few miles from Hagerstown. Her house was built in 1829.

"It's great to live in a place with a little bit of history," she says. "And, yes, George Washington really did sleep" in Williamsport.

When asked the inevitable, prying question about her private life, she says she lives alone - then, with a laugh, adds: "I'm booked."

She has plenty of musical company at home, in the form of more than 5,000 recordings. "I have a lot of contemporary works I'll never get to conduct," she says. "I just want to be informed. I collect everything, even rap.

"I try to be in tune with the music of our time. In 1984, I watched MTV for an entire year while working on getting my master's. I still flip to MTV or VH1 once in a while to hear what's out there."

The conductor frequently ventures outside Western Maryland, often to serve as "cover conductor" - the equivalent of an understudy - for Slatkin in Washington and other places he conducts.

And she could soon have additional musical duties to occupy her time. "I am up for another couple jobs," she says.

That doesn't surprise Slatkin. "I have no doubt other positions are going to come her way," he says, "and probably soon."

An extra post is not likely to interfere with Schulze's work in Hagerstown; conductors often juggle more than one orchestra. She's certainly not in any hurry to leave the MSO.

"I know there's a time to move on," she says, "but I don't think that's happened yet. It's heartening to know you are making a difference."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

Elizabeth Schulze

Born:

Evanston, Ill. (grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich.) Age:

"I'm not 50 yet."

Education:

Bryn Mawr College (philosophy degree); State University of New York at Stony Brook (graduate degrees in orchestral and choral conducting)

Job:

Music director, Maryland Symphony Orchestra

Firsts:

Received first Aspen (Colo.) Music School Conducting Award, 1991; first doctoral fellow in orchestral conducting at Northwestern University

Current residence:

An 1829 home in Williamsport

Favorite nonmusical pastime:

Travel

Other pioneers

A few other pioneering (and musical) women of Maryland:

Marin Alsop:

Music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, starting 2007-2008; the first female music director of a major American orchestra

Gisele Ben-Dor:

Music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, 1991-1997

Anne Harrigan:

Founding music director of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, 1984-2004

Brenda Lynne Leach:

First female conductor of the Towson University Orchestra, beginning in 2005

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