Starting work on the upbeat

Podium: Lara Webber is the new face at the BSO - although concert-goers will see more of her back. She's the new assistant conductor.

July 27, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Lara Webber has been going at a vivace tempo all day.

Early that morning, she left Cooperstown, N.Y., where she has been assisting with an opera production, and drove to the Albany airport. She had to change a flat tire on the way. After arriving in Baltimore, she was whisked off to a round of media interviews. By the time she's finished with a radio appearance and reaches Meyerhoff Hall, it's 3 p.m., and she's practically panting for food. But the unpretentious and affable Weber still exudes enthusiasm about her new job - assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

A staffer offers her a boxed salad and water. Clutching her lunch, Webber heads to a lounge and talks about her new gig between bites. "I wasn't expecting any of this," she says. "It wasn't part of any master plan. It just happened."

What happened was that Webber, 31, was asked to conduct a BSO youth concert last April and then to audition for the post of assistant conductor. Everything clicked.

"You know how when you meet a person for the first time, you can get a good feeling even before you know their name?" Webber says. "That's how it was when I first conducted this orchestra. Once this job became a possibility, it was something I really wanted to achieve."

The positive vibes were mutual.

"We thought she would be someone who would grow with the position," says trumpeter Langston J. Fitzgerald III, chairman of the BSO's artistic committee, which helped select Webber. "She's very experienced - that was obvious at the first rehearsal. She's very musical, articulate, organized in her rehearsal technique, and very pleasant."

Webber's appointment completes the BSO's conducting staff, with Yuri Temirkanov at the helm; Daniel Hege as resident conductor; and Mario Venzago as Summer MusicFest artistic director. Webber, whose tenure officially begins Sept. 1, will guest conduct the BSO tomorrow in the last of this year's outdoor concerts at Oregon Ridge Park. She brings to the podium a good deal of experience and enthusiasm. She just completed three years as associate conductor of the Charleston (S.C.) Symphony Orchestra, where she led not just youth and community concerts, but about half of the annual subscription series programs.

Before that, Webber was music director for three years of the Debut Orchestra, a Los Angeles-based ensemble where young musicians can hone their skills. Among her predecessors in the position were Michael Tilson Thomas and Hege. "I started at the top," Webber says with a laugh. "My first job was as music director."

While growing up in Seattle, Webber never imagined she would pick up a baton.

"I didn't have little conducting fantasies as a child," she says. "But my mother was an opera singer who performed every summer in the Seattle Opera's production of Wagner's `Ring.' I would accompany her to the opera house, and the conductor, Henry Holt, would give me little jobs to do, like timing how long an act ran. Being a 12-year-old Wagner fan was really weird. I'm sure all that had an influence on me, but I wasn't conscious of it."

As a youngster, she played the piano and cello. "But at the time when you have to get really serious about studying instruments, I abandoned them," she says. "I kind of regret that. I wouldn't play in public now for anything."

She became interested in singing in high school. "My strongest instrument was most definitely my voice," she says.

That got Webber into Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, where she received a bachelor's degree in vocal performance. While at Oberlin, she had a chance to take conducting classes with Robert Spano, highly touted new music director of the Atlanta Symphony, and still her treasured mentor.

That experience convinced Webber that she should concentrate on conducting, and she earned a master's degree in that field from the University of Southern California. From USC, she made the quick jump to the Debut Orchestra and knew she wanted to be in the profession for good.

The fact that conductors are predominantly male didn't faze Webber. "I don't know why women are still way in the minority when it comes to conducting, but I don't really think about it," she says. "I've heard a few silly little comments, but never anything that interfered with my very fortunate opportunities."

Webber commuted to the L.A. job and the subsequent, much busier Charleston post from Houston, where she settled with her husband, a geologist. She plans to make Baltimore her home base now (her BSO contract is for three years), and her husband will spend as much time with her as possible.

"I like it here," Webber says. "It's a big city, but feels on the small side. And since I've been living so long in the south, I'm looking forward to the change. I'm from Seattle - I like it cold and rainy."

Although Webber will conduct assorted community concerts, including the annual "Live, Gifted and Black" program, and will also "cover" Temirkanov and other conductors for the rest of the BSO season (the equivalent of an actor understudying a role), she'll be particularly immersed in youth concerts.

"The concerts can't be boring," she says. "It's deadly to have too much education and not enough music. If kids feel they're being given a lesson, how is that different from school? There's no denying how important and rewarding these concerts are."

BSO

Where: Oregon Ridge Park

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow

Tickets: $15, $7 children under 12

Call: 410-783-8000

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