Woman of Note

While the BSO's new music director gets a lot of ink, Elizabeth Schulze has been leading a symphony orchestra in Hagerstown for eight years

April 18, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun music critic

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.

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