Music director brings international flair to La Porte County Symphony Orchestra
Passersby might find Carolyn Watson studying scores of music in airports or hotel lobbies. But for the internationally renowned symphony conductor, it’s part of a typical work week.
Watson added a three-year appointment as the music director of the La Porte County Symphony Orchestra to her repertoire in 2021. She also serves as director of orchestras at the University of Illinois and principal guest conductor at the Kansas City Chamber Orchestra.
For conductors, holding multiple positions is common. Watson, for example, considers Kansas City home but divides her time between there and an Illinois condominium, and travels for freelance work.
“There was a week in February where I had three performances in three states within one week,” Watson said.
Tim King, executive director of the LCSO, said the search for a music director spanned three years, slowed by the pandemic. Watson rose to the top of the list after the symphony’s board and audience responded to guest performances from several candidates over a couple of seasons.
“We really felt like we had total buy-in as far as how the music director was going to be chosen,” King said. “We had surveys on each of them, and it was a very strong slate, but Carolyn came out on top.”
Watson’s journey began in the town of Wollongong, just south of Sydney in Australia, where 5-year-old Watson began learning the violin. After earning a bachelor’s degree in music education, she worked as a professional violinist and then re-located to Europe. She eventually went back to Australia to work as a grammar school music teacher. Then the spark to conduct led her to pursue a master’s degree in conducting in Sydney. Although conducting was not much more than a hobby, the fire was lit, and her master’s degree morphed into a doctorate.
It was her blend of teaching and musicianship that ultimately landed her in the U.S. nine years ago at the Academy Orchestra at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan.
Gender gaps and glass ceilings
Watson often is asked about being a woman in a male-dominated field. But she would rather emphasize other parts of her success.
“The very fact that the question is getting asked is, in itself, indicative of how much further we need to go,” she said.
In January, at the International Conductor Conference in Spain, she presented “Cracks in the Glass Ceiling: Women Conductors, New Trends, Old Challenges,” derived from a book chapter she wrote with the same title.
According to the research Watson has done on the topic of female conductors in the U.S. and globally, the estimated number of female conductors of professional orchestras in the U.S. is about 11%.
King acknowledged the rarity of women in conducting roles. “She doesn’t have to talk about it,” he said. “She proves it through her work.”
Connecting and conducting
Watson’s favorite thing about conducting isn’t the prestige or the awards.
“I love working with people and being a collaborator and being a part — a very small part — of a much bigger kind of thing. Being in a role where I facilitate those connections and sort of bring it all together,” she said.”
Watson said the most difficult steps of a beginning conductor are the first ones. Young conductors need opportunities to develop, but there are few spots and fierce competition. To them, she advises working hard.
“They should invest in their musicianship, and I think it’s important to be a good person, a humble person,” she said, “a person who is easy to work with, who is easy going, and who can put other people at ease because that is also part of success in any kind of leadership position.”
Rob Riley, a now-retired family physician living in South Bend, joined the orchestra about 2005 and became the symphony’s principal trombonist in 2015. He appreciates Watson’s energetic, upbeat style, which she manages to maintain even when the orchestra is struggling.
“She really doesn’t get flustered or exhibit anger or frustration when things aren’t coming together quickly,” Riley said. “This separates her from many of her peers.”
King said she is good at gauging how far she can push the orchestra members.
“She’s an educator by nature, and so that’s what she does with our orchestra too,” King said. “I just could not be more pleased with the sound that the orchestra is putting out now and the improvement that’s happened artistically with the orchestra under her leadership.”
Watson said staying at LCSO beyond her initial contract is a possibility.
“Being a music director means you are responsible for the musical and artistic vision, growth and development of an ensemble over the longer term” she said. “It is also very rewarding to see … improvement over time of both the orchestra and the organization as a whole.”
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