03 January 2011

Interview with Victoria Bond part 1

Victoria Bond is a composer based in New York City. In our phone interview, we began by surveying her musical background. Her story is so interesting that I am posting it here, then I will run the question-and-answer section next week. Please also visit the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series and enjoy other interviews. Your comments are more than welcome.

I come from a family of musicians. My mother was a concert pianist who studied with Bartok and Kodaly in Hungary; she won a Liszt competition. She gave up her concertizing career when I was born, but still gave a lot of recitals and had many students. My father was both a professional musician (a singer; a bass) and a medical doctor. My parents used to perform a great deal: they gave concerts, they did radio programs, and my father sang bass roles with the New York City Opera. So I grew up in a very musical environment. I was in the children’s chorus of the New York City Opera when I was seven years old. My life was filled with music from the very beginning, and I’m very grateful to my parents for the incredible exposure that I had as a child.

I also liked to make up music: I didn’t know it was called “composing,” because I wasn’t able to write it down at the time. But I improvised at the piano and made up stories, songs, and scenarios: that was one of my favorite games. Before I was eight years old, I started my formal music education. I used to improvise long before that, and I was very anxious to take lessons.

My mother was my first teacher. We started out, in addition to the usual technical studies, with the Bartók “Mikrokosmos,” since she had studied with Bartok. That was my first exposure to contemporary music. I loved it! I just thought it was so great that he put in what I called the “wrong notes”; those were so much fun, as were all of his interesting rhythms. I loved that music. It really became a part of me. And then we did Moszkowski, Prokofiev, and all of the other composers who had written a repertory appropriate for children.

I used to perform with my parents: my mother made four-hand arrangements of opera aria accompaniments, so my mother and I would accompany my father. We gave recitals that way. I went to the pre-college department of the Mannes School of Music and had my first theory with Hugh McLerneny. Then I had piano lessons with Nadia Reisenberg. So that was the beginning of my musical education.

My early education was at the Rudolf Steiner school in NYC: a very extraordinary school. I went to the elementary school and the first two years of the high school, and then after that we moved to Los Angeles and I finished up my high school at Hollywood High.

My mother and I moved to Los Angeles when I was a teenager (my parents got divorced)—I was born in Los Angeles, actually; I was not born in New York, although my parents moved to New York when I was just an infant, and I grew up in New York. But then we moved back to Los Angeles, and when I graduated from Hollywood High, I played the Grieg Piano Concerto with the orchestra. That was my last piano appearance. I really decided that piano was not my instrument. Hollywood High, as you can imagine, was a big contrast to the Rudolf Steiner school! But it did have one great advantage, and that was a fabulous drama department.

I really fell in love with theater. I had always had a love for theater, but my interest was really peaked at that point. I became very involved with the theater department. I graduated early because the Steiner education had been so extraordinary—in Hollywood High I was able to test out of a lot of the classes and graduate early—and started at UCLA, as a theater major actually, not as a music major. But I was drawn back to music.

I took singing lessons at that time; it was discovered that I had a voice. I thought that composing and singing was going to be my double life. My parents, both performers, were adamant that I needed to have a performing instrument: no matter what I did with my musical life, I had to be able to perform in some form or other. So I decided that singing and composition were going to be my future. My role model in that was Samuel Barber: he was both a professional singer and, of course, a wonderful composer.

It didn’t take too long to bring me back to music. I switched schools from UCLA to the University of Southern California, which had an excellent music department. I studied composition with Ingolf Dahl. At that point, I was going to Aspen in the summers to study singing with Jennie Tourel and Maria Stader. My mother was friends with Eleanor Slatkin. Eleanor’s two sons were driving out to Aspen and I got to know them. My friend was Fred Slatkin, who now goes by Fred Zlotkin, who is a wonderful cellist. His older brother was Leonard Slatkin. Leonard, at that point, was assistant director of the orchestra at Aspen. He said he was planning to teach; this was going to be his first foray into teaching, and he said, “Why don’t you study with me? If you’re planning to be a singer, you’re going to be doing opera and you really need to know what a conductor does. This is the best way to learn.”

Up until that time, I had really not thought too much about conducting as a career. But he was a wonderful teacher, and after studying with him, I really became so interested in conducting, because as a composer, it was a much more complete way of understanding music than I had been aware of. So when I came back to Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to conduct the Senior Citizens Orchestra of Los Angeles—the conductor was a friend of my mother’s and he gave me the opportunity to conduct them in some rehearsals.

I really loved conducting. I found it was something that came naturally to me. Everyone encouraged me to continue it. So I decided that after I graduated from USC, I was going to audition as a conductor at Juilliard. I had already sent in my music to Juilliard (my mother, by the way, was a Juilliard graduate, so it was following in the family tradition to go there). I had already been accepted as a composer, but I wanted to audition in conducting. I found out that I couldn’t have a double major; I had to do one or the other, and I was already accepted in composition. I would have to wait until the next year to audition in conducting. But I did audition, and I did get in. There are only seven people in the orchestral conducting department (choral conducting was a separate department), and of course there were no women. I was really a minority of one!

My first year there was Jean Morel’s last year. He was an extraordinary teacher. I had the opportunity that summer to work with him in Aspen and really had a lot of private coaching with him, which I found extremely valuable.

The person who took over from him was Sixten Ehrling, who was also a very extraordinary musician and real task-master. It was a very rigorous program. I got my Master’s and Doctorate from Juilliard and had a lot of opportunities to conduct everything from all the standard orchestral repertory and concertos to opera (Ehrling was an opera conductor as well as a symphonic conductor). He was conducting Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Met at the time. All of his students had the opportunity to listen to rehearsals of all four operas with the greatest cast. It was very thrilling. I remember that well.

When I graduated from Juilliard, there was a program called the Exxon Arts Endowment Conductor Program, which was co-sponsored by the Exxon Corporation and the National Endowment for the Arts. I auditioned for the program with the Pittsburgh Symphony. I was the only woman auditioning for that program, and I thought, “Well, I probably don’t have the ghost of a chance, but at least I have a chance to conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony.” So I did. And, much to my surprise and delight, I was accepted. My first conducting job, then, was as the first woman in the Exxon program, with a major orchestra. As you can imagine, there were a lot of nay-sayers: people who thought conducting a major orchestra was not a woman’s position. There were not a lot of women conductors at the time, so there was a fair amount of negativism—certainly not from the administration, because they were the ones who gave me the opportunity, but sometimes people were skeptical about whether a woman could be in that position. It was a fantastic opportunity; I had a chance to conduct not only the Pittsburgh Symphony, but the Houston symphony. I conducted all over the country.

That position was 1978-1980; it was kind of like an apprenticeship). After that, I had a similar position with the New York City Opera. I was assistant to Christopher Keene and assisted him both at the City Opera and at Artpark. It was great to have that experience with the two branches of conducting that would be my future life: both symphonic and operatic. With all of my experience of singing in the children’s chorus as a child, my father performing at City Opera, and my accompanying, opera was very natural. I felt very much at home there.

After New York City Opera, I got a position with the Empire State Youth Orchestra in Albany and also did the young people’s concerts with the Albany Symphony, so I commuted back and forth from New York to Albany at that time. I married my husband in 1974, when I was still a student at Juilliard, so we were used to long periods of separation. The first separation, of course, was during the years in Pittsburgh. In Albany, it was more like commuting. I spent many days in Albany, but I still used New York as my home base.

The next position that I got, which was with the Roanoke Symphony in Virginia, was a little bit of a longer commute; I had to spend more time down there. I was both the music director of the symphony and the artistic director of the opera company (that position is equivalent to the music director of the symphony), which means that I chose repertory and auditioned singers in addition to conducting. The “General Director” is the title that is usually given to that position. I spent nine years in Virginia, conducting both the symphonic concerts and the opera there.

Since I am first and foremost a composer, it became exceedingly clear to me that I did not have enough time to do the projects that I had in me to do. I had very little time to focus on composition. I was composing all through those years, but it was always a struggle. Even in the summer time, we had Pops concerts. I would have about two months in the summer and about two weeks at Christmas for composing, and that was about it. Otherwise it was catch-as-catch-can. And because I am a very conscientious conductor, I felt that every minute that I was not spending learning scores, I was playing hooky. Finally, in 1995, I decided: I am going to put my money where my mouth is. I am going to switch from being a conductor-composer to being a composer-conductor. That’s when I left both my positions in Virginia and decided to cut down on my conducting in order to devote myself to my writing. I have been doing that ever since. I still conduct: I am principal guest conductor with Chamber Opera Chicago and do a fair amount of guest conducting overseas.

I’ve been able, now, to accomplish the big composition projects that I wanted to do. I’m working on my fourth opera now. I’ve written three concertos, including two piano concertos. I’m writing a Hanukkah opera. I’m writing a ballet for the Chicago ballet, which will be premiered this coming February. All of these projects require time, and a lot of mental time. One of the issues with being a conductor was that I always had somebody else’s music in my ear, because I was always working on somebody else’s music. Sometimes it was very hard to clear that space for my own musical thoughts. Since the majority of my composing takes place away from paper or a computer or a piano, it’s really what goes on in my head the other hours of the day when I’m not really focused on that work. It’s wonderful now that my own music is in my head all the time. I’m saving that space, both the mental space and the time-space, for composing, which is really the priority in my life. And that’s where I am at this moment. This is a quick tour!

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