Transcription of Dr. Emily Isaacson for the show From the Heart #300

Dr. Lisa Belisle: My next guest is Dr. Emily Isaacson who serves as the artistic director for the Oratorio Chorale and the Maine Chamber Ensemble, a symphonic chorus of professional orchestra in Maine. Last year, she launched the Portland Bach Festival with faculty from the Julliard School. Thank you for coming in today.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: Thank you so much for having me.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You’ve had a very interesting career for a Maine woman. You’re doing some things that I don’t think as many people are doing who come out of Brunswick.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: I feel really lucky for the adventures I’ve gotten to take. I feel very lucky for the opportunities. I’m excited to be back doing it here.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Tell me about why music became important to you as a younger person because, obviously, this is something you’ve been doing for quite a while.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: I have a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter now who, according to my parents, looks, talks, and acts just like me. I’m getting a new vantage point of viewing my own journey. My daughter wants to perform everywhere. You turn on music, and she’s dancing. You say something funny, and she’s repeating it back as a play. That was very much me. I was captivated by art, and music, and theater, and dance right from the get-go.
I started doing Maine State Theater productions when I was in fourth grade. Huge debt of gratitude to Chuck Abbott, who was the Director of Maine State Music Theater at the time, for teaching me not only about show business, but really about hard work, and dedication, and focus, and being nine years old and working adults.
I did a lot of Maine State Music Theater and theater project acting until I was about 12 or 13. Then, I became an awkward, ugly teenager. I lasted in that space for maybe until 35. No, just kidding. For a good long time. The summer, there was a summer where I auditioned for all sorts of plays, and I didn’t get in because I wasn’t cute anymore. I was too young to play an adult role, and too old to play a cute kid role. My mom said, “Why don’t you audition for the Boone Summer Music Festival Chorus.” I didn’t want to do that. It was classical music, and it was with my mom. That’s not cool at 14, 15, but why not.
I did. It just so happened that that summer, they were doing a piece called Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein, which is a gorgeous piece, and is actually really important in my musical evolution in terms of thinking about what music can do, and be, and sound like. It blew my mind as a composition. It also happened to have a boy solo in the piece, a child solo. I was the youngest person in the choir by probably 20 years. I got the part, which is great.
It was being directed by Jeff Milarsky, who is not the Director at Columbia University, but, at the time, was a professional percussionist at Philadelphia Orchestra. Then, June Han was the harpist, who’s now become a good friend. She’s playing with New York Phil, and she teachers at Juilliard.
Anyway, my point being, I got access to these musicians that were like in another stratosphere of creativity. Because I had this solo, and because the piece was quite complex, I had a number of private coaching sessions with June and Jeff. I have such vivid memories of being in this tiny, little apartment space in Brunswick on Cleveland Street, and June, and Jeff, and I working together, and feeling like I was part of art in a way I had never experienced before, that I was part of something transformative for myself, and also expressive of something so much greater than the three people in this room and the little town of Brunswick.
I remember the performance for that concert, opening my mouth, and hearing something coming from somewhere else, and not recognizing it as my own. During that concert, I said, “I want to be a part of this for the rest of my life.” I don’t know what that means. At that time, I didn’t know whether I was going to be a singer, or an arts’ administrator, or a conductor. I spent the next five, or six, seven years trying different things out through college, but I knew this is what I wanted to do.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Both of your parents are attorneys.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: That’s right.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Yet, they’re both very interested and involved in the arts.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: Yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: That’s a fascinating blend that you have in your household and the stock you come from?
Dr. Emily Isaacson: I’m lucky, but I don’t think it’s that abnormal. One of the things that I love about Maine is that members of the community in all different sectors, business, medicine, law, education, are involved in all sorts of other sectors. My dad always said growing up that one of the things he loved about Maine is that you could really be a part of the conversation and make an impact because of our scale.
I didn’t really understand what he meant by that until I lived in Chicago, and Washington DC, and then Boston, and started trying to become part of the conversation, and there was no room. Unless you have three PhDs and gazillion dollars, no one really wants to talk to you. In Maine, you can really make things happen. I really value that about this community. I value that the people in this community give back.
I’m now in a position where I’m doing a lot of development and fundraising. I’m talking with people who are lawyers, and CEOs, and executive directors of other organizations. That was very much what my parents were. The law was their career. They loved that work. My dad is also a professor at Bowdoin. He gave me that sense of curiosity. They were always very involved in the community whether it’d be things in the health board, the medicine, or various art forms. It’s always been a part of my life.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You didn’t originally know that you wanted to do conducting. This is something that came over time. It’s not something that those of us, I guess, in the regular world, the lay world, I guess we should say, necessarily think of when we think about music, unless we watch “Mozart in the Jungle,” and then we’re back to nothing. How did you come to this place?
Dr. Emily Isaacson: I think I came to it in the same way that other leaders come to that vision. Both my siblings and my brother-in-law went to business school. There’s a lot of conversation amongst them and their friends about being a part of a large company or organization. Then, they desire to be the vision, be the one making the decisions, to build something of their own.
I started thinking that I wanted to do singing. My college application letter was about wanting to be an opera singer, but also wanting to raise chickens, and that that was going to be a dilemma because if you’re an opera singer, you have to be in a big city, and you can’t raise chickens, at least, back then. I guess, in Brooklyn, you can do it now. That’s where I went in to college thinking, but as I was doing things, I realized that the musicians and the singers are the executors, that there is an incredible amount of talent. Frankly, I don’t have the talent it takes to do those positions, but I didn’t want to just execute on somebody else’s vision.
It started to become clear to me. I went to Williams College. It started to become clear to me that I had a lot of ideas, some good, some bad, but that I wanted to be the one creating the vision, and communicating it to other people, and that if I have any gifts, they are not in exceptional musical talent. Although, I’m not bad, but they are in my ability to communicate both as a musical leader, and also as a member of the community, and advocating for the arts. I thought I would try that pursuit. It has been very difficult but so rewarding. I’m so glad to not be in my 20s anymore. I’m glad to be here.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What does it take to become a conductor?
Dr. Emily Isaacson: There’s a simple and a complicated answer to that. The simple answer is that you go to grad school. Then, you start working your way up the chain. The reality is and one of the things that made my 20s so hard is that as a conductor, you are expected essentially to be an expert in music theory, music history, diction, which means you need to be able to speak French, German, and understand Italian, and Latin.
You need to be able to play piano. You need to be able to sing. You need to understand all of the instruments of the orchestra. You need to be able to communicate well speaking. You need to be able to write program notes and communicate well through writing. No one told me I needed to be good at business, but turns out that’s a huge part of what I do now. Then, on top of that, you need to know all the repertoire in your field, and be able to wave your arms around.
I have two masters and a doctorate. My 20s were, in some ways, just a constant failure, which I now look back on grateful for the struggle. At the time, it’s hard when you are used to being a good student and succeeding at life. Then, not having so much to learn that there’s no way that you can learn it, and constantly failing, constantly being at the bottom of the food chain.
Frankly, I have had some really wonderful personal mentors in my life, but music grad school is a really brutal place. I hear people at med school and law school talk about their experiences. I can identify, except for there were only two of us in the class. It’s that level of brutal critique on a much more intimate, heightened level.
I have a number of graduate degrees, which are really helpful learning the repertoire. Some of those things, certainly, music history, and music theory, moving your arms around in a repertoire, but I really feel like that’s only about 50% of what I do now. I think my conducting technique has been greatly influenced by my training as a ballet dancer when I was younger, and also my training as an actor largely by Al Miller and the Theater Project.
So much of it is about what you can communicate with your face, with your eyes. I view myself as the first part of a reflecting mirror. I am reflecting the emotions of the music and what’s going on in the music in my body to the players. Then, their job is to then reflect that in sound to the audience. If what I’m showing the players is dead, then the musicians are going to be dead as well. A lot of that is what Al taught me.
Then, I do a lot of business stuff now, building organizations, marketing, development, fundraising, PR, that kind of stuff, which I have zero training in, but I am loving learning on the job. It’s been so fun.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Tell me what it’s been like to be female in a largely male field.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: Hard. I’m grateful to have my mother as a role model. She was one of 12 women in her law school class. I grew up hearing worse stories at that time, and also her arguing in front of the Appeals Court. Hearing stories like hers and other women around me was very helpful, but they weren’t models in my field.
As I mentioned, I realized I wanted to be a conductor by the time I was 15. That was really solidified by the time I was in 20 and in college. I went to take my first conducting class. I was one of three students in the class. The professor said, “There are no good female conductors because women can’t conduct.” Then, we spent 16 weeks together. That was my entrée.
Then, I was very lucky to go get my first conducting degree with one of the few women teachers in the country, Sharon Paul, out in Oregon who is a magic-maker. It was also a really safe environment being out in Oregon. In Oregon, everyone is a tattoo artist, or a Pilates teacher, or a meditation coach. The fact that I was a female conductor, no one cared. That was a great area to be making mistakes and to be learning.
I applied for a number of graduate programs both at the masters and doctoral level where … All sorts of ridiculous things. I would be invited to the audition. Then, they would have meetings or parts of the audition behind my back, and not tell me about them. There’s no way that I could compete for that.
Part of what you do in music training is you go to graduate school, but you also go to all these summer programs. Both my professors in graduate school, but also in the summer programs, the number of comments I got about my body and about the way I dressed, which is fairly conservative, I’m pretty conscious of that, but I’ve not really ever heard them make a comment about a man’s body on the podium. I’ve gotten pretty used to having those comments about my body. I’m now trying to use it as an asset, but that was certainly a struggle.
I think the hardest part was I said I had these mentors in other fields, but not having people in my own field. Sharon Paul, my teacher in Oregon, was wonderful, but her career was a really different path than what I wanted. She led the San Francisco Girls Choir. I’m not really interested in doing children’s courses. That’s what everyone assumes I want to do because I’m a woman conductor. I want to conduct symphonic courses. I want to conduct symphonies. I want to conduct big oratorios and concert works. I love the huge requiems with the big… You had 150 people on the stage. Those are my favorite. It’s so exciting. You hardly ever see women up in front of 150 people doing that.
I think what was the hardest for me was trying in this already extremely competitive field where 10%, 15, 20% are able to make their living. That so many people will drop out, or leave, or have to switch careers. That within that space already, how was I going to be able to raise a family, keep a marriage, not be moving every two to four years, lead a fulfilling life outside of my career, and be a woman in that leadership position?
I’m so grateful. It was incredibly serendipitous that I got the job at Oratorio Chorale. We’ve been around for 44 years. 22 years in, the director left. It just so happened I was finishing my doctorate at the time, and was looking around. It also just so happened that the Downeasters are going up to Brunswick, which is where my parents lived. I could bring my newborn baby with me, hand her over to grandma, and run off to rehearsal. This has been such a rewarding community to be making really high-level music. I really push my musicians.
For the most part, they’re very comfortable with me being a woman. They value, I think, what some people consider feminine qualities, which I don’t see as feminine qualities, but just as good leadership qualities such as humility, or inclusiveness, or willingness to admit that I’m not perfect, and that I’m a part of the process.
One of the things I’ve noticed in my other female colleagues is we tend to see the people we work with as collaborators, rather than being the dictator in charge. I think, at the end of the day, that makes for better music and a better organization. It’s been a challenge, but we’re getting there. We’re getting there.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Is there a glass ceiling currently?
Dr. Emily Isaacson: Yes, absolutely. With no good reason, but there is. Of the 103 arts organizations with the largest budget, I think it’s something like 14 or 15 have women conductors. Of the big 22 that you think of, only one has a female conductor, Marin Alsop. Repeatedly, there will decades of seasons where there’s no woman guest conductor. It’s really still not happening.
I read an interview with Marin Alsop, who’s the Director of the Baltimore Symphony recently. She’s probably in her 50s maybe. She said that when she was in grad school or in her training, she thought, “Okay, my generation is going to be the one that breaks the ceiling that changes.” Then, 10 years, 15, 20, 30 years later, it really hasn’t changed. How frustrating that is for her to see.
There’s more training opportunities now just in the last few years. Marin Alsop has started a fellowship for female conductors. Dallas Opera is doing this really interesting program for female conductors. There’s certainly more female conductors applying for and sometimes in the graduate programs, but they’re not ending up at the top leadership positions. There’s still a ceiling to be broken and work to be done.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Tell me about Amazing Grace.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: Oh my gosh. I’m so excited about this concert. This is a concert I’m doing with Oratorio Chorale. Just to step back for a second, when I had that moment at 15 where I decided I wanted to be a part of this amazing art, I also realized how many barriers there are to other people feeling that way.
Because of my parents, because my parents fostered creativity and curiosity in a sense that the world is my oyster, and because they gave me direct entrée to that art form at such a young age, I was going to Boone Summer Music Festival Concerts in the ergo on my mom’s chest. It wasn’t intimidating to me, but I realized how intimidating it was to other people, and how uncool it was viewed pretty much between the ages of 10 and, I don’t know, 40. I don’t know when you get the bug again.
Part of my mission has always been to tear down some of what I see as unnecessary restrictions to what is incredible music. In both my jobs, both with the Oratorio Chorale and Bach Festival, a lot of my programming is geared towards that. How can we get audiences engaged, potentially interactive, multi-generations? How can we put them in unexpected settings, so that you may be sitting, listening quietly to music, but you’re holding a microbrew in your hand, or you’re looking at the ocean while doing so?
Classical music was not in tall muller until the late 19th Century. That’s not the way people heard music. All of Bach’s secular music was premiered in Zimmermann’s Café House, which was a bar hall. It was one of the few places that unmarried men and women could mingle, and flirt, and talk to each other. It’s in that setting that he premiered many of his works. It’s the same, at Mozart’s operas, everybody was drunk, and it was like a dance hall. Everyone is playing around. You think of Schubertian Salon, Schubert, it was just a big house party that happened that also have incredible art. I’ve wanted to bring back some of that socializing, celebratory, easy nature.
Amazing Grace is this concert that my hope is through listening, reading, watching, and feeling the audience experiences this music and the concert experience in a very different way. It’s the African American Spiritual. We’re featuring a buddy of mine, Reggie Mobley. Reggie and I got to know each other, I don’t know, five years ago or so. Since then, he has just skyrocketed in his career. He is flying directly from Buckingham Palace, where he is singing for the Queen of England to Maine for this concert, which is so exciting. He’ll be doing early music for her, which is what he’s known for, with Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Then, coming and singing these spirituals with us.
This concert, one of the things that’s really important to me is that we approach Bach, and Mozart, and Beethoven with the circuit of academic ethos in this performance practice lens. We don’t always apply that to contemporary music or to music from our own country. I wanted not just for myself and for the ensemble but for the audience to put these African American spirituals in context.
We’ve worked really closely with Judith Casselberry, who is an African American Studies Professor at Bowdoin College, and an expert on this kind of music. The concert follows the evolution of the spiritual in America. Starting in the plantations in the way it would have been sung in a folk style or a congregational singing, what you think of as a call and response, but, then, improvised harmonization underneath that. To create the context around where that music was coming from, we’re doing a number of readings by Frederick Douglass.
Then, we moved into the Fisk Singers generation where this music was now being concertized, thought of as a performance opportunity. W.E.B. Du Bois was at Fisk University while this was going on. We have some writing by him. We go through emancipation. Then, towards the 20th Century, and the Civil Rights, ending with the way that the tune Amazing Grace was used during the Civil Rights and Over My Head was used during Civil Rights.
There’s reading. There’s incredible art by Daniel Minter and Ashley Bryan, who are Maine artists, who have been on your show. Judith is reading. Oratorio Chorale is singing. Reggie is making people weep in their seats. Music is coming from all sides. There’s a lot of movement in this concert. It looks absolutely nothing like what you’re probably expecting.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: With your very busy schedule, I really appreciate your coming in and talking with me today.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: Thank you so much for having me.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Emily Isaacson, who serves as the Artistic Director of the Oratorio Chorale in the Maine Chamber Ensemble.
Dr. Emily Isaacson: Thank you so much.