Teaching and Conducting: Tamarkin Shares Her Love of Music

October 05, 2006
Oct. 5, 2006 -- Orchestra conducting is a difficult business for any young conductor to break into. As an undergraduate student in the late 1970s Kate Tamarkin discovered she had a gift and passion for conducting and decided to make it her life’s work. She was headed into practically uncharted territory for a woman. Although there were a few female orchestra conductors who came before, they are still few and far between, Tamarkin said. “Until the 20th century women were not even [playing] in orchestras, much less conducting.”

Luck, as well as talent, was with Tamarkin. A professor encouraged her to pursue her dream, and she has gone on to lead orchestras nationally and internationally for more than 20 years as a conductor. During this time, she has combined her conducting with teaching younger orchestras.

That combination of talents led the McIntire Department of Music to choose Tamarkin from a pool of more than 100 applicants from around the world to lead the Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra. On the job only a few months, she is already bringing her special talents to bear. Not knowing the orchestra or audience, she developed the five programs for this year’s orchestra season around a literary theme.

“I try to frame the season with an opening and closing concert that will draw people, usually with some rousing and substantial works,” Tamarkin said. The “Fanfare Season,” as the orchestra’s 32nd year is named, will begin with “Songs of Home,” on Oct. 7 and 8, a program that includes Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville Summer of 1915,” based on American writer James Agee’s prose poem “A Death in the Family,” which depicts a family reunion from a child’s point of view. The second concert will feature a piece that references Robert Lewis Stevenson’s “The Strange
Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The third is a tribute to Shakespeare, and the fourth will feature Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” inspired by the “Tales of a Thousand and One Nights.” The fifth and final concert highlights Finnish composer Rautavaara’s “The Isle of Bliss,” which references the mythical island written about by Finnish poet Aleksis Kivi.

“Good programs work on many levels. A good program is one you can enjoy on a visceral level, but can also appreciate how it was put together,” Tamarkin said.

Another element to creating a winning season is to feature guest artists and the talents of the orchestra members, said Tamarkin, whose vision for the orchestra includes more works combining chorus and orchestra, a particular area of research interest for her, and solos by guest artists and orchestra principals. To that end, each of the 2006-2007 season programs highlights solo performances. Renowned soprano Sharon Christman will join the orchestra for the presentation of “Knoxville Summer of 1915.” The orchestra’s principal percussionist I-Jen Fang will be the featured soloist in the second concert’s presentation of Rosauro’s “Concerto
for Marimba and Orchestra.” Vocalist Gale Limansky will join the orchestra for the fourth concert “Voices of Spring” to sing Poulenc’s “Gloria,” along with the University Singers, and pianist Ivo Kaltchev will be the featured soloist playing Ravel’s “Piano Concert in G Major” in the last concert.

Tamarkin is planning to expand the orchestra beyond the regular subscriptionseries offerings. They will play an additional performance each for the annual holiday and young people’s concerts this season.

Tamarkin is also exploring the presentation of pieces that are new to the orchestra — there are 11 in the 2006-2007 season — as well as commissioning new pieces and playing compositions already written, which need more performances. Exploring outdoor venues at which to perform and collaborating with other artists in the area are some other ways Tamarkin plans to expand CUSO’s offerings.

Tamarkin is also putting her stamp on CUSO’s October Young People’s concert. She created a program that features music related to nature and weather. Her philosophy about young people’s concerts — honed during five years with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra — is to present shorter pieces and always have something at the concert that is unexpected. She and
Channel 29 weatherman Norm Sprouse will present an experience that is designed so everyone learns, she said.

Learning is an integral component of the orchestra’s makeup where professionals, faculty, students and community members play along side each other. “It’s good pedagogy,” Tamarkin said. “The orchestra has sectionals each week with their teachers, so there is a lot of teaching going on.” The orchestra also meets together with Tamarkin for weekly rehearsals.

Before her current post, she was an associate professor of music and director of orchestras and opera at Catholic University of America. At U.Va., Tamarkin is teaching instrument conducting and a 100-level class on “Exploring the Orchestra.” For her, it’s the best of two worlds — working closely with experienced music students while at the same time introducing nonmusicians to pieces she has conducted that are “like old friends” to her. She sees her role in the classroom as an extension of her role as a conductor — both are ways to communicate and share her love of music.

“More than any other instrument a conductor brings him- or herself to the role,” she said. “Conductors need to be introverts and extroverts. We’re introverts as we study the music and try to get an image of how music should go. And we’re extroverts when we are communicating. So it’s rather a complicated art and craft.”

October 7 & 8
Songs of Home

Smetana The Moldau from Ma Vlast
Barber Knoxville Summer
of 1915
• Sharon Christman,
Dvorák Symphony No. 8 in
G major

November 11 & 12
Rhythms of Nature

Butterworth The Banks of Green Willow
Beethoven Symphony No. 6 in
F major
Grantham Fantasy on Mr. Hyde’s
Rosauro Concerto for Marimba
and Orchestra
• I-Jen Fang, marimba

December 2 & 3
Family Holiday Concert

The University Singers join the orchestra
to celebrate the season with holiday
• Michael Slon, conductor

February 10 & 11
Sounds of Shakespeare

Nicolai Overture to The Merry
Wives of Windsor
Walton Music from Henry V
Prokofiev Excerpts from Romeo
and Juliet

March 17 & 18
Voices of Spring

Boulanger D’un matin de printemps
(Of a Spring Morning)
Poulenc Gloria
• Gale Limansky, soprano
• The University Singers

April 21 & 22
Islands of Bliss

Rautavaara The Isle of Bliss
Ravel Piano Concerto in G major
• Ivo Kaltchev, piano
Brahms Symphony No. 4 in
E minor