Chamber Orchestra

Orderly Conduct

New RP Chamber Orchestra leader is a woman with a mission

By Greg Cahill and Gretchen Giles

Ask Nan Washburn if she’s a woman on a mission and the new conductor and music director of the Rohnert Park Chamber Orchestra makes a strong case for blending the old and the new, the familiar and the unfamiliar. “I love the standard repertoire and believe that anything sounds better when it’s put into a new context,” says Washburn, 40, during a phone interview from her Davis home. “So it is out of a love of that repertoire and a sense of wanting even more that I always make it a point to program works by contemporary women and minority composers. I’m just not content to listen to the same Beethoven year after year, no matter how much I love it.

“If it’s put into a new context and perhaps alternated with a lot of other different kinds of things, I think that’s a fresher approach.”

Last March, the orchestra’s executive director, Linda Temple, announced that board members had selected Washburn from a field of 29 applicants to replace conductor and founder J. Karla Lemon. As the conductor and music director of the Camellia Orchestra in Sacramento, and co-founder in 1980 of the Women’s Philharmonic in San Francisco, Washburn was hired to conduct the RPCO primarily because board members felt her tastes fit the orchestra’s reputation for eclectic programming.

She began her appointment last May by guest-conducting the very first local American Pops concert. “I’ve already been approached by people out there who think I founded the orchestra,” Washburn laughs. “But I’m extending the orchestra in my own way. There are certain advantages to being a guest conductor–I don’t have to bear the weight of all the decisions–but I particularly like being able to not only decide on each performance, but to shape the whole season.

“And people have been very responsive, and they’re surprised that what they often like the most is the newest piece.”

Her tenure as permanent musical director and conductor begins with a flourish on Nov. 3-5 with a weekend of concerts appropriately entitled “New Beginnings,” featuring work by Haydn, Gershwin, Stravinsky, and local contemporary composer Lou Harrison, whose “Suite for Violin, Piano, and Small Orchestra” will be highlighted.

“Everybody has different musical tastes,” Washburn says, “and I do stress a multicultural presentation. Lou Harrison is a very fine example of that. Here is this California composer whose piece is heavily influenced by Balinese gamelan music.” Washburn is also excited about having Harrison on the premises to interact with both the orchestra and the audience. “Friday is an actual working rehearsal,” she says. “Lou Harrison will be there to talk, but he will also be directing the orchestra and working as a composer with the musicians.

“We think that this will appeal to people who want to see how we actually put it all together.”

Washburn’s commitment to contemporary composers, and especially women composers, came “out of necessity,” she explains, when the then-budding flutist found herself running out of repertoire as a junior in college.

“Unlike piano or violin or some of these other instruments that have tons of music written for them, the flute and many other wind instruments have far less to choose from,” she says. “So I found myself asking, ‘Now what?’ I began poking around looking for new pieces and, to be honest, didn’t even think there were any women composers because I’d never heard of one in music history class. In my naivete, I had thought, ‘Well, if I haven’t heard of any, then they must not be very good.’ Much to my surprise, I discovered that there were many fine women composers who simply had been left out.

“I can’t tell you how much I enjoy seeing [12th-century German abbess] Hildegard von Bingen topping the charts,” she adds with a laugh. “She was simply a master and it’s great that that’s finally being brought out.”

When she’s not actively conducting, Washburn is busy juggling her time between her duties in Davis and Rohnert Park. “It’s logistically a challenge,” she admits. “I have all of my files color-coded. But it’s really great to do things a couple of years apart with one orchestra and then another. Both orchestras are similar in really welcoming the challenge of bringing in new and multicultural music.

“I’m very pleased with [the RPCO] because they’ve already done a lot of educational work.”

Looking back on what she’s already done this year, Washburn muses, “The pops concert was very successful, and I like to think that people got a good sense of what I like about music and performance.”

Which is what? “Oh, it’s not only that you have artistic challenges,” she answers, “but it’s the emotional impact and the shared experience with the orchestra and the audience as you surmount those challenges.

“It’s a wonderful feeling.”

Nan Washburn conducts the Rohnert Park Chamber Orchestra in “New Beginnings,” from Nov. 3-5. Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2:30pm Tickets are $11-$17. 584-1700.

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