Interview with Marika Kuzma

“I have enjoyed a multifaceted career as a musician: concerts in prestigious venues, collaborations with internationally renowned orchestras, workshops with choirs of all sizes, and teaching one-on-one. Each aspect of my work informs the other, and I aim to create beautiful, meaningful, and memorable experiences with singers, instrumentalists, and fellow artists at all levels of expertise.

As a Conductor, I have led performances of professional and amateur ensembles across the United States and Canada. My repertoire ranges from the chant of Hildegard to the Bach B minor Mass to the Verdi Requiem to Stravinsky Les noces to premieres of works by living composers. Among the venues where I have performed are Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall; Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, CA; the National Cathedral in Washington D.C.; Stephansdom in Vienna, Austria. Currently, I am most interested in leading projects that combine various art forms and creating events that raise awareness of societal issues.

As a Chorus Master, I have prepared choirs for leading conductors of my generation and rising stars of the current generation. I have collaborated with artists such as Joana Carneiro and the Berkeley Symphony, Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra; the Mark Morris Dance Group; Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra; Kent Nagano and the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal. Many of these collaborations have received enthusiastic reviews in the New York Times, Le Devoir, Opera News, San Francisco Chronicle, etc.

As a Choral Clinician I’ve been invited to work with many community, college, and high school choirs in day-long or shorter workshops. Dozens of choirs and their directors have sought out my advice in vocal technique, style, and interpretation for concerts and competitions. I have also published articles, made recordings, and given lectures internationally, particularly related to Slavic choral music.

In recent years, I’ve been coaching singers and conductors in the private studio and zoom setting. I gained some twenty-five years of experience working one-on-one with students while directing the choirs at the University of California, Berkeley, and supervising its vocal performance program. Some of my former students are solo vocalists on major opera stages and recording studios. My conducting students have led symphony, choral, and opera performances across America. While I teach all levels and all ages, I seem to have a special knack for helping singers over 50 and conductors of all ages working through physical obstacles. I’ve also been asked to coach diction to various artists in music and theater. Since I grew up bilingual (Ukrainian-American) in a multi-ethnic neighborhood and have lived in several countries, I speak (and love) many languages.

Inhale.

I believe my unique voice and success as a musician stems from my training as both a singer and instrumentalist, both choral and orchestral conductor, my sensitivity to languages and cultures, and my experience as an actor. Each of these helps bring the music fully to life in performance. I’ve become increasingly attentive to breath and eye contact and the full body in artistic expression whether in solo or group performance.

I received my earliest musical training at home—my family sang together constantly—and at the Hartt School of Music in violin and voice. I then attained a vocal performance degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill with further study at the Salzburg Mozarteum and Vienna Hochschule für Musik. Later, at Indiana University, I gained a doctorate in choral conducting and trained as an Orchestral Conducting Fellow at the Aspen Music Festival. My voice teachers have included Jane Randolph and Marilyn Taylor. My conducting mentors included Thomas Binkley, Jan Harrington, Gustav Meier, Robert Porco, and Paul Vermel.

Exhale.

I grew up on the East Coast, and after almost thirty years living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve just returned to Connecticut.

I look forward to meeting you and making music with you—on either coast. Please feel free to be in touch for coaching and collaborations great and small.

New Inspiration.”

1. Fanny Mendelssohn: After one of her concerts, people would tell her she played like a man. How do you feel about this comment?

I think all artists are capable of tapping into their more masculine or more feminine qualities. They need to.

That comment reminds me of my first real concert conducting chorus and orchestra. This was at Indiana University which has a great music school and is very competitive. When I started there, I’d only been conducting for a short while. Our program had three male mentors. Two of them came up to me after the concert and said essentially that it was very good but… well… feminine. The third mentor came up to me to tell me that I had a unique spark. Thank God for his comment–it kept me going. I remember asking the other two to be more specific. What exactly did they mean? 

Was I hesitant, was I demure? Was I too lyric, hyper-articulate? They gave me nothing specific that I could address. My last year at Indiana, I conducted in a masterclass taught by a visiting artist who had directed the BBC Singers. I led a Debussy song and after I finished, he said: “That was so wonderfully feminine.” Voilà!– he saw it as a positive. Ultimately each person finds a blend of their own vulnerability and authority, lyricism and articulation, and any conductor should have many qualities. In my career, I’ve had the chance to lead many many works with many musicians and as far as I could tell, the singers or players related to me as a conductor. Period.

As a conducting teacher, I found that some women have trouble tapping into their inner fire. Because many of us are taught to be deferential, anger in particular can be a hard emotion for some women to access at all. Well… you can’t find your way into any “Dies irae” setting without finding the fire within you.  I remember telling one student: “Just pretend you’re Venus Williams on the tennis court.”

2. When and why did you decide to become a conductor?

I was in training to become a singer. I was cast in college operas, had been chosen for masterclasses, won a competition, and I got into Indiana University for its graduate program in voice. But for complicated reasons I changed paths.  I’m of Ukrainian descent, so I sang in choirs a lot growing up, and also I loved singing in my college choir under our phenomenal director at UNC Chapel Hill. When I attended a concert of the Bach B minor Mass under his direction as a freshman, it opened my ears. I didn’t know that choral music could be that vibrant and amazing.

When I decided to change to choral directing in my mid twenties, I started conducting a little church choir, and I got into a doctoral program at Stanford University, then transferred to Indiana. I had only been conducting for a year and a half when I got into Indiana. My classmates had already been conducting for years and years. I was a smart musician I guess— I was a singer, a violinist— I devoured scores. I passed the audition and the entrance exams. 

That’s how I got into conducting. 

It was uphill at first. I had a lot of catching up to do. Also, I’m really empathic, so after my first time standing in front of a big choir, I went home and stared at a wall just to digest all I’d experienced. It took time to process all of the energy and all the stimuli.  But it was gratifying. My principal conducting teacher in the doctoral choral program at Indiana was very strict, and he wanted all of the choral conductors to train in orchestral conducting. One day, he announced–this Friday,

Sibelius II, last movement, in front of an orchestra, go! Of course, I was intimidated and studied hard. But I had played the Sibelius as a violinist in my teens. When I got in front of the orchestra, I had a blast. Feeling the orchestra under your wings, wow. That is when I decided to audition for Aspen and was chosen for its orchestral program two summers. My teacher there was fabulous. In some ways I am sad I didn’t pursue orchestral work more, but as the director of the choirs at UC Berkeley, it was more than a full-time job.

I’ve had so many peak  experiences: leading the offstage women’s chorus in Debussy Sirènes at Place des Arts in Montreal led by Kent Nagano onstage with the very orchestra that was so famous for its Debussy recordings… amazing; myself conducting the Britten War Requiem with all those instrumentalists and singers in a huge hall changed my life; leading a concert on the anniversary of 9-11 on the Berkeley campus; Bach St Matthew Passion; preparing choirs for Mark Morris Dance Group productions with Philharmonia Baroque and Nic McGegan; preparing the chorus for Joanna Carneiro in Macmillan’s Seven Last Words; preparing the chorus for a special concert of Venezuelan music with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel. I feel very lucky. 

3. Did you have any preconceived ideas about conducting?

Not really. Perhaps at first I assumed that you have to be a total authoritarian on the podium. There were many male classmates who would put on these airs of “my way or the highway.” That didn’t fit my nature.

In some ways I went into conducting as someone who first and foremost cared for her singers. On the podium, I always tried to be a vessel where the ideas and the music are flowing through me together with all of the people in front of me. That is what great conducting is all about—synergy, not a power trip. 

There is a book that came out in the 80’s called The Maestro Myth, and it includes a chapter about a common conundrum for female conductors. The author observes that men conductors often feel free to channel their lyricism and soft side and luxuriate on the podium, while women often feel as though they have to convey authority at all times and not show any self-indulgence or chink in their armor. We often feel we have to be “macha.” Because there can be resistance to women on the podium, at least initially, women sometimes add layers of armor with time, and this can get in the way of their best music-making.  At least for me, though, the stresses came more from struggles for funding and staff support than on the podium itself. I didn’t expect this. In some institutions, it’s much harder to get support as a woman than as a man. Those struggles too can harden you. 

It seems the current generation of women conductors feel freer to show many sides of themself on the podium. The biggest obstacle women face these days, I think, is not resistance from musicians onstage but what happens behind the scenes. Institutions tend to change more slowly than fellow artists. Hopefully women will gain better institutional support with time. 

4. What were your parents’ reaction to your choice of becoming a conductor, and your decision to make a career out of it?

When I started conducting, in my mid-twenties, my father called to keep me from pursuing conducting. He reminded me that I was good at math and analytical things, and he told me that he heard computers were going to be big (this was in the mid eighties). My father warned me that the only people who make it as conductors are the ones on the very top, “and if you can’t make it to the very top, well….”  But once I made up my mind and started gaining some success, my parents supported my decision.

5. Do you believe that criticism or comments about gender from male colleagues have caused you to alter some aspect of your conducting, whether consciously or subconsciously?

Yes, definitely. And in constructive ways for the most part. One of the critiques was about eye contact. I am a shy person, and I think often for women in general it can be harder to stare someone down. I tended to look at the floor or at the score or over people’s heads. But you can’t hide behind a screen when you are conducting. My teachers challenged me on this, and it’s good that they did. Conducting is in some ways like acting. You can’t hide behind the music or a veneer–you have to be fully present and allow yourself to be fully seen. You also have to keep going, be both in the moment and focus on what’s ahead at the same time.  I found that if I really made eye contact and really breathed with the players, it broke down barriers.

In one masterclass, one of my teachers was actually sensitive to the fact that a woman’s center of gravity is different from  a man’s. That was interesting and helpful.

On the other hand, sometimes I would be experimenting with gestures and movements in class, and my male classmates would come up later to say: “You can’t do that move, that’s a man’s move. Women can’t do that one.” Really. I remember thinking: “Are you kidding me?” Conducting is so individual. Generally, categorizing by gender itself doesn’t serve us well.

6. Have people underestimated your musical abilities on the fact that you are a woman?

In some ways I would almost say that I underestimated myself initially. Luckily I had some teachers who said “you can do this, you have something special, keep going.” That propelled me further and further along. That and my big passion for music. Whether I thought I could do it or not, I wanted to, needed to. 

Working with orchestras, sometimes the orchestra doesn’t trust that I know what I am doing initially. There is this stigma about choral directors being less trained, and maybe women as being less trained, and I’m rather soft-spoken. So I have to overcome those initial preconceptions within the first minutes.

The way I could win them over was not by putting on airs but by showing them I did know what I was up to. I studied the score like crazy so I knew its ins and outs technically and also studied to have a sense, personally, of what the composer was trying to say. Finding a musical and emotional and intellectual connection behind everything on the page. That is what I love most about conducting, all of the detective work and then relaying that to the musicians, creating a community through my imagination and connecting with them. But it’s not easy. For anyone of either gender.

I remember one rehearsal, where the first violins were giving me attitude even as they were taking their seats onstage. I just signaled for the A, announced the movement, picked up the baton, and went for the music. Focus. Done.

People respond to brute authority, but even more than that, they respond to mastery and authenticity. You have to remind them in your own work why they got into music in the first place.

Perhaps the most sexist experience I’ve had was an interview with a journalist in Montreal when I first arrived to direct the Montreal Symphony Chorus for a while. This music critic approached me with such skepticism. “So, why are you here?” That was literally his first question. I replied that I was surprised he didn’t know but…  He then said, “But why are you really here”? and insinuated that I had no training or experience. Although he would surely have known that there had been an international search, could easily have found my bio online, and was likely given information by the symphony in advance, I took the time to guide him:  I studied at the Vienna Conservatory, I have a doctorate from Indiana University, I’ve been leading choirs at a major university for seventeen years,  I have prepared choirs for major orchestras and conductors with my work reviewed in prestigious newspapers. I conducted Mendelssoh Elijah the previous year.  He challenged me: “You conducted Elijah; YOU?”  So incredulous, so condescending. It was a harsh lesson in sexism. 

7. When you are in front of/in an orchestra, do you perceive that there is the same amount of commitment and dedication in comparing male and female musicians?

There’s no gender difference that I can feel. They’re equally attentive and passionate about the music.

As for their attentiveness or commitment to me: sometimes I felt more resistance from women than men. Sometimes the other way around. It all depends on each group dynamic. 

I find that women who were very fond of a previous male director tended to be especially protective of that director’s legacy. It was harder to win them over. Regardless, the responsiveness evens out over time.

8. Pick a male and female role model and what are their differences, and do you think this has anything to do with their gender?

There certainly are many conductors I admire, each for different reasons, and each has inspired me in different ways. I don’t really have idols, though.  I never thought to myself–wow I want to conduct like him or I want to conduct just like her.  Of course we unconsciously pick up some of the style of beloved conductors we’ve sung or played under.  I might imitate some gestures but not the person, if that makes sense. Or their manner of interacting with musicians. To me, it’s more about finding how I myself can communicate what is on the score and in my imagination and with the people in front of me. In some ways conducting and leading is like singing. You can’t compare yourself to another singer or imitate that singer. We each have our own voice, our own body, our own personality. 

9. The principal conductor of the National Youth Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic has provoked outrage by claiming that orchestras “react better when they have a man in front of them” and that “a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things”. When conducted by a man, musicians encounter fewer erotic distractions, Vasily Petrenko claimed. “Musicians have often less sexual energy and can focus more on the music,” he said, adding that “when women have families, it becomes difficult to be as dedicated as is demanded in the business”.” What is your reaction upon hearing this?

Well, there you go. I find that comment insulting not so much to women conductors as to musicians. Music has its own kind of energy. I have a hard time believing that when you are really singing or playing for the music’s sake, the conductor’s gender will distract or detract from music-making. Great conductors of either gender can have a tremendous, even seductive, charisma and musical energy that just takes over. Their amazing focus on the music focuses the musicians on the music. In the best rehearsals and performances, we enter a kind of altered state. We forget the conductor’s looks. As for having families–life circumstances impact both male and female conductors, right? The experience of having children might even help a parent-conductor’s ability to multitask or open their heart more on the podium. 

Aside from being sexist, that conductor’s comments are also illogical. Only women are physically attractive/distracting? If a man can conduct and “distract” an orchestra that includes both women and men, so can a woman. 

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