Waving her baton

Keri Lynn Wilson has a multi-layered musical upbringing and stays fit so she can do what she loves most: conducting music

Keri Wilson 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Keri Wilson 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Modest Mussorgsky, it is said, saved his best for last. The swan song in question is the Russian composer’s final and only completed opera, Boris Godunov, which he created between 1868 and 1873 in St. Petersburg.
The work will be performed at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv from March 13 to 29, in a grand production involving the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion, the Israel Opera Chorus and the Bat Kol Choir, as well as no fewer than 20 soloists. Chief among the latter is Georgian-born bass vocalist Paata Burchaladze in the title role.
Boris Godunov offers those who venture to perform it with quite a challenge, as well as with rich artistic and spiritual rewards. The work has one of the most complex creative histories, and breadth of alternative material, in the operatic world. Mussorgsky composed two versions. The original 1869 version was rejected for production by the Imperial Theaters. The revised version of 1872 premiered in 1874 in St. Petersburg. The two versions follow very different story lines and ideological concepts and, over the years, several composers, including Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Dmitri Shostakovich, have created new editions of the opera to “correct” perceived technical weaknesses in the composer’s original scores.
“Yes, when you say Boris Godunov, the thing that immediately comes to mind is ‘Which version are you talking about?’” says 45-year-old Canadian conductor Keri Lynn Wilson, who will be on the podium for all but the last three performances of the current run, with French conductor Frederic Chaslin wielding the baton in her wake. “There are books written on the history of this opera. There is a historical as well as musical search for finding what works best on stage. It certainly makes life interesting and it is a huge challenge,” observes Wilson, adding that there were other logistics to be addressed before she could get down to work in Tel Aviv.
“This is a production that has already been produced.
However, from a musical point of view, since it is a revival, there were certain things I didn’t feel comfortable with, in terms of the cast, which I didn’t feel worked musically. So there was a bit of negotiation, but basically this is a version that was already done, so I can either take the blame or credit for what is good or bad in the production,” she laughs.
AS MUCH as we may like to have our artistic entertainment and inspiration kept squeaky clean, in political terms, that sadly is not always the case and there is plenty of political intrigue surrounding Boris Godunov and its various renditions. “It is fascinating to look at the political content of this work, and so many parallels can be drawn from the tone and the nuances and the suggesting of the repression of the people in this opera,” notes Wilson. “For me, it is drama that represents real life in what’s still going on. It is a fresh work, and it doesn’t feel stale at all because Russian society is pretty much the same today.”
Wilson has followed something of a checkered musical path of her own. “I come from a very musical background. I played piano and violin and flute at the same time. So I had a very well-rounded background, which was the first perfect foundation for a conductor, because I played chamber music and I was very involved in many areas of music.”
After high school, Wilson enrolled at one of the classical world’s most venerable institutions.
“When I went to Juilliard [School in New York], I just became bored with playing the same instruments.
On flute I was taking courses on Wagner operas, which I don’t think is quite normal for flute players – there was definitely some desire there to takes things a little further.”
In time, Wilson began to develop an interest in conducting. “I did two degrees in flute and then a third degree in conducting, and I conducted orchestras and then operas and, then, here I am – I do both.”
Having an instrumental background colors the way she directs her ensemble, she says. “I think that playing all these instruments comes into what I do. I think it is important to have an understanding of string instruments, and wind playing is also extremely important, to understand the breaths, and being a wind player also helps me understand the singing. I think it is very important for conductors to be well-rounded, at least in terms of understanding wind instruments and string instruments and, of course, the piano.”
Besides having a multi-layered musical upbringing, Wilson is one of the few female professionals in a traditionally male-dominated sector. She says that, for her, this doesn’t come into her professional equation and that, if there are any male chauvinists out there, she doesn’t let that impact on her work. “When I work with orchestras, they listen to me and respect me, and that’s all I could want. The first time I approach the podium and the musicians see me, yes there is the immediate notion of my appearance. But once we start making music, it is all about what I am as a musician, and judging me on the basis of how I conduct, so they can take it or leave it.”
Sometimes someone on the non-musical side of an institution’s personnel may raise the matter.
“The only time I really hear about it is when someone from the administration staff of some place may say that they’ve already had a woman conductor that season and they don’t want another one. That stuff just drives me crazy, and therefore I don’t think about it. I do get asked about it a lot in the press, because it’s still unusual to find a female conductor. I’m not a feminist. I am doing this just because I love it.”
Wilson says she was brought up with a live-and-letlive ethos. “I come from Canada, which is such an open society, and being a woman was never an issue. I didn’t grow up in the Middle East, so I am very fortunate.
My mentality is just to try not to be influenced by what other people think, and I just do what I do.”
Besides mental strength, conductors tend to also keep themselves in good physical condition. There is a long list of conductors who have worked well into their golden age, including Pablo Casals, who took the podium for the last time just two months short of his 95th birthday, and Leopold Stokowski, who conducted into his 94th year and made his last recording at the age of 95. And there is Wilson’s compatriot woman conductor, Blanche Honegger Moyse, who was forced to give up a career as a violinist after 40 years in the profession due to a bow-arm ailment, but subsequently took up the baton and made her Carnegie Hall conducting debut at 78, conducted into her 90s and lived to the age of 101.
“I swim every day and you have to keep in good shape as a conductor,” Wilson notes. “I treat my body as a machine, because it is my career and my life.”
For tickets and more information about performances of Boris Godunov: (03) 692-7777 and www.israel-opera.co.il