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Rebuilding a life.

Susan Davenny Wyner replays her transformation from singer to conductor

In his review of Susan Davenny Wyner's Boston orchestral conducting debut in 1997, the Boston Globe's Richard Dyer wrote, "She has learned to play the most difficult instrument of all, the orchestra. Limitless possibilities seem open to her..." Throughout her life and musical career, Susan Davenny Wyner has seen and embraced all manner of possibility. Raised in a musical and intellectual family (her father, Ward Davenny, was a concert pianist), she was first trained as a violinist and violist, but subsequently discovered that singing was her passion. Her beautifully colored lyric soprano led, to a major international career between 1971 and 1983; The Nation's music critic typified the critical responses: "She is one of the most gifted and accomplished singers to be heard today... I expect her to amaze, delight, and move us very often in the years to come.

That almost didn't happen. A hit-and-run bicycle accident in 1983 nearly took her life and it did take her voice.

In the aftermath, she came back to performing, now as a conductor. The Los Angeles Reader's Guide deemed her 1991 performance of Mozart's Serenade (K.388) "so thoughtful in concept and so eloquent in execution that, had you heard it on CD or LP and had been told that it was the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler, you would not have been surprised." In 1998 the American Symphony Orchestra named her a Catherine Filene Shouse Conductor--a first-rime award given by a national panel of conductors and orchestral managers to conductors on the threshold of major careers.

She has conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Boston Lyric Opera, and members of the Cleveland Orchestra in special benefit performances. She has 'also conducted concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, in the Czech Republic, at the Tanglewood and Aspen Music. Festivals, in Chicago's Orchestra Hall, as well as in New York, and for CBS Radio. She has taught at the New England Conservatory, the Cleveland Institute of Music, Wellesley College, and Brandeis and Cornell Universities. In 1999, she took over the helm of two very different orchestras, becoming Music Director and Conductor of the Boston-based New England String Ensemble, one of the world's top professional string orchestras; and of the Warren Philharmonic Orchestra, a professional orchestra near Cleveland.

The Women's Review asked Susan Davenny Wyner to reflect on her career and where it has brought her.

In many ways my singing career had its genesis in a single experience while I was a student at Cornell University. I was completing a double major in music and English, writing an honors thesis on the poetry of Wallace Stevens, and participating in every musical ensemble I could schedule, both in instrumental playing and singing. Barbara Troxel, who was then professor of voice, heard me singing one day and asked me to study with her. Within a short time she insisted (well before I thought I was ready) that I get out on the stage and perform two nineteenth-century art songs by Hugo Wolf with richly evocative texts by Goethe. Lord knows I was not new to performing: as a violinist I had often stood Out on that stage alone. But much as I loved playing the violin, I always became self-conscious as a soloist, aware of the instrument as an object outside my body, and woefully alert to my inability to make, it articulate all the thoughts I was feeling.

As I stood there onstage that afternoon and started to sing, I felt all sense of the outside world vanish. I became completely lost in the colors of the poetry and music. The intensity of my nervous energy opened an even richer spatial, aural, temporal sense. I felt I had entered an enchanted world. As I imagined a sound, it seemed to pour forth; as I thought to color a phrase, to shape a nuance of the poetry, the voice responded. In fact the two songs were short, but that experience encapsulated a lifetime. It certainly transformed my perception of performance. Even now I can replay the sensations, the vibrancy of feeling that I had found my soul's most personal voice.

I went to the Yale Summer School of Music and Art, where I met my husband, Yehudi, found a wonderful voice teacher in Herta Glaz Redlich, and worked patiently and quietly, learning how to spin the voice the way the great singers of the past had done. I had no thought of a career, just knew that there were things I wanted to say, great music to be sung, and that there was a "sound"--full of colors and passion and richness--that I wanted to learn to make. At a certain point it was suggested. that I enter a couple of contests "for the experience." I won them, and in the space of a year I was awarded two New York recitals, was invited to do two broadcast recitals for the CBC Radio Montreal, and stepped in at the last minute for ailing singers with the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. A career was launched.

For the next several years I had the opportunity to work with many great conductors--Leonard Bernstein, Sir Colin Davis, Erich Leinsdorf Robert Shaw, Loin Maazel, Seiji Ozawa, Andre Previn, Neville Mariner and Michael Tilson Thomas among them. I traveled both in this country and abroad to perform, broadcast and record, and in 1981 I made my debut at the Metropolitan Opera.

A joy for me in those years was having the opportunity to perform many different kinds of music--recital, concert, opera, chamber--from the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries. I embraced the challenge of preparing and giving first performances of works written especially for me, often working directly with composers while the composition was still in its embryonic stages. Being married to a wonderful composer/pianist/conductor, who wrote music for my voice, was an especially deep pleasure.

A hit and run accident: one instant on my bicycle, the next instant flying through the air. A bicycle helmet saved my life. Miraculous recovery, painstaking work to reconstruct the voice from a croak, to a speaking voice, to trying to sing a few concerts. It wasn't the same. All through the reconstruction, it never occurred to me that any loss might be permanent. But it finally, became dear that the damage to my singing voice was irreversible.

I was asked to return to Cornell to conduct a choral concert. The joy of living music in the moment of performance again, only this time with others' voices rather than my own: feeling of rebirth and new purpose. Then I was offered the job of conducting the very choruses I had sung in as an undergraduate. The story of the accident, the struggle to reconstruct, was no longer a private anguish: the MacNeil Lehrer Newshour did a program about me, focusing on my new life as a conductor, sharing my story with millions. Then came an invitation to come to the Aspen Music Festival to conduct orchestras regularly and to expand my technique. Another door was opened.

Cut to the present. I walked through that door to several years of, multifaceted and fascinating experiences as a choral, operatic and orchestral conductor. Making the decision to work with orchestras came out of a desire to integrate all 'of my instrumental training with what I learned as a singer, in opera, in recital work and as a conductor who had also worked with choral sonorities. I love conductors and performers who have a way of taking us into the experience of the piece, as if it's being composed right before our eyes--and who have the skill to create a Mozartian world and then turn around and create a completely different set of colors and values for Brahms. As I work with orchestras, part of what. I'm trying to do is engage in a kind of music-making that goes beyond purely instrumental sonorities, in a music-making that breathes, that carries dramatic import and that invites the musicians into a rich exchange of ideas. I want to build interpretations that grow out of an adventurous and dense interp lay, interpretations that can't be described in simple instrumental terms.

As a solo artist who trained her voice to try to speak the soul of the music directly, I found the voice to be the most immediate, the most personal, even at the same time the most universal instrument. When I would be singing with the Cleveland Orchestra or the Boston Symphony, and would initiate a phrase with a certain color or spin on the voice, I would feel my colleagues immediately respond and color arid inflect. We were able to communicate on levels that go. Way beyond words. Musicians are so sensitized in performance that even the smallest flicker of an eye, or the turn of a head, will set off a whole dense complexity of reactions. The way one snaps out a. dotted rhythm, for example, can suggest inflections of arrogance, of ceremonial posturing, of anger, of lighthearted frivolity, of dance steps, or even shifting combinations of characteristics.

What I have wanted to do as a conductor is to engage us in that kind of dense play of mind together, so that these quicksilver things that can be so direct with the voice are somehow communicated in the conducting.

Learning how to do that was fascinating. In the early days of my conducting, I was still so accustomed, as I had been as a singer, to being the music and its character, that I would--there on the podium--be what I was feeling in a very vibrant way. And the musicians were generous enough--and I do mean generous--to give me what my hands or the sophistication of my technique couldn't yet show. But gradually I began to understand that since I was no longer the one making the sound, I could trust being much more quiet. That way I would not create any barrier between the artists who are making the sounds, and the music itself.

It was important for me to allow myself to be imperfect. As a singer or an instrumentalist, you spend hours in the practice room honing your skills before you choose to share your artistry. Conducting is different. You don't know until you are on the podium whether your gestures and imagined moves will, work. It is an extraordinary dance that goes on every minute that you lead and respond. You think, "that's not working," "I'm in their way here," "oh, they need help over there," "that's not what I have in mind," and you adjust I've become so much more sensitive to the delicacy and nuances of the process, because I want to be a vehicle for the musicians and the music. I am constantly searching for ways to suggest musical ideas and approaches by embodying, not enacting, them so that the musicians can bring their own range of emotions and responses. to the music-making.

I have always believed that our responsibility as performers is to bring our visions to such a visceral, committed, engaged and intense communication that if someone is receptive to it, he or she will. be pulled into an experience that has profound meaning. Music-making is not wallpaper, not a decorative activity. It is vital, it can heal, it can change lives, it can allow us to connect with one another as human beings. Through it we can enter other times, other imaginations. I. feel that all the things I've learned--through the anguish of the accident, through retraining, through this extraordinary gift I was given to find another way to live the music I adore--have made me a much, better and richer person than I was even when I entered those magic worlds as a singer. I have learned much about the complexity of human nature, the differences of personalities as they come together through the act of music-making. These gifted, complicated individuals bring so much of their lives and such love when they all jo in together in an endeavor like this. It's been an amazing adventure.
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Title Annotation:singer becomes conductor
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2000
Words:2025
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