'Doing a Good Job of It' for BachSoc
Seven years ago Diana Watt and her older brother found an old violin in their grand parent's attic. "Of course we fought over who would get to keep it," she says, "but I had no idea that it would have such an enormous effect on my life." Indeed, without that violin and the intensive lessons which followed its discovery, she probably would not have developed a serious committment to music, and would instead have remained "one of those kids who takes four years of piano and hated every minute of it." Certainly, she would not be about to become the Bach Society Orchestra's first female conductor.
Although a pre-med German major who gave up playing the violin freshman year "out of rebellion," Watt insists that music has been the most important thing in her life since she was twelve. "Nothing else really meant anything to me," she says.
She also insists, however, that she auditioned for the conducting position as a joke, never believing she would beat out four competing males to win the spot. "I hadn't done anything like this since I'd come to Harvard, and I was very nervous," she says. In fact, James E. Ross '81, the orchestra's present conductor who knew her from her month of Bach Society membership, had to convince her to take the audition, which involved an interview with a panel of BSO members and a fifteen minute stint with the orchestra.
"I didn't even have a baton," she laughs, explaining that she conducted instead with a pencil. "Maybe that endeared me to them," she says. She hastens to add that she will be receiving a real conductor's baton for her next birthday.
A self-styled army brat who lived in a different house each year of her life until settling at the age of thirteen in San Francisco, Watt first conducted during high school when the conductor of her county orchestra--the Marin County Youth Orchestra--offered to give her lessons. Soon the conductor, Hugo Renaldi, was letting her conduct the orchestra occasionally, as well as allowing her to lead Saturday-morning children's concerts.
"I loved working with kids--conducting variations on "Pop Goes the Weasal," and "Peter and the Wolf," she says, adding, "Renaldi was my mentor. He took me under his wing, inspired me to work, and even helped me get a scholarship for school."
School for Watt was San Dominico School for Girls, a private arts-oriented high school with a strong music program. There she participated in recitals almost every week, practiced the violin for at least two hours a day, and studied music theory. "Virtually all of my friends were musicians," she says.
Nevertheless, Watt rebelled against the idea of a professional career in music. Although she admits that she was at one time good enough on the violin to have become a free-lancer or orchestra player, the thought of entering the "rat-race" of professional music seemed to her to run contrary to the whole spirit of music-making.
"My teachers gave me false hopes--told me I might go even farther than free-lancing--but deep-down I knew they were wrong," she says.
What, then, gave her the confidence to enter, even in amateur status, the field of conducting--a field dominated almost exclusively by men? Perhaps her mother, an interior designer who entered college when her daughter entered high school, and to whom Watt refers as "an ardent feminist," had something to do with it.
"I know she brought me and my brother up to believe that women have the right to choose," she says, adding, "Being the feminist she is, she thought the best thing about my winning the conductorship was that I beat out four men."
However, although she too considers herself "very much a feminist," Watt stresses "the main thing is that I do a good job of it, not just that I'm a woman."
Although she attributes the scarcity of women conductors in general to the same sexual discrimination that has afflicted women in most fields, she notes that the role of conductor is an especially authoritative one in which women are even less likely to be taken seriously.
"It's a very lonely position up there," she says, "You have complete power over the orchestra and you are fully accountable for what goes on-if something goes wrong it's your fault, but if something goes right it's your fault too."
Watt hopes, however, that her experience as an instrumentalist will help close the gap between orchestra and conductor. "It is very important for a conductor to be familiar with the musicians, and to understand what it feels like to be conducted. Only then is it possible to feel like one cohesive group, instead of like an outside dictator," she says, adding. "I hope that, knowing what I myself like in a conductor, I will be able to convey my ideas in a forceful and articulate manner that will be well received."
BSO members have no doubt that she will fulfill these hopes. Praising her musicianship, Brian J. Hall '81, principal bassoonist of the orchestra, notes that Watt "works beatifully with people, and knows the literature very well." Ross agrees, adding she is "very expressive; in her audition she really pulled things apart and put them back together. We can rely on her being a strong leader who is pleasant yet demanding."
Watt says she plans to continue Ross's policy of presenting works of contemporary and lesser known composers, premiering new works, and inviting well-known soloists to perform with the orchestra. Possible ideas for her '81-'82 season include the Beethoven triple concerto with soloists from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, an all-Mozart program, and works by Ives, Vaugn Williams and Stravinsky.
Indeed, with a four-concert season at Sanders Theatre and a possible spring tour, the conductorship, which carries with it the title of Music Director, is like a full-time job. But although she is eager to take on this full-time responsibility--"It's really the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me"--Watt says she still resists the idea of becoming a professional musician. "I would much rather have music as an avocation, as something to enjoy, than as something to put me under all this intense pressure," she says, adding, "If anyone had asked me last year whether I'd be conducting I would have told them they were crazy."