Photo credit: Geetha G. Ooi
Up Late Thinking with symphony conductor Sandra Ragusa
Tell me, reader - what background music do you select when a classical music conductor is coming to dinner? Just as I thought. After careful consideration, I too opted for nothing at all.
On this occasion the maestro did not need to travel far. Through great good fortune, I happen to live on the same street as classical music conductor, Sandra Ragusa. There is something rare and lofty about “symphonic conductor” as an occupation, and this is doubly so when the hand waving the baton is female. My neighbors agree that her presence elevates our otherwise modest block of houses. Ragusa travels frequently: her work as a conductor has taken her to three continents. Beginning her career as a music teacher (that’s another story), she is first and foremost a musician and, without knowing it, you have probably heard her play. As a flutist, she has contributed to the soundtracks of major motion pictures, including The Horse Whisperer, The Lion King, Rocket Man, Mulan, Sleepers, The Color Purple, Apollo Thirteen, Seabiscuit, 101 Dalmatians – among others. Today, in addition to her work as a symphonic conductor, she is the co-leader of DCflutes, the official flute ensemble of the Flute Society of Washington.
She grew up in Temple City, not far from Los Angeles, in the San Gabriel Valley of southern California. All these years later and now living on the opposite side of the country, she still carries the wide-open imprint of her native state. Discouraged as a young woman from pursuing a conducting career, she turned to teaching music and, at the start of her career, was the target of a violent attack by the parent of one of her pupils. It took both time and personal work to get over the nightmare of that experience. “For me, I learned what was big and what was small. It was like a turning point. And I try my best not to sweat the details…I’m not always real good at it but I try…
“I believe in resilience and I just keep persisting.”
Later in her career, a freak accident would all but end her work as a flutist. Ironically, the injury would also reopen the door to her first love, conducting.
I asked her to bring her baton to dinner. In her brief case, together with scores of Mozart, Haydn and Tchaikovsky, she had three batons. As I handled each in turn, she looked at them fondly. “They’re a little like magic wands,” she said.
ULT: I’ve always wondered if the movement of a baton together with the accompanying hand gestures and body language of the conductor have codified meaning for musicians – like American Sign Language for the deaf. Are the gestures taught or does the individual conductor make them up?
SR: There is no school of conducting, there’s no you-have-to-do-it-this-way. The baton is the only instrument you learn where there is no one way or ten ways AND when you practice, you practice in silence. You don’t have the orchestra in front of you when you practice.
There is this communication in the gestures and I remember being told early on, ”you hold the music in your hands”. I’ve been told by a few conducting masters that you have to be the music, that you have to have it in you – so you try your best to do that in your own feeble way because there are few people who have this manual technique that’s off the chart and so very clear. When conducting, in the moment, you are reading what they are playing and adjusting. All conductors are very different.
Aaron Goldman, who is the principal flutist with the National Symphony Orchestra, once told me about Neeme Järvi. At one time Järvi was the conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and under Järvi that was some symphony! Aaron said under Järvi you could absolutely know what he wanted and Järvi never talked a lot, he just showed. And I think some of the conductors that I’ve played for – the really good ones – they didn’t talk a lot: Esa–Pekka Salonen doesn't talk a lot, Zubin Mehta doesn’t talk a lot, Carlo Maria Giulini…he didn’t talk a lot. I’ve been in rehearsals with Claudio Abbado – not a lot of talking, a lot of showing – and Sir Simon Rattle -- again, a lot of showing. So less talk, more show
ULT: Did you start out wanting to be a conductor? Is that position an aspiration or goal for a classical musician?
SR: Some people do. For me, I remember my parents saying I was always grabbing sticks and waving them when I was a small girl and then when I got to USC I thought that was a pretty keen thing to do. I was told women don’t do that – but, they said, you’d make a really good school teacher – and so I believed it. Marin Alsop and I are somewhat contemporaries and, unlike me, she didn’t believe it. In fact, she created her own orchestra! Her parents were musicians and my parents – my mother was a graphic artist and my father a foundryman – had no idea what this was all about, and so I thought, I’ll go and teach school music and I did, happily, for over 20 years.
[Editor’s note: Marin Alsop is currently the only woman conductor in the US to lead a major orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.)
ULT: How many women conductors are there?
SR: Not a lot. There are more coming up, which is a lovely thing.
ULT: How did you move from flutist to conductor?
SR: It happened literally by accident. I was doing my masters at Carnegie Mellon and working in an office of the music school. I was using a hand truck to move something and a part of it struck me in the face with great force, severely damaging one side of my face. That ended my flute playing career and because I had always wanted to be a conductor, I was still thinking about it. After all this happened, I was living in the home of the dean of the College of Fine Arts and I still had a droopy face. He sat me down and said, you know, you’re still a really good musician so what is it you can do, is there another area of music? He thought I would be a great conductor and he thought also it was pretty glamourous…
ULT: It IS glamourous!
SR: No, it’s blue collar work, it really is. So, that’s how it happened – purely -- and literally -- by accident. Goofy. Yet I persist.
ULT: It seems like such a rare vocation – to be a symphony conductor. Do you keep track of each other? How many conductors are there in the world?
SR: Too many! If you apply for a position, there are like 400 other conductors competing for the job…
ULT: Tell me about magic moments. You step down after the evening’s performance and…?
SR: They shake you to your core. And for me, I almost become inconsolable. I almost can’t believe it happened – it’s like, oh! Those moments literally take my breath away!
One [magic moment] occurred in Berlin with the Berlin Sinfonia. We were performing Mozart’s Requiem and I was conducting and – when I’m up there, the whole rest of the world stops – but [during the performance] a woman in the audience fell and, of course, everything stopped to attend to her – but then we had to put the performance back together. And it went to a new level, there was this focus that hadn’t been there before. There was this confluence of everything coming together. That was magic. But there have been smaller moments, other times and places, where everything comes together...
ULT: Do you have a favorite composer? Symphony? Movement?
SR: I think your favorite composer is whoever you’re studying, at the moment…
SR: Yes, because they’re actually magical pieces. So, I think it’s not just a favorite composer…
ULT: Do you worry about the disappearance of classical music? On one hand, we have had it for what, some 300-something years…
SR: Well, it starts in the 1600s…
ULT: …and on the other hand, a relatively small portion of the population listens to classical as compared to popular or contemporary music, country, jazz. Is that worrisome and why do you think that is?
SR: You wouldn’t worry about Monet or Rembrandt disappearing, would you? Or Shakespeare disappearing? Michelangelo? So, that’s the short version – smart aleck version – of that answer.
We in the US have a unique challenge because we have so many more music genres than does the rest of the world. So, you go to China and they don’t have hip-hop and rap…and you go to Japan and they have jazz and pop but they don’t have hip-hop, they don’t have rap or country music – that’s not to say hip-hop and rap are not there but those genres are not capturing hearts elsewhere in the world to the extent that they do here in the US and classical music is competing with all those genres here…
And then we have so many more amazing composers that don’t get recognized in the US – more so than, say, European classical music. We have Hispanic composers, black composers, women composers – we have things that people don’t have in, say, Germany to the extent that we have here. Again, that’s not saying it doesn’t happen there but not to the extent it does here, the opportunities in classical music here. We have all that and yet we also have this white Germanic/Russian notion of classical music…
ULT: But that’s where the form comes from…
SR: Right, but we have failed to recognize some amazing classical composers here in the US. To name just a few – Florence Price, William Grant Still, and George Walker were all amazing composers.…Kevin Puts lives just up in Baltimore, Billy Childs is terrific, and there are many women composing: Jennifer Higdon, Joan Tower, Libby Larsen, and Tania Leó. All these composers and many more write great large symphonic works, yet we fail to recognize them as important composers. Our programming in the US is really amiss in that we don’t stand up some of these composers next to Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff…and why don’t we? Why shouldn’t we? Last year I did a program with the Montgomery Philharmonic -- ‘They Are Immigrants’ -- and there was Stravinsky next to a Venezuelan immigrant, next to a Persian immigrant and all those pieces that we did are important pieces of music. We fail to program them and so classical music in our eyes doesn’t expand. More importantly, because we have so many more choices, we feel like classical music is dying. When you go to other countries, they don’t have all these musical forms to the extent that we have in the US. Classical music elsewhere is not competing and classical music doesn’t feel [threatened or endangered in those places]. Our most amazing contribution to classical music is that we have so many genres from which to draw inspiration. I feel this makes new American music so very interesting to conduct and to listen to.
I just hope the people who program classical music do not try to make it a typical museum piece – because the best museums in the world are living and breathing entities where the exhibits are always changing.
ULT: What makes a great conductor?
SR: It’s a combination of things: I’d say a great communicator and that could be a verbal communicator or gestures or the spirit of the person where you just want to play for that person – you just can’t wait to play. I was lucky to play for Carlo Maria Guilini a couple times with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and you just knew in front of you was one of the great communicators who said nothing – hardly anything - but the way he communicated and the few things he said to shape a phrase or maybe balance something: often something simple. He showed so much.
ULT: Knowing everything you know now, what would you tell your younger self?
SR: To take a moment – just a moment. I’m a pretty fast thinker but I know now that if you take a moment, you think better. You think in different terms and it helps you in so many ways to take that moment. You’re reacting to thing, trying things, just take a moment.
As a conductor, being quick on your feet is essential. Things are happening in the middle of the incredible sound coming to your ears and your mind and you have to have a feeling… My job is to help (the musicians) focus, my job is to flip a switch, in a blink, take what I feel brewing in one side of the room and – woosh – pull it together in an instant.
That’s the cool thing about being a conductor, for you to kind of look at people and read them, sometimes see the terror in their eyes and then try to pull them all together so you turn the terror into something absolutely positive and magical.
Yes, because when a musician plays, everyone in the woodwind, the brass and the percussion sections is a solo performer; every note they play is a solo. In a string section it’s different –six basses and 10 cellos and so on – that sort of thing and so there’s safety in numbers – but there’s a flip side to the safety in numbers because just a bow slightly out of sync just can create chaos with the precision that has to happen in order to make the score come to life…you know, in order to take a composer’s wishes or what you think the composer’s wishes are and put it out there for the public.
ULT: You travel a good deal. In the last couple years you’ve conducted orchestras in Poland and Berlin and …
SR: …and Serbia…
ULT: … and Bulgaria…
ULT: All over! And I imagine you standing before an orchestra of musicians and you’ve never worked with all or most of them before and the language is different. Music, of course, is a common language and yet... As a musician – in your role as a flutist – have you ever had a conductor before you and thought, what the heck is he telling me to do?
SR: Absolutely! Absolutely. I remember playing a Shostakovich program – I don’t remember the conductor but he was not very good and not very collegial because there is a whole psychology behind it: you have to convince people of your way and oftentimes you meet them half way – maybe it’s not your way so you give some and they give some and you have this beautiful thing that’s unique to that week with that orchestra. But anyway I remember it was a terrible series of rehearsals.
When you walk out in the first rehearsal the way you walk out and how you carry yourself and how you shake hands with the concert master of the orchestra, who is like the boss of the orchestra – that says it all. They’re sizing you up and they don’t care where you’ve been, what you’ve done, who you’ve studied with – nothing. They just want to know if you are for them because if you are for them, they will be for you. But I have been there, sitting in the flute chair, where it’s like – ugh.
ULT: What music do you listen to when you’re off duty?
SR: You’re never off duty!
I don’t understand all of what is out there right now. Hop-hop and rap are a mystery to me. I think casually listening, I do listen to nonclassical music – I’d love to go to a Sting concert. I did once skip a Baltimore Symphony concert to go see Beyoncé. But, because I’m always preparing for something, and because there are so many amazing performances of classical music availably digitally, why wouldn’t I be listening to it?