Article: Conductor takes the road less traveled Catherine Comet


Conductor takes the road less traveled

Pam Dixon 29-Nov-1998 Sunday

Catherine Comet guest conducts the San Diego Symphony Orchestra

Don’t let conductor Catherine Comet’s small stature and soft, French-accented voice fool you. Underneath Comet’s considerable Gallic charm lies a bristly sharp intellect, a highly focused mind and a feisty iconoclastic spirit.

Her near-total focus on music and strong drive has helped her survive in a ego-filled, male-dominated conducting world, a world that only a handful of women have ever broken into successfully. Yet she brushes off her rare success and other conductors’ careerist attitudes, labeling them an “American preoccupation.”

The native Parisian also dismisses the relevance of being a woman in a man’s world, succinctly quipping that “being a good conductor has nothing to do with either race or gender.”

Comet, who will guest conduct the San Diego Symphony in an all-French program Friday through next Sunday at Copley Symphony Hall, simply lives for the music. Absolutely nothing else matters, not even following a traditional career path or becoming a “famous” conductor. “I have always been fascinated with the texture and color of music,” says Comet. “I never wanted to do anything else but be a conductor. I never even thought of doing anything else.”

When Comet was about 12, she began her serious study to become a conductor. She studied privately with legendary French teacher Nadia Boulanger for three years, until she went to Juilliard to work on her degree. “Nadia never told me that I couldn’t be a conductor,” Comet says. “She never charged me for a lesson, saying that when I began making money as a conductor, I could pay her back. I did.”

By the time she had finished her studies, she had worked with some of this century’s great conductors, including Pierre Boulez and Igor Markevitch. She landed her first professional job in Paris as conductor of the Ballet Company of the Theatre National de l’Opera de Paris. Then in the early ’80s, Comet came back to the United States, thanks in part to landing a plum spot as the Exxon Arts Endowment conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

During those years, she developed a name for herself and guest conducted numerous major orchestras and big-name music festivals. It was enough to help her land a job in 1984 as the Baltimore Symphony’s associate conductor, where she stayed for two seasons. But consistent with her nonconformist nature, Comet made an unusual career move. In 1986, just when she could have jumped to a major metropolitan orchestra, she chose instead to become music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony, a smallish orchestra in a modest setting.

Yet Grand Rapids seemed to suit Comet. During her 12-year tenure at Grand Rapids, Comet achieved some truly remarkable things, both musically and organizationally. “I increased the orchestra’s full-time musicians (by 10 players), and I took the budget from $1.8 million to $4.5 million per year,” says Comet. “We worked very hard.”

Diane McElfish, a violinist with Grand Rapids Symphony since 1980 and the chairman of the players’ orchestra committee, describes the musical side of Comet’s work with great pride, noting that the Grand Rapids Symphony can “play French music right up there with the best of them now.”

But McElfish also describes the impact of Comet’s musical tunnel vision. “For Catherine, the important thing is the music itself. That is what matters to her — everything else is secondary,” says McElfish.

It was only at Comet’s farewell concert in May of this year that she took her first solo bow in some 12 years of tenure. “I never saw Catherine take a solo bow in her entire time at Grand Rapids,” says McElfish. “The only reason she took a bow at the last concert is because I physically turned her around to the audience and forced her to.”

During her time at Grand Rapids, Comet kept her programming “honest,” a topic she speaks passionately about. “As a conductor, you’re a curator of music. You are responsible to bring a body of work to life, so that classical music doesn’t die,” says Comet.

In Comet’s view, the current vogue of orchestras scheduling pops programs and other “lite” concerts ultimately does more harm than good for classical music.

“You cannot change classical music into a Disney world,” says Comet. “What really works is to be honest with people, to explain to audiences that when they go to a concert, they will go through a cycle of emotion that is much slower, closer to the real feel of life.”

While Comet acknowledges that television and other communications technologies like the Internet have quickened the pace of the culture, her point remains pertinent.

“We don’t need someone to tap dance in front of the symphony orchestra to make it more interesting,” says Comet. “Audiences are going back in some cases one or two centuries when they listen to classical music. It requires thinking in a different way.”

Comet is thinking differently these days. Her success at Grand Rapids was great for the orchestra, but the 50-something Comet found that it came with a high personal price tag for her.

“It’s a lot of work,” says Comet of her experience as music director. “You do a lot of things, like raising money, that don’t have to do with the music.” After a brief pause, Comet adds, “It’s nice to study the music and nothing else.”

Comet seems genuinely happy to have more time to study now. She wants to live in a world of pure music, which guest conducting allows her to do. With absolutely no desire to head to a new permanent conducting position, Comet has accepted about 10 to 12 weeks of guest conducting engagements to fulfill in the coming season. This new pace, says Comet, feels right to her.

In keeping with her new lifestyle, Comet and her husband, Michael Aiken, chancellor of the University of Illinois, recently purchased a home just outside of Cody, Wy., where they will eventually retire. Comet says that she wants to slow her life down and take more time to study manuscripts and to just live. “I want to take some time to live peacefully, to think about interpretation, to think about the music.”

It’s not every established conductor who decides to just “live peacefully.” With no desire to put her stamp on big-name orchestras or on big-name recordings, (“There are already so many recordings today,” she says.) Comet’s legacy is an unusually ego-less and ephemeral one compared to other major conductors.

While Comet has left a small part of herself on a few CDs, her primary musical contribution really lies in the fleeting music she has thoughtfully and painstakingly re-created in live performances. Her legacy also resides quietly in the memories of the musicians who have worked with her and the audiences who have heard her.

In the end, the “where” of music doesn’t matter to Comet. “It’s always a pleasure to make music,” she says. “Wherever I am, it’s exhilarating.”

DATEBOOK Catherine Comet guest conducts the San Diego Symphony Orchestra 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, Copley Symphony Hall, 750 B. St., downtown. $15-$50.