When Sarah Ioannides takes the podium to conduct the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra at the Pantages this Sunday, it’ll be a whole new experience for a lot of Tacoma music lovers.
For starters, she’ll be in a field where being a woman is the exception, especially for Tacoma orchestras.
She’ll also bring a British accent: Though she has a successful American career, she was born in Australia and grew up in Britain.
Most important, though, she’ll bring a challenge. As one of the four finalists in the TSO’s music director search, she’ll be seeking to prove to both the symphony and the city of Tacoma that she’s the right person to lead the orchestra into a new era. Over the next year, the remaining three finalists also will present a concert here, consulting with current conductor Harvey Felder to choose the main pieces, then rehearsing the orchestra and leading the concert itself.
Named in 2009 by The Los Angeles Times as one of six younger female conductors breaking the “glass podium,” the 40-year-old Ioannides was born in Australia to a Scottish mother and Cypriot conductor father. Growing up in England, she studied piano, horn and violin, getting her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Somerville College at Oxford University. After receiving a Fulbright scholarship, she earned a diploma in conducting from the Curtis Institute of Music and a master’s of music in conducting from the Juilliard School.
Since then, her career has been stellar, including assistant conductorships under Paarvo Jarvi and Tan Dun, directing the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra, winning awards and recording with violinist Lara St. John and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. She’s worked in opera (garnering praise from “Opera-Opera” for being “grace personified”), has premiered many new compositions, and recently completed a six-year tenure as music director of the El Paso Symphony.
As the mother of three small children and married to Yale University professor Scott Hartman, Ioannides considers herself firmly based in Spartanburg, S.C., where she’s music director of the Spartanburg Philharmonic. Her career has given her a knowledge of midsize towns and a passion for music education.
Ioannides spoke on the phone with The News Tribune about what else she believes makes her the right candidate for the TSO job.
Q: What do you bring to the Tacoma Symphony?
A: Well, I’m a unique personality. As a musician, I have a wide range of musical tastes: vocal, operatic, new works, multimedia, though I was born and bred in the standard classical repertoire. I have a great interest in the education and future of classical music, in presenting it in different formats in a community. I try to stay close to the composer’s intent but touch as many people as possible in the performance. I’m always looking at how to interact, how to bring people in, to reach out.
Q: During your time in Spartanburg, how have you reached out to nontraditional audiences?
A: I try to look at how the community’s made up. Spartanburg’s a big college town, so I’ve done a lot of collaborative work with the schools, like a “Rite of Spring” art project, side-by-side orchestra mentoring, and a variety of pops programs, like the jazz band we’re performing with for our Valentine’s Day concert. A recent performance was a 9/11 concert, where we incorporated the town’s first responders as part of the choir for a world premiere. The audience also sang for part of it. In El Paso, there was a strong military population. I did a lot of special programs there: partnerships, on-base concerts.
Q: How would you help develop youth music education here in Tacoma?
A: Side-by-sides are a wonderful way of strengthening ensembles. (Side-by-side mentoring involves student musicians playing next to professional musicians in a rehearsal situation to learn techniques and skills.) I like branching out of traditional venues, expanding an already-strong program. And I believe it’s the duty of a symphony to represent as much as possible in schools, so they can have a constant flow of miniperformances, teachers, recitals.
Q: Would you move to Tacoma for this job?
A: It depends on the contract. All my children school in two different places already – we’re already encountering the challenges. I would be as dedicated and present as much as any other conductor. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
Q: If you were appointed, you’d become the TSO’s first female director. Does being a woman change anything you bring to this job?
A: It doesn’t make any difference.
Q: What music would you like to see in TSO’s future?
A: It’s a complex process of seeing where the artistic vision of the orchestra is going. It’s not just my vision. I’d look to build on strengths that exist and branch forward from there. I’d search into the orchestra’s passion – people who know the place well, and have different perspectives.
Q: Our main theater here, the Pantages, is known for its bad orchestral acoustics. Have you ever had to deal with that?
A: I went through a transition of halls in El Paso, because the old hall was beloved but not kept up. We reworked the old Plaza Theater and had an acoustical-enhancement system built for it. It’s now pretty good. If you don’t have a good symphony hall, you have to make the best you can out of the situation, and that can be a lot cheaper than building a new hall.
Q: Who have you learned most from in your career?
A: It’s been a wonderful time in Spartanburg learning how to strengthen the orchestra here. I’ve learned most from my colleagues and the committees I work with. Bernard Haitink is one of my hero conductors. He’s somewhat minimal, yet so specific in his understanding of phrase. I’ve learned an incredible amount from my teachers at Curtis and Juilliard, and continue to talk and share my work with my mentors like Paarvo Jarvi. And I like to see different conductors as often as I can.
Q: You probably don’t have much spare time, but what do you like to do with it?
A: I have a variety of ways to keep myself healthy! Being with my family is a wonderful pleasure for me. I’m working a lot and value that time together. I love to explore nature. I swim, I do yoga, I cook, I watch movies, go to museums and out to dinner with friends, call my mum – all that normal stuff! And I love to see orchestras. That’s down-time for me; I can enjoy someone else’s hard work without having to make decisions.Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568