Visitors look at paintings during the annual Piccolo Spoleto Art Show in Charleston, S.C., on Friday, June 8, 2012. Piccolo Spoleto is the Charleston city festival that is a companion to the internationally known Spoleto Festival USA that closes on Sunday. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith).
CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — It’s unusual to see a woman conducting an orchestra or opera, but the conductor who was set to lead the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra on Friday offers a challenge to tradition.
Anne Manson, music director of the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra in Canada, not only conducts, but makes a living doing so. She was set to take the stage as the 36th season of the internationally renowned arts festival neared its close.
Manson said she loves conducting the Spoleto orchestra, which is made up of talented young musicians from around the country.
“The wonderful thing about working with young people is you get these wonderful surprises. You get a wonderful freshness with a young group,” she said. “We’re playing the Tchaikovsky “Piano Concerto No. 1″ which some orchestras have played 50 to 100 to 200 times. My guess is some of these players will have never played it before. They will know it, but have never played it.”
The festival, which opened May 25, boasted 140 shows by performing groups and artists on stages across Charleston. This year’s highlights included the staging of the American premiere of “Kepler,” by renowned American composer Philip Glass. The curtain falls on Spoleto on Sunday with the traditional fireworks display following a concert by creole musician Cedric Watson.
“There are still very few women but it is something I think is changing,” Manson said.
“The tradition of great conductors is associated to a certain degree with real autocrats — Toscanini or von Karajan — and that kind of conductor is associated with a lot of traditionally male, kind of macho qualities,” she said.
“One of the things that happened with autocrats 50 years ago and earlier is that they really humiliated a lot of musicians. They got terrific results some of the time but there was a fairly significant human cost.”
In recent decades the idea of what is desirable in a conductor has changed, she said. Musicians want a conductor to have a clear blueprint of where a piece should go and be able to communicate that.
“I don’t think they necessarily want an autocrat — a dictator — up in front of them. And soloists want to have a more collaborative relationship,” she said.
Manson, a string player and singer, studied conducting at The Royal College of Music in London. While there, she said she was warned conducting was a man’s game.
“There was one figure in particular who said this is not going to be a possible career for you,” she recalled. “He said the double whammy of not being a pianist and not being a man means that we just have to be realistic about this.”
But Manson just refused to “be realistic.”
“I didn’t believe any of it. I thought it was all bunk,” she said, laughing.
Spoleto was established in Charleston in 1977 by the late composer Gian Carlo Menotti as a companion to his Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy.