Conductor Sian Edwards to Assume Professorship at the mdw

To numerous Viennese music lovers, Sian Edwards has been a familiar name for many years, now—thanks to her collaboration with Klangforum Wien and the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and by virtue of numerous Theater an der Wien appearances conducting works such as Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, and Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata.

Even just the preceding list makes clear that this British conductor, who was born in 1959, is specialised in contemporary music but also just as at home in more established repertoire. Following studies with Sir Charles Groves, Timothy Reynish, and Norman Del Mar in her home country as well as with Ilya Aleksandrovich Musin at the Leningrad Conservatory, Edwards made her 1986 debut in Glasgow with Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny. Her first appearances at the Royal Opera House and the Munich Biennale took place two years later.

Since then, she has collaborated internationally with as good as all of the world’s major orchestras and opera houses. She has also served as Music Director of the English National Opera and currently teaches as Head of Conducting at the Royal Academy of Music. Now, Edwards has been called to teach at the mdw—and she will assume her professorship in conducting at the beginning of the 2022/23 winter semester. A conversation.

Every biography begins with one’s birth. In your case, some sources list 27 May while others have 27 August 1959 as the date. So may I assume you celebrate your birthday at some point during the summer? And for that matter, do you know how this confusion came about?

Sian Edwards (SE): I have no idea why the date listed in Grove’s (The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians—DE) is wrong, which indeed does cause quite a bit of confusion. According to my parents, I was definitely born on 27 August!

At any rate, you’re in good company—Beethoven’s birthday, after all, is likewise somewhat in the dark. You started learning to play piano at age four. Was that on your own initiative? Were you a child prodigy?

SE: We had a baby grand at home—a relic from my mom’s side of the family—and I just wanted to play on it! I wasn’t a prodigy, but I did have an enormous desire to make music, so I got piano lessons starting when I was six.

Later on, you added French horn. But what was it that ultimately moved you to devote yourself to conducting?

SE: My early years were spent in rural Sussex, and there was very little music going on at the school I attended. But when my father changed jobs and the family moved to Oxford, I took up horn—and I played in every orchestra and ensemble that I could. We have a lively tradition of amateur music-making in Great Britain, and while I was still at school, my music-making friends and I organised our own concerts; I played at their events, and they played at mine.

© Katie Vandyck

You went on to study in England and in St. Petersburg: In what important ways did Western and Eastern European musical culture end up influencing you?

SE: In Great Britain, I studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. I went there after my horn teacher suddenly announced that he wasn’t teaching in London anymore. While I was studying horn, I did a lot of conducting and eventually won a scholarship to continue as a conductor. And perhaps because England hadn’t had a particularly strong musical culture of its own during the 18th and 19th centuries, audiences here embraced music from abroad. That openness has persisted, and so it was a perfectly natural thing to listen to and love music by Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius.

Contemporary music has always played an important role in your repertoire. But how would you characterise your overall focus?

SE: I think it’s very important that music be viewed, listened to, and understood as living art—as something that develops continually, be it through new works or the emergence of new ideas on old works. And while studying the “great” works is a lifelong project, it’s important to also make time for music that’s new or recent.

Is the impression that you have a special penchant for opera an accurate one? And if you had to decide between conducting only operas or only concerts, which would you choose?

SE: I could never choose just one of them! But it really is wonderful to work together with singers and stage directors as part of the team that creates an operatic production.

Your first major appearances were in England and Germany during the 1980s. Did you, as a female conductor, feel like a pioneer? And did you sense any resistance?

​SE: I don’t think I viewed myself as a “female” conductor any more than you view yourself as a “male” author! There were, of course, those who found it very difficult to accept a woman on the rostrum, especially a young woman. But conducting is always a huge challenge if you’re inexperienced, and it’s difficult to objectively analyse just why something works or doesn’t work.

Alongside your function at the Royal Academy of Music, you also lead the Sorrell Women’s Conducting Programme. Do female conductors need to have different abilities or skills than male ones? Do they communicate differently?

SE: We have lots of women who apply to study conducting at the Royal Academy, but they often don’t compete on a level equal to that of their male colleagues for the limited number of available spots. The Sorrell Programme is a crash course—covering four weekends—that aims to encourage and challenge female conductors to perfect their musical and technical skills.

What’s of general importance to you in your work as an educator, in training conductors?

SE: The most important thing in my teaching is combining musical ideas and the desire to communicate them with the technical skills that facilitate this communication in the interest of being effective.

What expectations do you have for your work as a professor at the mdw? What are you planning to focus on?

SE: I’m really happy to have been invited to work at the mdw, which itself has a great history. All of the faculty members and students there are inspiring musicians, and I’m looking forward to being part of the team and helping to train the next generation of conductors.

What things do you associate with Vienna?

SE: I’ve had wonderful musical experiences there, especially with the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra, Klangforum Wien, and the Theater an der Wien productions I’ve been part of. And there are also wonderful concert halls, of course—all of them part of this beautiful city’s incredible musical and cultural history.

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