Kyle Jensen / The Record — Attendee Cathy Humphers Smith conducts two pianists on the opening day of the Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute.

Conductors descend on South Whidbey to refine technique

When orchestra conductor Cathy Humphers Smith felt she needed more podium time in front of other seasoned conductors to brush up on her skills, she set off on a mission to attend a workshop.

Little did she know she’d end up in a place like Whidbey Island instead of the East Coast or in her home state of California.

“I wanted more feedback, to get away and just focus on conducting while not having to deal with other things,” Humphers Smith said. “I found conducting workshops that happen all over the world and some on the East Coast, but this was the most organized on the West Coast. It turned out to be an inspirational place that’s mentally and physically good for your soul.”

Orchestra conductors like Humphers Smith from across the country have brought their talents to South Whidbey this week for the first ever Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute. The six-day workshop offers visiting conductors an opportunity to fine-tune their talents and learn techniques from well-known composer, conductor and Pulitzer Prize nominated writer Diane Wittry. On Monday, the sanctuary in Langley United Methodist Church was filled with suggestions such as “you’re bouncing too much,” or “put some more emotion into it!” with encouragement peppered in between.

The seminar is hosted by Saratoga Orchestra. Musical director Anna Edwards will also work with the up-and-coming conductors on their skills. Edwards says Saratoga Orchestra hopes to make the event an annual occurrence.

The week’s activities culminate in a Saturday afternoon concert, where the conducting fellows will take turns leading Saratoga Orchestra through a two-and-a-half hour public performance. The concert will feature both new and old compositions, including renditions of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and Wittry own contemporary composition “Mist.”

The concert begins at 2 p.m. Saturday at the South Whidbey High School auditorium, and a pre-concert discussion with the visiting conductors will be at 1:15 p.m. Tickets cost $25, while seniors and military receive a $5 discount. Students under 18 are free.

“We were brainstorming ways to use the orchestra to reach out to tourists and local music fans and give them something during the summer,” said Larry Heidel, executive director of Saratoga Orchestra. “This concert provided the perfect vehicle for that, but we wanted to add an educational aspect as well.”

The 16 people taking part in the Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute have descended on South Whidbey from far and wide. Like the Los Altos, Calif., based Humphers Smith, many come from out-of-state including Florida, Massachusetts, Texas and Wisconsin. Washington is represented in the workshop as well.

Heidel and Edwards made sure to accept a variety of skill levels and backgrounds. A handful of young conducting fellows approached the podium with an err of gusto, making it clear they were aiming to make a full-time career out of their work. Others like Humphers Smith had a less intense approach, as she was already the conductor of a community orchestra. For her, the trip was about improving her technical skills to better her community. Others were aiming to get tips from Wittry and Edwards on the business of conducting, such as how to market themselves in the digital age.

Not all 16 participants are guest conductors; six are there to watch and learn those with a greater skill set. It’s part of an effort to foster new talent, with the goal of encouraging a diverse future generation of maestros.

“We’ve put our own little spin on it,” Edwards said. “For example, we’re interested in bringing a forward-thinking repertoire with new music and music created by women. At the top echelons of the conducting industry, only 3 to 4 percent are women. This is our way of trying to address that.”

Edwards says the culminating performance will give Whidbey’s classical music fans an interesting glimpse into the conducting role and how it influences the performers. As the 10 conducting fellows come and go to the podium for different parts of the performance, the Saratoga Orchestra will have to adjust to each style.

For Edwards, it’ll be exciting to demonstrate exactly how a conductor commands the mood and energy of a composition. Audiences often don’t see that side of a concert, Edwards said, so the Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute offers a rare glimpse.

There isn’t anything else like it in the area.

“This is a unique experience where you can watch a collection of different people who, without question, have different leadership skills and styles, and it’ll be interesting to see how they succeed with those different styles,” Edwards said.

Kyle Jensen / The Record — Cathy Humphers Smith, based out of Los Altos, Calif., leads two pianists in front of the other conducting fellows.

Kyle Jensen / The Record — “Internationally acclaimed” conductor and composer Diane Wittry gives Humphers Smith tips on how to refine her conducting technique.

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