Conversation with a Conductor: Nathalie Stutzmann, The Philadelphia Orchestra

Anne-Marie McDermott, Artistic Director, Bravo! Vail Music Festival
Nathalie Stutzmann of The Philadelphia Orchestra
Simon Fowler/Courtesy photo

Beloved conductor and contralto Nathalie Stutzmann makes her second appearance at Bravo! Vail next week, leading The Philadelphia Orchestra in three magnificent concerts (July 14-16).

Her programs are highlighted by awe-inspiring masterpieces, including Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, “The Great”; Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, Pathétique; and Brahm’s Symphony No. 4. They also include virtuosic concertos performed by some of the world’s greatest artists, including pianist Haochen Zhang, violinist Daniel Lozakovich, and the Orchestra’s principal clarinet Richardo Morales and viola Choong-Jin Chang. 

Currently the Principal Guest Conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra and Chief Conductor of Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra in Norway, Nathalie was recently named Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, beginning in the 2021-22 season. This will make her only the second woman in history to lead a major American orchestra, following Marin Alsop.

I had the great pleasure of talking with Nathalie about her career, background as a singer, and more. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

AMM: Our audience at Bravo! Vail absolutely adored you last season, and I hope you felt that love. What was it like for you?

NS: I loved the experience! Vail is such a magical and unique place to make music. Not only because of the incredible nature and beauty of the venue, but also because of the authentic joy of the audience.

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AMM: Before pursuing conducting, the world knew you as a great singer. When did you think about becoming a conductor?

NS: I was always fascinated by the work of a conductor, and when I was a teenager, I wanted to conduct. But when I was a teenager, being a woman was a big issue, and it was very clear when I was attending conducting class that the teacher was very unfriendly and misogynistic. He wouldn’t give me any chance to get on the podium. I quickly understood that I couldn’t make it as a woman, so I left it. I was so lucky to have a special voice and get an amazing career as a singer. But I guess I always had a little hope that society would change a little bit and that the evolution in the world towards equality would allow me to go on with that passion.

I then decided to come back to conducting at a moment when I felt I had achieved the majority of my dreams as a singer in terms of concert partners, repertoire and singing in the most important halls in the world. I felt the maturity was there, and I also felt that it was the right time because I didn’t want people to think I wanted to conduct because I’d lost my voice. “Oh, one more bad conductor who needs to be on stage!”

AMM: How has your background as a great singer influenced your conducting, and vice versa?

NS: I think any young conductor would dream of spending twenty years just sitting one meter from the greatest conductors and following rehearsals. You learn so much — it’s food for any kind of maturity. Your musical background is growing slowly, and you have time to flourish. I certainly wouldn’t be the same kind of conductor today without that background. I grew up as a pianist, cellist and bassoon player. So the variety of my experience is a great chance for a conductor because I get into every aspect of my musician’s life as well. And my ears are built up in all senses for harmony, melody, structure and pulse through my music background.

Has my conducting influenced my singing? I don’t know. But for sure, I was a singer with a drive! Now that I’ve become a full-time conductor, I do almost no more singing projects. But for sure, I think I am the sweetest girl with any conductor. Because now I know really how hard it is! You have no idea until you have done it yourself about the storm that is always happening in a conductor’s brain.

AMM: Congratulations on becoming Music Director Designate of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. What excites you most about this appointment?

NS: I think the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has a very high potential. I try to envision the future in many years — how we can achieve our ambitions, artistically and humanly. The programming will have to reflect my dreams, but also their dreams and the audience’s dreams. It’s an orchestra that is willing and starving to go deep into the musical work. I feel we are going in the same direction with our ambition of developing and going even deeper to get further into the super expressivity that I dream of with the orchestra. That’s why I’m here.

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