A peripatetic orchestra leader wins wide applause
for the way she teaches and wields her baton
ust reading excerpts from Kay
George Roberts's appointment cal-
endar is exhausting. June 1987,
New York City: guest conductor at
Lincoln Center ... August, Lowell,
Mass.: prepare to resume teaching and con-
ducting at the University of Lowell's
College of Music ... September, Glouces-
ter, Mass.: start second season as music
director of the Cape Ann Symphony ...
October, Bangkok, Thailand: return for
second guest-conductor appearance with
the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra ... De-
cember, Cairo, Egypt: conduct the Cairo
Her boundless energy alone might make
Roberts a standout in her chosen profes-
sion. But she is also a black American fe-
male in a field historically dominated by
white European males. Roberts, 37, re-
ceived her doctorate in orchestral conduct-
ing from Yale in 1986-the first woman
and second black to do so. A full professor at
Lowell, Roberts has performed with or-
chestras around the world, winning critical
acclaim both here and abroad. She is "ex-
ceptional," says D. Antoinette Handy of
the National Endowment for the Arts.
Without early exposure, this maestro
might never have pursued a musical ca-
reer. An elementary-school teacher in
Nashville, Robert Holmes, placed a violin
in her hands and provided a performing
outlet through his black-youth ensemble,
the Cremona Strings. By ninth grade Rob-
erts qualified for the Nashville Youth Sym-
phony. She later joined the Nashville Sym-
phony and, while still an undergraduate at
Fisk University, toured with the World
Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arthur
Fiedler. She might have focused only on the
violin. But her conducting talent was no-
ticed and encouraged during graduate
work at Yale and honed by training with
such musical giants as Leonard Bernstein.
"The orchestra becomes your instrument.
You shape the balance, the dynamic levels,
through your interpretation," she says.
Arduous path: In the United States, success
in conducting requires a unique confluence
of talent, training and opportunity. Donald
Thulean of the American Symphony Or-
chestra League says there are only about
1,570 orchestras nationwide. Compensa-
tion for directors varies from personal sat-
isfaction to six-figure salaries. Training
From Thailand to Massachusettsi Roberts, with a music student at Lowell
Maestro: Roberts leading the student
orchestra at the University of Lowell
can be arduous and expensive, with a limit-
ed number of highly rated programs.
What counts is extensive experience on
the podium and at administrative tasks.
Affiliate Artists Inc. (AAI), the nation's
only program providing three-year profes-
sional appointments, has only a few open-
ings each year. And the evaluation of can-
didates is highly subjective: David Alpert of
AAI says he seeks "the X factor-unusual
compassion and ability to communicate
music with a baton at a level that is inde-
scribable. You just feel it."
The music world can expect to hear more
and more from Roberts. Whether she pur-
sues a full-time position with a professional
orchestra or devotes her major energies to
teaching seems entirely her choice. Either
way, she's already achieved what most con-
sider the ultimate career success: earning
fame and money for doing what you love.
DIANNE H. McDONALD in Lowell, Mass.
NEWSWEEK ON CAMPUS 39