British conductor Sian Edwards (born 1959) has attempted, with mixed success, to penetrate the virtually all-male ranks of major classical conductors. Her tenure as music director of the English National Opera in the mid-1990s has remained a source of controversy.
Since she stepped down from that post, Edwards's career in her native England has suffered. She has continued to maintain a busy conducting schedule in other countries, however, and her attitude toward making music is still marked by the kind of enthusiasm she displayed as she bounded onto the stage to begin her orchestral appearances. Edwards never set herself forth as a trailblazer among female conductors, nor alleged that she had been the victim of gender discrimination, although several incidents that occurred during her career would certainly have given her good cause. She was devoted above all to the chance to stand in front of an orchestra and to shape its interpretation of a piece of music.
Arranged Music for School Dance Band
Edwards was born in West Chiltington, south of London in the English county of West Sussex, on May 27, 1959. Her vivid red hair and her first name (pronounced "Shawn") were signs of her Celtic background; her father was Welsh. Edwards began playing the piano at age seven and added French horn at eleven. At her single-sex high school she and a group of other girls formed a dance band, and the musically literate Edwards was picked to arrange some of the more complicated pieces, emerging as the band's leader. "We played these Glenn Miller-like arrangements that I wrote," she told Jesse Hamlin of the San Francisco Chronicle. "We put on little concerts. I conducted and loved it. Conducting sort of took over from playing. Perhaps I needed a larger canvas."
Still, when Edwards enrolled at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England, it was to study French horn, not conducting. But she kept gravitating toward conducting, leading small student ensembles in concerts when she had the chance. After receiving her music degree she headed for London and took private conducting lessons with Charles Groves and Norman Del Mar. She attended a conducting camp in the Netherlands in 1981 and marveled at the seemingly effortless style of Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi. Increasingly sure of what she wanted to do, Edwards applied to the British Council, a government agency that funded overseas graduate studies, for a stipend that would allow her to study music at the Leningrad Conservatory in the Soviet Union. She took up the Russian language and learned to speak it fluently.
It was not only the British Council she had to persuade, however, but also the Soviet bureaucracy. Discouraged about her prospects for acceptance, she began working at a McDonald's restaurant in Manchester, England. Unexpectedly, however, she was informed that she had been accepted, and that she would need to be on a plane to Leningrad the next morning. Edwards made the flight, and spent the next two years studying with the legendary Russian conducting teacher Ilya Musin. "I studied very, very hard for the first time in my life under Professor Musin, a wonderful teacher," she told Philippa Coates of Australia's Courier-Mail newspaper. "He was so generous, I realized it was my big chance to learn about conducting. Up until then I had done the things I wanted to, but I hadn't really found out what you do with your hands when you're up on the podium, you know, what connection they have with the sound." Edwards felt that the structured approach to conducting in the Russian conservatory system helped her learn the art. "In Britain, the way you learn to conduct is to get your fellow students together and do it yourself," she reflected to Wilma Salisbury of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
As to the difficulties of living in the totalitarian Soviet Union, "I have to say that, as a woman, I found Leningrad in the Soviet era a much less frightening place than I found central Manchester when I came back." While still studying in Leningrad, Edwards entered the inaugural Leeds Conductors' Competition in 1984. She won, and Musin named her as his most promising student. Back in England, conductor Groves invited her to tea and introduced her to an agent, and Edwards began to find guest conducting engagements with British orchestras.
Suffered from Lack of Role Models
Male conductors tend to fall into lineages, with legendary conductors inspiring their protégés down through the generations. For Edwards, that kind of role modeling was difficult to find. She admired some of the male stars in the conducting field, like American Leonard Bernstein, Germany's Herbert von Karajan, and especially the legendary Russian Yevgeny Mravinsky, whom she had seen while studying in Leningrad. But, she told Hamlin, "I could never identify with them. Because I'm a girl, I couldn't take them seriously as role models. In a way, their image—the erudite, white-haired man with great charm and teeth of iron—perhaps held women back." One conductor Edwards did identify with was City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conductor Simon Rattle, a rising star during the 1980s; he was young, and Edwards sometimes felt that her youth presented more of an obstacle than her gender.
It was Rattle who gave Edwards her big break. In 1986, forced to pull out of a Scottish Opera production of Kurt Weill's Mahagonny, he recommended Edwards as his replacement, saying (according to Gerald Larner of the London Guardian), "She's a very smart lady, and if anyone is going to carry the banner for women conductors it will be her." The Scottish Opera engagement led to conducting jobs for Edwards at other English opera houses and concert halls, and she was influenced by Rattle in her frequent choice of modern material; Rattle had made a name partly by specializing in music other conductors had neglected.
Edwards's next major conducting engagement after Mahagonny was a 1987 Glyndebourne Opera production of Verdi's familiar La traviata, but for the 1989–90 season at London's Covent Garden opera house she took on a work that fit that modern-and-unusual category—British composer Sir Michael Tippett's The Knot Garden. When she stepped to the conductor's podium, Edwards became the first woman to conduct at Covent Garden. The experience was notable for Edwards in another way; during rehearsals she met Tippett's biographer, Ian Kemp. The two married, moved to Edwards's native Sussex, and had a son, Finn.
Edwards made her debut in the United States with an appearance conducting the prestigious St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 1989; her Canadian debut, with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, followed two years later. Audiences responded positively to the energetic Edwards, who charged onto the stage and conducted without a baton. She made recordings with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Word spread fast about the young conductor who stood out from the crowd. But there were dissenters. Detroit Free Press critic John Guinn, reviewing an Edwards appearance in that city, argued that she "at best demonstrated a student-like competence. He noted that one of the orchestra's players was reading a book during the concert, but he did not mention the disrespect that the player showed, nor address the question of whether a male conductor would have been so treated.
Named ENO Music Director
Among the organizations following Edwards's progress was London's English National Opera (ENO), where she conducted a performance of Sergei Prokofiev's The Gambler in 1990. The ENO, which performed foreign-language operas in English translation, was a less formal outfit than its neighbor Covent Garden, and Edwards seemed to display a fresh, contemporary approach. She emerged as a strong, if still inexperienced, candidate for music director. She had conducted opera, but had never run an organization or tried to hammer out a musical vision and steer it through the musical and political shoals of a large classical music institution.
Edwards was named as the new music director of the ENO at the end of 1991, and took over for the 1993 season. Martin Kettle of the Guardian called her rapid promotion "a make-or-break gamble on all sides," for the company was a troubled one, with shifting management personnel and falling audiences. Initial reviews of Edwards's conducting in her first production as music director, leading performances of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, were mixed, with several critics praising Edwards's contribution even while expressing reservations about the production as a whole.
The pattern continued with the company's fall showpiece, a production of the perennial Giacomo Puccini crowd favorite La bohème. The staging of the opera, with its four acts run together into one and the setting modernized to the 1950s, was savaged, and Edwards essentially went down with the ship. "Just occasionally, Sian Edwards promises to pull everything together, to make the evening at least equal to the sum of its parts," wrote Andrew Clements in the Guardian. "But she conducts in fits and starts, responding well to Puccini's textures and colors, much less convincingly to the opera's singing lines, and never managing to achieve a decent balance between stage and pit." Players reportedly complained of indecisive conducting in rehearsals for a later production, and reports began to surface of disagreements between Edwards and general director Dennis Marks.
In 1994 Edwards conducted fewer performances, and the following year she decided, as she told Charles Huckabee of the Philadelphia Inquirer, that "it seemed better to call it a day" and resigned. After two years, she had not really had a chance to put her stamp on the organization. Critics looking back at the situation disagreed over whether Edwards had been treated fairly. Norman Lebrecht wrote in the London Evening Standard that "Sian Edwards was thrown to the wolves by unsupportive bosses at English National Opera," while Rupert Christiansen referred in London's Daily Telegraph to a "disastrous decline in standards while Sian Edwards was at the helm."
Edwards rose above the negative situation, conducting an English Chamber Orchestra concert two nights after her resignation, winning good reviews, and showing equanimity in the face of adversity. A few months later, the Washington Post praised her "buoyant, cheerful, athletic eagerness." For several years, Edwards was rarely heard as a conductor in Britain, but she continued to appear with American orchestras, and in 1999 she led an orchestra at an outdoor festival in Sydney, Australia, before an audience of 135,000 concertgoers. Edwards also conducted opera performances in Copenhagen, Denmark, Aspen, Colorado, Helsinki, Finland, and Paris, France, where she led the world premiere of Clara, an opera by Hans Gefors. In 2005 she returned to the podium in England, leading the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Gustav Holst's The Planets that, wrote Richard Morrison in the London Times, "deftly delineated details that are obscured in 99 performances out of 100." Looking back on her rapid, perhaps too-rapid, ascent, Edwards told the Guardian that "it all happened so fast that I didn't have a chance to plan things. Since then I've been consolidating: I needed to develop myself as a musician and a person. Conducting careers don't work neatly, and don't have an obvious full stop. I'm hoping that I'll keep going gracefully, chugging along.
Sadie, Stanley, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., Macmillan, 2001.
Akron Beacon-Journal, May 16, 1993.
Courier-Mail (Australia), July 11, 1990.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), January 15, 1999; May 11, 2005.
Detroit Free Press, October 18, 1992.
Evening Standard (London, England), July 27, 2005.
Guardian (London, England), December 6, 1991; April 6, 1993; September 17, 1993; July 22, 1994; November 8, 1995; February 24, 1996; January 12, 2006.
Independent (London, England), April 28, 1993; September 19, 1993.
Jerusalem Post, March 21, 1995.
Ottawa Citizen, December 4, 1991.
Philadelphia Inquirer, March 14, 1997; March 15, 1997.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), May 20, 1993.
San Francisco Chronicle, April 26, 1990; April 28, 1990.
Scotsman, February 21, 1994.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), November 30, 1989.
Times (London, England), January 21, 2005.
Washington Post, January 20, 1996.
"Sian Edwards," http://www.bachcantatas.com/Bio/EdwardsSian.htm. (February 23, 2006).
Edwards, Sian, English conductor; b. Sussex, May 27, 1959. She studied horn before entering the Royal Northern Coll. of Music in Manchester, where she turned to conducting; following studies with Sir Charles Groves and Norman Del Mar, and in the Netherlands with Neeme Jarvi, she pursued diligent training with Ilya Musin at the Leningrad Cons. (1983–85). In 1984 she won the Leeds Competition and subsequently appeared as a guest conductor with principal British orchs. In 1986 she made her first appearance as an operatic conductor at Glasgow’s Scottish Opera with Weill’s Mahogonny. In 1987 she conducted La Traviata at the Glyndebourne Festival. She became the first woman ever to conduct at London’s Covent Garden when she led a performance of Tippett’s The Knot Garden in 1988; that same year she conducted the premiere of Turnage’s Greek at the Munich Biennale. In 1989 she made her U.S. debut as a guest conductor with the St. Paul (Minn.) Chamber Orch.; she continued to conduct at Covent Garden, leading performances of Rigoletto (1989), II Trovatore (1990), and Carmen (1991). From 1993 to 1995 she was music director of the English National Opera in London.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire