Alumna Kathleen McGuire

Q&A: Conductor Kathleen McGuire

In our postcard series, we invite alumni living abroad to tell us their VCA story. This week we interviewed conductor Dr Kathleen McGuire, currently working and living in San Francisco.

About Kathleen

Dr Kathleen McGuire (BMus 1986; GradDipMus 1990) has over three decades of experience conducting orchestras, choirs, operas, ballet, and musicals in the U.S.A., Canada, England, New Zealand, and Australia. She has also created hundreds of choral and instrumental works as a composer, arranger, and orchestrator.

In September 2011, she was appointed as Minister of Music and Arts at the Congregational Church of San Mateo, California, directing the Chancel Choir and overseeing all arts components. She also continues as principal conductor of the Community Women’s Orchestra in Oakland, California – where she has served since 2005, and in 2010 she launched Singers of the Street (S.O.S.), a San Francisco-based choir of people affected by homelessness.

After completing post-graduate degrees in conducting (Master of Music at the University of Surrey, Guildford, UK, 1996, and Doctor of Musical Arts at the University of Colorado, Boulder, USA, 2000), McGuire served as artistic director and conductor of the 200-voice San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) from 2000 -2010. She brought new purpose to the Chorus in its efforts to reach out to and support communities; under her leadership, SFGMC raised close to $500,000 for Northern California charities. Her memorable performances are preserved in more than a dozen award-winning CDs and DVDs. She was awarded the title Conductor Laureate of SFGMC at the conclusion of her tenure, and the city’s mayor declared April 22, 2010, as ‘Kathleen McGuire Day’ in San Francisco. Who’s Who in the World, the American Prize, the National Music Honors Society (U.S.A.) are among those who have recognised her contributions to the arts.

In demand as a guest conductor and presenter, McGuire has appeared at such auspicious locales as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Sydney Opera House, Montréal’s Place des Arts, Millennium Park in Chicago, Miami’s Performing Arts Center, Auckland Town Hall, and Buell Theater, Denver. She became a U.S. citizen in 2011, and looks forward to returning permanently to Melbourne, her hometown, in future.

Alumna Q&A

What do you do for a living? Describe a typical day at work.

I am primarily a full-time conductor, although I also find time to perform as a singer and instrumentalist and I accept commissions for composing and arranging. A typical day might include rehearsals or performances, music research and preparation, site inspections for future appearances, public relations and marketing activities for the various groups I direct, preparing verbiage for grant applications, attending meetings with colleagues and volunteers, responding to myriad emails, and networking generally.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in this field?

I have been involved in music in some capacity for almost as long as I can remember. In my teens I considered other professions – not wanting to lose my love of music – but I followed a boyfriend into music at the end of Year 12. Living so close to Silicon Valley I sometimes wonder what my life would look like if I’d pursued computer science, but I have no regrets about being able to earn a living doing what I love most.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

What I enjoy most is being able to do what I love as my profession, and while doing so being able to help others. In many ways, I have elected to work in environments where music is the means to an end – where music serves a higher purpose.

What are the challenges?

Finding balance in my life is an ongoing challenge. Because I work almost exclusively with non-profit organisations, I am required to work on evenings and weekends, yet I also work during the day. Conducting is a vocation and never a 9 to 5 job. It’s a double-edged sword.

Tell me about your first career break?

Being selected as a Rotary International Ambassadorial Fellow, 1994-1995, enabled me to pursue a Master’s degree in the U.K. This launched my professional conducting career.

Tell me about a career highlight/achievement.

Some of my career highlights include conducting the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra on tour, directing the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus at Carnegie Hall, and leading a 560-voice international choir at the Sydney Opera House. Most recently, however, I am extremely proud of a music video I produced with Singers of the Street (S.O.S.), a choir of people affected by homelessness that I founded two years ago in San Francisco. S.O.S. was selected to represent the U.S.A. at the Royal Opera House in July at the London Festival in conjunction with the Olympics. In a concert of 300 performers who have experienced homelessness, the S.O.S. music video was premiered. The video can be viewed online.

Producing the video had a profound impact on S.O.S.; the group experienced substantial growth as a result of the experience.

I am also proud to bring to the fore orchestral works by women composers, which are still sorely neglected by most orchestras in the USA. In May 2012 I conducted the Community Women’s Orchestra in a performance of my new edition of Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ ‘Sinfonia da Pacifica (1953)’, commemorating the Australian-American composer’s centenary. I met Glanville-Hicks in the mid-1980s at a composers’ symposium when I was at the Con. She emigrated from Melbourne to the U.S.A. and was a trailblazer in her day; her life and work resonate with me on a personal level.

How did your Conservatorium/VCA experience help you succeed in your chosen field?

My experience at both the Con and the VCA played a huge role in my success as conductor. At the Con I had my first experience conducting a full orchestra. I will always remember with great fondness playing timpani in the orchestra, under the skilled baton of Chris Martin, where I learned a great deal. By my fourth year I had the opportunity to conduct the Con orchestra in Peter and the Wolf at Melba Hall for visiting school children.

My experience at the Con as a composition major prepared me extremely well in the work I have done throughout my career as a composer, arranger, and orchestrator. Music Language Studies was a truly valuable course with topics spanning several centuries, providing a thorough grounding from both historical and theoretical perspectives. Graham Bartle’s madrigal group fine-tuned my ear, as did Meredith Moon’s theory classes. Moon’s colourful language and demeanour cemented certain tenets, such as ‘filthy old mediaeval organum’ whenever anyone inadvertently used parallel 4ths, 5ths or octaves in four-part harmonisations. Peter Dennison was a bit of a tyrant, but much of my appreciation for Wagner’s operas stems back to his Romantic Music classes. Peter Tahourdin’s composition classes were illuminating, not just from the point of view of learning composition, but also for providing a solid foundation in using electronic equipment. Tahourdin opened our eyes and ears to non-Western music, plus he brought in some remarkable musicians from around the world including composers Michael Tippett and Donald Erb.

The VCA prepared me specifically for my professional conducting career, working with world-class conductors Nicholas Braithwaite and Robert Rosen, and attending master classes with the likes of Carlo Felice Cillario and Richard Divall.

I was also fortunate to be music director of the University of Melbourne Choral Society (MUCS). This experience, directing such works as Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Lloyd Webber’s Requiem, instilled in me a passion for conducting choirs and orchestras simultaneously and was later a focus of my doctorate. In the United States, conductors tend to specialise in either choral or instrumental conducting. In spite of this, I have been fortunate to work consistently with both.

What advice would you give to students who want to pursue a career in your field?

My advice to student conductors is to pursue as much hands-on experience as possible and to observe other conductors. Sing in choirs. Play in orchestras. Be a sponge. In the early stages, experience should be the focus rather than income. Work with community groups, in schools, or in churches, for instance. The skills a young conductor will learn in the field will assist in honing skills as a conductor and, most importantly, how to work well with others. It is also essential to learn the administrative ropes. Conductors these days are expected to be highly skilled multi-taskers, able to be entrepreneurs and bring to the table expertise in many areas. Many of the tasks required are learned informally on-the-job and not during one’s conducting classes.

What are your goals for the next few years? 

I hope to return to Melbourne to spend more time with family and hopefully support the work of my dear friend and colleague Jonathon Welch, working with people who are homeless. I am also eager to find a university position, teaching conducting, or arranging and orchestration.

Tell us about your favourite memory from the Conservatorium/VCA? 

There are so many! Socially I enjoyed being part of the Music Students’ Society – I served as treasurer for a couple of years. To raise funds for our social activities, I produced manuscript paper. I literally typed the lines for the staves on a typewriter, and then photocopied hundreds of them in bulk. We had two more staves on our pages than store-bought manuscript paper and we managed to sell enough sheets to music students to fund food and wine at our MSS parties. We had some rather wild parties, especially the traditional ‘Getting to Know You’ party at the start of each year.

We always put on a show at the end of the year, which included sophomoric skits. We did the Rocky Honours Picture Show one year, parodying the rock musical. Another year we put together an a cappella singing group called the Glee Club, which included, among others: Virginia, Daniel, Chris, Lee, Catherine, and yours truly. We wore tailcoats and white sneakers. Our song list included ‘The Boy From New York City’ and Billy Joel’s ‘For The Longest Time’. Another time we put together a rock band and played current pop tunes. I remember I played bass guitar and Craig Pilkington played trumpet.

Another favourite social memory was the annual faculty versus students cricket game. Students Warwick Stengards and Houston Dunleavy were particularly adept. I was standing at silly mid-on and caught out Meredith Moon. He was none too happy about that.

Not a favourite memory, but certainly memorable: after my final day of classes in my final year at the Con, I was hit by a car while walking across Royal Parade to Norton’s for dinner with my sister, Ruth (she worked in the History Department). I was taken to hospital in an ambulance. I was very concerned because I was supposed to play percussion that evening with the Con orchestra in Mahler’s ‘Resurrection Symphony’, conducted by Michael Brimer. Ruth called Warwick Stengards, and he agreed to fill in for me.

Another memory is Michael Brimer playing Tchaikovsky’s ‘Piano Concert No. 1’ with the Con orchestra. The concert was in Melba Hall before it was renovated, so the audience was seated on portable bleachers. I was the audience. It was one of the most exuberant performances of this work I have ever experienced. Brimer’s hands moved so fast in the first movement, they became a blur. When the movement ended, the audience broke with tradition and erupted into applause and thunderous foot stomping! I’ll never forget it.

The final memory I want to share is the concert that celebrated the opening of Melba Hall after its 1986 restoration. It was a grand occasion, and for those of us who had endured the renovations, it was certainly worth the wait. The program included the spectacular premiere of an orchestral work by Barry Conyngham commissioned for the event. The Hall was packed to the gills; I felt very proud that day to be a Con student sharing a special moment in history.

With whom do you still stay in contact?

Having lived overseas since 1994 I have lost touch with many Melburnians, although recently – mostly via the Internet – I have reconnected with a handful of music students: Houston Dunleavy, Pam Christie, Tim Smith, Chris Draber, Janette Patton, Warwick Stengards, Trevor Alexander, Linda Thompson, and Deviani Segal. I would love to reconnect with others.

If people want to know more about you, where should they look? i.e. weblinks etc…

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.