Leading the Way

Local Woman Conductor Cracks Glass Ceiling

When picturing a conductor, most people conjure up the image of someone standing on a podium dressed in a tuxedo, baton in hand, and decidedly male. Like many professions, the world of music has a glass ceiling few can crack.

Oak Park resident JoAnne Wasserman faced discrimination on her path to becoming a conductor of note. She made history when she was hired, in 1993, as the first female artistic director of the Santa Barbara Choral Society. Established in 1948, it is the oldest performing arts organization in Santa Barbara.

“It was difficult to find a position,” says Wasserman, who is now in her 24th season with the ensemble. “Women were accepted as musical directors in schools, but outside that setting, there was sexism.” Several would-be employers admitted she wasn’t hired because of her gender.

But Wasserman wasn’t deterred. She had wanted to head a music group since she was a child. Her mother, who sang professionally on the radio, had always encouraged her daughters to sing. When 10-year-old Wasserman saw her older sister perform in a chorus, she wanted to be part of it—but as the conductor!

“Growing up in Los Angeles, I was inspired by the great Los Angeles-based conductors Roger Wagner, Paul Salamunovich, Howard Swan and John Alexander,” she says.

It was another prominent conductor who motivated her to pursue a music career. “One teacher can change a student’s life,” says Wasserman. “For me, it was Albert McNeil, the choral teacher at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles.” McNeil, the founder of the world-renowned Jubilee Singers, encouraged Wasserman to follow her dreams.

She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Voice and Conducting at California State University Northridge. She did post-graduate work at the University of Southern California and participated in master classes with several well-respected conductors, including Robert Shaw, Salamunovich and Wagner.

While in graduate school, Wasserman taught at Los Angeles City College and conducted church choirs, eventually becoming the first female conductor at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles. More recently, she has acted as a Master Class Conductor at the Oregon Bach Festival, Chorus Master for Opera Santa Barbara and has served on the faculties of CSUN and Westmont College.

The maestra may be petite at 5’1”, but she wields a mighty baton leading the Santa Barbara Choral Society, 100 voices strong, and the accompanying orchestra.

“The focus of our repertoire is great masterworks, such as Brahms’ ‘A German Requiem,’ which we presented last month,” Wasserman says. “We perform works of contemporary composers, as well.”

The group presents a minimum of four concerts a season at venues such as the Lobero and Granada Theatres and often partners with the Santa Barbara Symphony and other arts organizations.

Under Wasserman’s leadership, the Choral Society has evolved from a community choir into a semi-professional group with a policy of auditioning members.

Dedicated to the group’s mission of serving the community, Wasserman has conducted performances at local events and has boosted music education by incorporating student vocalists in holiday concerts and establishing a student scholarship program. Additionally, under her direction, the Choral Society has performed internationally, including in Italy last year with composer Morten Lauridsen, whose works were featured.

“We think of ourselves as cultural ambassadors of the lively Santa Barbara arts scene to the wider global community,” she says.

Her most meaningful musical experiences were conducting the Worldwide Rolling Mozart Requiem on the first and again on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. “The music was uplifting and healing, reaching the soul in a way words cannot,” she recalls.

There have been many other highlights, but working with Beatles producer Sir George Martin in 2010 was a standout. “We premiered Sir George’s composition ‘Mission Chorales’ under his baton,” she says. “That was followed by ‘LoveLoveLove,’ William Soleau’s ballet created for the State Street Ballet company set to a medley of Beatles songs we performed. What a thrill to work with Sir George!”

Wasserman is married to college sweetheart, Gary, and has two adult children. She is a Tae Kwan Do black belt, an avid Dodger fan and a golfer. But, she says, music is her life.

“I’m fortunate to do what I love,” she says, acknowledging her profession is male-dominated. “My advice to any woman entering this field is to believe in yourself, work hard and don’t let anyone else define your goals. Be persistent and when an opportunity presents itself, embrace it!”

For more information visit SBChoral.org.