When conductor Emily Isaacson of Portland steps up to the podium, she’s aware of the wariness surrounding her. She accepts that she’ll feel it from far-more-experienced musicians and from audiences, too.
She’s a woman in a field that’s largely composed of men. According to Bachtrack, which bills itself as “The classical music website,” only five of the top 150 conductors in the world in 2017 were women. Even in the chorale world, only 19 percent of professional ensembles have female conductors.
Isaacson is also young—36. And she says she’s even more of a rarity in her chosen profession because she’s a mom—she and her husband have two children, ages 5 and 2.
“I’m a tall, blonde, young woman, and that’s unexpected. I don’t fit the mold, and not everyone reacts well to that. There are a lot of expectations, and it definitely was intimidating in the beginning. But fortunately, I love challenges,” says Isaacson, who is artistic director and conductor for both the Portland Bach Experience (since 2016) and the Oratorio Chorale (since 2013) and also has started guest conducting elsewhere.
Isaacson counters doubters by being energetic, holding herself to the highest standards possible in knowing “every nook and cranny of great works of music, bringing new ideas to them, and mixing it up.”
By taking this approach, she says she’s often able to quickly turn impressions around. Plus, she says, with many audience members concerned about the future of classical music, they’re often rooting for her to succeed.
“I’m not going to be able to convince everyone, but that’s OK,” she says. “I do think, as a woman, I bring a different vocabulary to the conversation. And I think of my job as bringing ideas together and creating the best version of a piece of music that I can.”
Growing up on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick in a family “where music was always a part of life,” she frequently attended Bowdoin International Music Festival performances.
By the tender age of 15, she knew she wanted to be a conductor and never veered from that plan. Along the way, she’s earned two master’s degrees (in musicology and conducting) and a Ph.D. in musical arts in choral conducting.
Isaacson can play music—piano, cello and percussion—and she considers herself a good singer, but she doesn’t possess the virtuoso skills that typically lead people into her profession.
“My path has been a little unconventional, to be sure.”
Patricia McCarthy is a longtime writer and editor. She has three daughters, lives in Portland, and also has a photography business (patriciamccarthy.com).