Varsity athlete, now symphony conductor

University of Southern California professor and Resident Conductor Sharon Lavery remembers the thrill of her first Rose Bowl game in 1988. It was a classic contest between Trojans and Spartans. Lavery was a freshman saxophonist with the marching band, and her team won! Only her team was Michigan State, and it was the Michigan State Spartans who beat USC that year, 20-17. In one of those amusing coincidences that frequently occur in life, Lavery is now a faculty member at the Thornton School of Music, and she roots for USC as a bona fide Trojan.Lavery is also the Music Director of the Downey Symphony Orchestra, having been selected in 2007 from a field of more than 80 applicants to replace conductor Tom Osborne, who led the ensemble for twenty-two years. While it is clearly unusual to see a young woman in such a traditional male role, Lavery is well-trained, well-connected with the music community, and passionate about sharing her art. Larry Lewis, President of the symphony Board of Directors asserts, "We are just delighted with her." As part of her duties for the Downey orchestra, Lavery provides artistic direction for the Music in the Schools program, and she executes this educational effort with considerable relish. Under her direction, the symphony is anything but stuffy. For one school concert with a Halloween theme at the Downey Theater, Lavery dressed as a witch while conducting "Night on Bald Mountain." And when the orchestra performed the music for Pirates of the Caribbean, Lavery wore a hook on one hand, and conducted with a sword instead of a baton. During the symphony's summer concerts in the park, Lavery offers all children in the audience the unique opportunity to stand in her place for a few special moments. No matter how long the line, Lavery patiently guides each waiting child to the podium to take a turn at leading the orchestra as the musicians play a medley of stirring Sousa marches. And the orchestra plays on until there are no more children in line. Lavery's commitment to presenting orchestral music in an accessible manner may stem from her own school experience. Her hometown of Ossinning, New York (home of the legendary Sing Sing Prison), offered a very comprehensive music program, beginning in kindergarten. Lavery recalls how smitten she was in the fourth grade when the music teacher demonstrated a scale on the clarinet, with the notes swirling quickly from low to high. "I just knew I wanted to do that," she said. Lavery was so talented on the instrument, that by fifth grade, she was invited to be part of the Westchester County Honor Band of 100 students. Her first concert began with "Strike Up the Band," and Lavery reveled in the experience. At the urging of teachers and mentors, she began private lessons, moving into jazz, and learning the alto saxophone. By high school, Lavery was participating in every musical format offered: the concert band, the jazz band, the Dixie band, the marching band. She says she caught the conducting bug when she was Drum Major her senior year. But Lavery's high school activities were not just limited to music. She was athletic as well as musical, playing varsity softball, basketball, and field hockey. With her mother as "chauffeur," Lavery remembers leaving a softball game, then changing clothes to perform in a jazz concert. But music was always her top priority. "I never would have missed a concert for a sport," Lavery states. Concert performances may have come first for the teenager, but Lavery's personal listening choices were typical for a teenager of her generation. She was a fan of Madonna, U2, and Huey Lewis and the News. Lavery attended Michigan State with plans to become a music teacher, but at the end of four years, she felt there was still more she needed to learn about performing. She auditioned for the New England Conservatory in Boston and earned a Masters degree in music. Lavery describes her time at the NEC was one of the best in her life. The year was devoted to practicing, performing, and developing as an artist, with typical part time jobs at the audio library and a popular sports bar. Her performances included playing principal clarinetist at Carnegie Hall. After NEC, Lavery did teach music for five years at a high school south of Boston. But she also freelanced as a clarinetist, doing scoring sessions and substituting for musicians at the Boston Philharmonic. Her interest in conducting grew as she participated in workshops and summer seminars. In 1998 she took the plunge, and left teaching to join the USC program for orchestral conducting. Under the guidance of Larry J. Livingston, Lavery ultimately joined USC in 2004 as Resident Conductor of the Thornton Orchestras and Wind Ensemble. In addition to her work with the USC ensembles and the Downey orchestra, Lavery has conducted with other orchestras across the United States, and internationally. One of her most unusual cross-cultural experiences was working with musicians from Sophia, Bulgaria. People from that part of Europe move their heads from side to side when they want to indicate, "Yes." To indicate, "No," they move their heads up and down. This is the complete opposite from the United States. Lavery says, "I thought they were disagreeing with everything I said." Lavery's family background would not have lead one to suspect that she would develop such a passion for classical music and conducting. Her father was a lawyer who played trumpet in high school, and her mother was a nurse who played the accordion. Her siblings also do not share a musical profession. Her brother works for the San Francisco Bar Association, and her sister is a nurse practitioner in Washington, D.C. Still, Lavery says they are probably her biggest supporters, and they seldom miss one of her concerts. Larry Lewis feels that one of the major assets that Lavery brings to her position of conductor is her connection with so many exceptional soloists. To further encourage young artists, Lavery has organized a competition in southern California, and winners are invited to perform with the Downey orchestra. The pursuit of her artistic dreams has taken Lavery across the continent. Instead of cold winters near the Hudson River, Lavery now enjoys west coast sunshine at her home in the historic area of Hancock Park. Little did she know when she first marched on to the Rose Bowl field as a freshman with the Michigan State Marching Band that her dreams would lead her to a life centered around USC and music in southern California.

********** Published: October 7, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 25