Alumni Profile: Carolyn Watson

“To be honest I didn’t really seek out a career as a conductor, rather, conducting found me.”

Carolyn Watson

The role of a conductor is to unite the diverse and at times, disparate groups of people in an orchestra and lead them towards a common musical goal or interpretation of a piece of music.
Meet Carolyn Watson – an award winning conductor of opera and symphonic repertoire, who has been the Music Director of the La Porte County Symphony Orchestra in Indiana, USA (since 2021).

“To be honest I didn’t really seek out a career as a conductor, rather, conducting found me. I originally began studying conducting simply out of personal interest, a desire to improve my musicianship, and to continue to grow and develop as a musician.” Said Carolyn.

Based in the United States since 2013, Carolyn began her music journey at WollCon as a violinist under John Stender, the conductor and director of the BlueScope Youth Orchestra at the time.

“I believe it was even before the group was formally called the BHP Youth Orchestra as I remember that partnership being announced with much excitement not that long afterwards. We rehearsed once a week on Friday afternoons, and I absolutely loved being a part of the group, along with my brother Matthew who is now a violinist with the BBC Philharmonic. I remember we enjoyed a few regional performances on the South Coast – Huskisson and Berry come to mind.”

Carolyn with younger brother Matthew in 1989

“Some of the repertoire I played as a very young violinist in that initial string orchestra – I’m recalling Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings for example – really cemented my love of the orchestral string sound and even now as a conductor of symphony orchestras and operas, I still find myself most drawn to that aspect of the orchestra.”

During high school she also took violin lessons under Rotraud Schneider, an important figure at WollCon for Carolyn and her love of music.

“I think the combination of Rotraud’s guidance and my experience in orchestra and chamber music at the Wollongong Conservatorium gave me the inspiration to pursue music as a career.”

“There were some wonderfully fun Saturday morning breakfasts and brunches with croissants, at which the orchestra played in the grounds of Gleniffer Brae. They were all put on and organized by the parents’ committee of which my mum was a member, so we were always pretty involved. At one of these breakfasts I recall playing in the orchestra under David Vance with Keith Hempton (the then Director) singing Se Vuol Ballare from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro while wearing a dressing gown, which I think was a nod to the relatively early morning performance time.”

Carolyn in the centre foreground with her brother Matthew behind her – waiting to play.

She continued along this path, playing with the Australian Youth Orchestra and professionally as a violinist in Australia and Germany before moving into conducting.

“There were many things about conducting which I found intriguing, inspiring and challenging simultaneously, and I am sure my friends and colleagues would agree I am generally not shy about ‘being in charge’ of the orchestra as it were. So in that respect, it is a good fit for my personality.”

Watch Carolyn lead the Dallas Opera Orchestra, performing Verdi’s Witches’ Ballet from Macbeth. November 2017, Winspear Opera House, Dallas.

Carolyn holds a PhD in Performance (Conducting) from the University of Sydney (2013) on Gesture as Communication: The Art of Carlos Kleiber, an investigation in nonverbal forms of expression such as body posture, movement, eye contact and facial expressions conductors use to communicate with players, in particular Kleiber, an Austrian conductor, hailed by many as the greatest conductor of all time.

“What appealed to me was the academic dimension of the project, being able to use my brain in a different way, and the opportunity to really delve deep into the literature associated with conducting. Now as Director of Orchestras at The University of Illinois I teach masters and doctoral courses and I really appreciate having the theoretical background.”

There have been many awards during Carolyn’s career, but some of the most significant international awards include being a Prize-winner at the 2012 Emmerich Kálmán International Operetta Competition in Budapest, and winning the 2015 American Prize for Orchestral Performance.
In Australia, the Churchill Fellowship, and the Brian Stacey Award for Emerging Australian Conductors was pivotal in allowing Carolyn to grow and develop as a conductor.

Still considered a male dominated profession, Carolyn has, in the last few years observed an increasing awareness of the gender disparity in conducting, and the growth of a number of emerging programs in an effort to train, promote and create opportunities for women conductors.

“I think the generally accepted statistic sees somewhere between 5-10% of professional orchestral conductors as women. I am pleased I am able to play a role in changing that.”

In March 2022 Carolyn joined ABC Radio’s Lindsay McDougall to talk about her work, where it all started, and exactly where Kansas City actually is…