The region's first female conductor dishes on how she made it in the biz
Joana Nachef is straightforward about it. If she had stayed in Lebanon, she would never have become the Middle East’s first female conductor.
“When I was 13 I was in a choir here in Lebanon and I discovered watching a conductor – what an amazing job!
“But then I looked at myself and said, ‘I don’t see any woman doing that,’ and I decided it was just a passing fancy.”
She shrugs, recalling that, in those days, Lebanon had no university-level classes in any facet of music education.
If Nachef feels any pressure to be a mascot for her birth country, she doesn’t show it. She puts her remarkable career down to the opportunities she was afforded in the U.S., where her family migrated in 1975, at the onset of the Civil War.
Apart from a brief return in ’77 at her father’s behest – which saw Nachef study business economics at Beirut University College (now LAU) – her adult life has been spent stateside. With two children and a Lebanese-born husband there, she has no intention of returning to Lebanon.
“I believe it was God’s plan that I was to be in L.A.,” she opines, “and have the chance to go to these wonderful schools and realize the dream.”
Whether it was divine providence or chance, the maestro ended up doing what she does partially thanks to a series of fortunate events.
Upon enrolling in the music program of El Camino College – where she has worked since 1989 – the 18-year-old Nachef signed up for a conducting class out of curiosity.
One of the first things she was asked to do was conduct the U.S. national anthem. Before Nachef could finish, the professor, Dr. Jane Hardester, stopped her.
“‘Who are you?’” Nachef recalls her asking brusquely, “‘and what are you doing here?’”
“I felt so perplexed. ‘What have I done?’ I thought.” Nachef says, assuming a stern voice. “‘Oh, young lady, don’t look like that,’ [Hardester said.] ‘I just want to tell you that you are a natural conductor.’”
Still unconvinced that a conducting career was possible for a woman, Nachef continued studying to become a concert pianist.
“[Conducting] was a very male profession,” she recalls. “In the ’80s you could count the female conductors around the world. There were maybe 10. Maybe less.”
Hardester was the only female conductor Nachef knew of at the time and she still speaks of her late professor with veneration and respect. “She was really for all of us the woman we would look up to as a conductor,” she recalls. “Now there are quite a few more ... but she paved a path.”
It wasn’t until another chance encounter during her graduate studies that Nachef finally picked up the baton for good.
“Part of the requirement was to take a conducting elective. So I did that, and the same reaction came from the professor – a whole different person, four years later. ‘What are you doing as a concert pianist? You need to be a conductor.’”
Nachef smiles. “Five years after that, at 26, I finished my degree in conducting and had to go out and get some experience,” she says.
It was 1985, and Nachef was champing at the bit to show the staid classical music world that she – the well-spoken L.A. girl from Ashrafieh – had something different to offer from the myriad of men out there.
“I really believe that my role is not to replace a male conductor,” she says, crossing her legs as if to emphasize the point. “My role is to be a woman who completes this picture and gives a presentation.
“I use my femininity. I wear fancy dresses. I make sure it is a lovely picture to look at as well as there being excellence in music. And why not, right?”
It is likely this attitude – grasping the importance of aesthetics as well as a rigorous approach to her discipline – that has given Nachef such huge appeal.
U.S. biographical publication “Who’s Who” featured the maestro as one of America’s Outstanding Young Women for 1986. From then on, it was a slow but steady climb to establish herself at the top of her field. She reached a significant peak in 2005 with her first performance at Carnegie Hall, leading the New England Symphonic Ensemble and a 240-voice choir.
Since then, she has returned to New York’s famous venue three more times. The most recent appearance saw her direct Mozart’s “Vesperae Solennes” – featuring three Lebanese choral groups (from AUB, NDU and Antonin University) in addition to her L.A. choirs and the New England Symphonic Ensemble.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2009 that she made her Lebanon debut at Al Bustan Festival.
Perhaps this was partly because conducting remains woefully misunderstood in this part region. Unlike the in-your-face potency of solo vocalists and instrumentalists, most spectators see the conductor as little more than an anonymous silhouette waving a stick; something Nachef is on a one-woman mission to change.
“When I start a concert, I turn around first of all and I talk to my audience ... and try to help them connect with what’s going to happen. ... I want them to leave with memories that hopefully can make their lives better, you know, to live.”
Her passion for what she does is disarmingly naked and infectious. She is also clearly a born performer. As the conversation turns more directly to conducting, her back straightens a little and she chooses each word carefully.
“The conductor is a cheerleader, a communicator, in many ways a scholar, and a technically skilled professional,” she says. “You don’t just wave your hands in the air hoping [the orchestra] will follow you.
“As a conductor, you are interpreting the score that has been written by a composer and you’re trying to find what he was communicating. ... I need to be able to dissect and analyze how all the instruments and the voices are going to present this thought, this idea, this musical expression.”
Nachef shakes her head slightly. “It’s as if you’re painting that beautiful artwork live through sound,” she says. “You’re bringing these sounds into a visual aspect.
“My whole being is immersed in the music [when I conduct]. I am the instrument; I’m not just a beat pattern that is clicking back and forth. Otherwise, they would just use a metronome.
“I have to live it. I am the pulse.”