An Interview with LAS Music Director Lara Webber

Published by Roberta Emerson

Chris: Hi everybody, my name is Chris Carter and I’m the Executive Director of the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center. Welcome to this interview today with Lara Webber, the director for the Livermore-Amador Symphony. This is part of a series of interviews we’ll be doing with people around the community who are highly involved in the arts here in the Livermore Valley region and I’m so pleased to have Lara here today with us. So you’ve been the director of the symphony now. I think you started right around the same time I started at the Bankhead Theater?

Lara: Yes, we started basically at the same time. Almost exactly.

Chris: I want to know a little bit more about your background, what’s your story? Did you take lessons as a child, were your parents into music, how did you go down this path?

Lara: Well, you could point to a lot of different catalysts for how I ended up being an orchestra conductor, but the one I always pick, because it was the throughline throughout, is the fact that I was the product of a public school education, which included music throughout. There were opportunities to make music in the classroom, to make music in the ensembles, to make music as a musical theater singer/actor. The arts were IN the curriculum. To date myself, I was a product of the 1970s and early 1980s in a school district that held on to those programs, even when they were fighting for their lives back then.

And yes, a VERY big influence from my parents. My mom is an opera singer and a voice teacher. She was a single mom and we had not a whole lot of financial resources, so my babysitter was really the opera house. So that was a huge influence on my upbringing, where I was just surrounded by musicians and music was a profession held by people I knew. And my dad, although I did not live with him all the time, wherever we were together he was listening to big symphonic works on recordings. He’d wake me up in the morning with the “Great Gate of Kiev” from “Pictures at an Exhibition” or some massive conclusion to a massive symphony which … if you were a teenager, would shake the rafters and get you out of bed!

So that was really the driver toward orchestral music in a way. But I also played cello in orchestra in high school, and I played in a drama ensemble as a non-western music class in fifth grade, and I sang in my school musicals. All of that meant that by the time I got to college, the thing I wanted to do was somehow become a better musician and teach others how to be better musicians or how to express themselves musically. I went to Oberlin College and quickly learned that music education was not the avenue to conducting I should take, if I was interested in being a conductor. But it did point me towards conducting and I shifted that attention to actually learning how to be a conductor. Because people saw me work and said “You’re good at that” and “You should do that.” So I had really good luck and good influences.

Chris: Tell me, where did you grow up? Where did you go to elementary school?

Lara:  Oh, I skipped that! Seattle. I’m a Pacific Northwesterner at heart.

Chris:  It’s funny, your story about your dad kind of reminds me when I was growing up. My parents weren’t really into symphonic music, but my dad likes jazz music. But every Sunday morning for some reason, he has this Italian background and he really wanted to listen to Enrico Caruso. He had this one Enrico Caruso record, so every Sunday we would have to listen to Enrico Caruso in the morning. It’s an old recording, but there’s this famous song where he laughs and I can still picture that.  But that was my introduction to opera, my dad listening to Enrico Caruso every Sunday morning. I really enjoyed that.

Lara:  That’s a voice unlike any other!

Chris: Yeah, it was fun just to understand that, even though something was written and performed so long ago, doesn’t mean it’s not relevant. There are always new ears to listen and appreciate it. So you went to Oberlin, did you study music? What was your major?

“Even though something was written and performed so long ago, doesn’t mean it’s not relevant.
There are always new ears to listen and appreciate it.”

Lara: Yes, It’s funny. I ended up at Oberlin sort of by accident. I had selected a different school for a different reason. I was going to be an actress, a singing actor in musical theater, and go to Broadway. I don’t know what I was thinking! But for a lot of reasons, that decision became obviously wrong right in the middle of my freshman year. And, of all the schools I had been accepted to, the only one that was even willing to let me change my mind and come in the middle of my freshman year was Oberlin. And that was literally the only reason I went. So it turned out to be a fateful, positive choice. Oberlin became a perfect incubator for me to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do. And I don’t think it could have happened the same way anywhere else. But that’s basically where I ended up studying and the path formed from there.

Chris:  So why was it that people encouraged you to get into conducting? You said that people were telling you it was something you could be good at … what was it about you that made that happen?

Lara: I don’t think I know exactly. I was so concerned at the time with doing everything right, with getting it all right. Conducting is preparing music of any kind to teach to a group and lead, whether you’re a teacher or a conductor, is a daunting task. You’re responsible for a bunch of people interpreting a piece of music in some uniform and coherent and meaningful way. SO I was really worried about all of that. I assume it had something to do with an ease that I definitely know I have in the moment of conducting and communicating.

My teacher at the time, a woman named Mallory Thompson, identified it when I was just taking a conducting class as part of the music education major, which was a major I later dropped. But she took me aside after a class and just looked me square in the eye and said “You know you’re good at this. You should do this, you should pursue this, you should study this further.” And my response was, “Well, I am not a child prodigy instrumentalist, I’m not a great young virtuoso on the piano, and all the great conductors I know came up in some other way. I’m a singer who wanted to be a theater major, who ended up here by accident.” And she said, “You can learn what you don’t know.”

And she provided me with, gave me an exam basically, and said this how all the instruments in the orchestra transpose, these are their ranges, this is what’s hard for them, this is what’s not, at a very general level. She was trying to prove to me that I could learn the parts of this field that I believed I had no business pursuing. Because my basic fundamental talent for the physicality of conducting and, more importantly probably, I presume the interpersonal aspects of leading group of people through this abstract exercise of making music, like you said written who knows when but relevant now. So she just put me through my paces to show me that I could do this. And that’s how that launched.

Chris: That sounds like a great teacher.

Lara: She was the prelude to another great teacher, Robert Spano, who is outgoing music director of Atlanta Symphony. He came after her and he was the sort of person that would just look at me and fold his arms and look at me over his John Lennon glasses, and say, “If you want to be a conductor there’s only one way to learn, and that’s to conduct.”

“If you want to be a conductor there’s only one way to learn, and that’s to conduct.”

Chris: Just do it

Lara: Exactly, it’s like practicing your instrument. That’s one of the things about the pandemic, I am separated from my instrument. Which objectifies orchestra musicians in a way I don’t mean to when I say that, but conductors are a really weird space to be in, you need the collection of other musicians in order to practice your craft. You can do a lot of preparation in study and in your own development as a performer on another instrument, watching rehearsals, all kinds of ways, but the bottom line is to get better at conducting you need to conduct. So that’s tricky.

Chris: You’re making me think of my own experience. I wasn’t ever in a symphony or orchestra, but when I was in high school I was in the hand bell choir of my church. I’m fully admitting that now, I don’t usually tell people that! I really enjoyed it. There were 20 of us, I was on the bass bell, I had like four notes. The thing that amazed me was the woman that directed us, this wonderful woman, she could hear every single person and she knew exactly who was screwing up. Usually it was me, but she knew and she could tell who exactly was doing something wrong and when they were doing it wrong. Her ears could hear everything. So I was just curious, when you’re listening to your orchestra, can you pick out the instrument – if somebody’s not playing something right – can you point it out and say it’s this particular instrument or this person, they’re not on the right beat. Can you hear all that?

Lara:  So, Ideally yes. But first, to your other point, hand bell choir is incredibly valuable. That’s really hard because you’re only playing a few notes but you have to know everyone else’s part in order to know precisely when to play that note. Kind of like a percussionist role in an orchestra. It might seem like there’s somebody back there for a long time not doing anything, but they have to count all of it. So bravo! That’s great ensemble experience.

So, it really depends. In all honestly, through a sea of strings, for example, I cannot hear an individual player from within a large section. I can’t necessary hear, “Oh, it’s the outside fourth stand second violin who is flat on their F#.” But obviously a woodwind part, there’s only one player on each part often, and so if a second clarinet line has a misprint in their part and they’re playing the wrong note, it’s my job to hear that and discern that. I freely admit imperfection here! There will be times when my attention is somewhere else and I will not notice if somebody has left something out or whatever. There is an art to not just hearing if something’s wrong, but knowing when it’s your job to fix it and when it’s your job to wait a minute and play it again and allow the musician to fix it. Because nine times out of ten, in any orchestra, that individual player will know that they screwed up and they’ll get it right. And that empowers them and also avoids unnecessary criticism. Of course, there is a point where I have to fix it and if I’m not fixing it, then I’m wasting everyone’s time. That’s the trick. You really have to know listening is the number one job of any ensemble leader.

“You really have to know listening is the number one job of any ensemble leader.”

Chris: I assume you’re not like some stories I hear about conductors. They’re really mean and they point people out. You don’t do any of that?

Lara: No, I’m probably not mean enough sometimes (laughs), it’s not in my DNA! It just doesn’t happen. The first concert I ever conducted was at Oberlin and it was following the advice of Robert Spano, my mentor at the time, who said if you want to learn to conduct, conduct. Oberlin being an incubator for ideas and everyone trapped in a tiny town in Ohio. I put up a sign and everybody showed up to play. And I had this wonderful ensemble of musicians, who now populate orchestras all over the world, thank God for them tolerating me as a young and totally inexperienced conductor. I went through a long process of producing my first concert onstage and I literally didn’t know anything, Chris. Nothing. I didn’t know … the day of the concert I thought, “Wait, how does this work? I’ve seen a million concerts but does the concertmaster go out and then I go out?” I really hadn’t thought it through.

In any case, after that concert had been successful – the music making was good, in large part because the musicians themselves went through this process with me, and hopefully in some part due to my actual ability – a really respected cellist Norman Fischer, on the faculty of Oberlin Conservatory at the time, came up to me and grabbed me by the shoulders and he said, “Lara, you’re a really good conductor, don’t lose your personality.” I said, “What do you mean?” It shocked me. What do you mean, don’t lose my personality? And he didn’t answer me in the moment but I went to him later and said, “What did you mean? What is your concern?” And he said that a lot of conductors become very self-involved and it’s all about them and their vision and imprinting of themselves on the music and the musicians. And at that time, like the late 1980s early 1990s, there were still, and to this day there’s a remnant of the dictatorial “man-on-a-box telling everyone what to do” part of conducting. In large part that has been eradicated by the fact that it doesn’t work for our modern society. In my case, I am so much more interested in the humanity behind the musicians making the music that I know I’m not going to get a good sound or a good response or a good product out of anyone whose first concern is pleasing me or fearing my reaction.

Chris: One thing I remember about you is from a few years ago. You live in this great area and your husband is very smart and knows a lot about the sciences. And there’s a great intersection of art and science. A few years ago you talked at a Rotary meeting that I was at and you talked about music and the brain and why it works the way it does. There was a book you quoted a lot, I went and got that book and read about half of it and then got distracted. So I’m going to get back to it, but is there anything from your perspective that really strikes you as WHY music works so well within our brains and how we’re so receptive to it.

“[Music has] a very specific, focusing, calming, positive effective
upon the way we think and analyze and use all the different parts of our brain.”

Lara:  Well, in the book and in a lot of the work of other scientists and philosophers and writers – I’m thinking particularly of Oliver Sacks and Daniel Levitin, who is the author of “This is Your Brain on Music” – they discuss how we have now developed the ability in science to actually measure the effect of music on the brain with functional MRIs. So the thing that really just woke me up. It’s not as though I needed convincing that music helps us think better. I personally experience that any time I’m really doing anything in a focused way, particularly something musical. And I see that effect happen to large groups of people. Even in very stressful situations, we will gather for rehearsal and, obviously we haven’t gathered during the pandemic, but even before then life was rather exceedingly stressful. And these people would gather and they’d all be talking about all that’s going on in our lives, but then we’d focus on one thing – making music together as a group. There’s no part of that that isn’t demonstrated to me every day — [that music has] a very specific, focusing, calming, positive effective upon the way we think and analyze and use all the different parts of our brain.

When I read this book, all of that was verified for me in a very clearly written discussion of all the science behind why. And it’s because of how the auditory cortex of our brains work. The very specific example that blew me away is that, in the functional MRI where an electrode is attached to the brain, if you play a note, like the note we orient ourselves around in the orchestra is the note A 440Hz. I really hope I’m getting it right today (sings an A). It vibrates at 440 Hz and the electrode in the brain fires at that same frequency, even if the person whose brain is being measured couldn’t sing the note back to you, their brain registers that frequency. So the comparison is, if you use the visual cortex, it’s as if holding up a red apple would make some part of your brain light up red, that doesn’t happen in the visual cortex. No other part of the brain that works quite like [the auditory cortex]. And where it was applied that drew my interest was in the recovery of Gabby Giffords, the congresswoman from Arizona, after she was shot. The thing that made her able to speak again was to sing first. She was able to sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “My Bonnie lies over the ocean.” When you think about it (sings) all these leaps should be really hard. She was able to do that because the auditory cortex functioned with a melodic line to get her verbal skills back. So it crosses hemispheres in the brain.

And why does that happen? I can only trace it back to the fact that we are a musical species, most animals are. Bird song. Wolves howling. Whales singing. Dolphins singing. Even my cat has her own strange aria that she sings at 2 o’clock in the morning, for no reason! And those impulses are part of most living creatures, right? And they were certainly part of us as earliest human animals. So for us to not be musical is to go against our very nature as human beings. So for me the most important aspect of this interest in neurology, as it relates to music and the brain and how the brain functions, is that all of us think musically. It was proven by that functional MRI. I get this all the time, someone says “Oh, you’re a musician, you can sing, that’s so great, but I can’t carry a tune.” That’s just a technical hurdle to get through, if you believe that about yourself. You ARE musical. We all are. That’s why we respond to music we love. And that’s why, as anybody who has read the work of Oliver Sacks and his research into music and memory [knows], even the patients who are most compromised by dementia are brought into focus and into the present by a link to their memory through music. It’s like our secret superpower and we have to keep tapping into it. Right now that is made simultaneously harder for those of us who are group music makers, like we have to be in a group to do what we do. On the other hand, we suddenly have access to all of these performances on our screens that we would not have previously had access to because we’re forced into this weird environment by the pandemic. So I don’t know if that answers your question, but to me it must go back to the fact that from the very beginning of our existence as human beings, we have made music to communicate essential needs.

“All of us think musically … You are musical.
That’s why we respond to music we love. It’s like our secret superpower.”

Chris:  Yeah, and I guess if you think from an evolutionary standpoint you know there are sounds that are safe and sounds that are dangerous. The safe sounds would probably the birds nearby or things like that. The dangerous sounds would be a bear roaring. And think about the sounds, like fingernails on chalkboard that make you [cringe.] Sounds do have a very deep reaction for us, good or bad.

Lara: They tie into emotions.

Chris:  And I’m also fascinated by what you talked about the A 440Hz, the frequency, and how mathematical it is between the notes and the frequencies. I heard someone saying the other day that at the very earliest universities, back in medieval times, music was in the math department because music was considered applied arithmetic.

Lara: Well, Pythagoras played the lyre or lute or something. But mathematicians, many of the most famous ones, were musicians themselves. Not necessarily great musicians, this was not a requirement, but just make it, make music.

Chris: I think that’s fascinating that connection between music and math and our evolution and how it all comes together. I took a music theory class in college, I only took one music class in college, and it was really hard. The professor would give us a piece of music, just one line of notes 12 bars or whatever, and we’d have to write four-part harmonies. We couldn’t listen to the music, all you had to know was how the theory worked and the math, and you had the write all the other notes. And he’d play it in front of the whole class and he’d make these faces if you did it wrong. But if you did it right, it was just fascinating to me that all I had to know was the theory, the math, and it would sound good.

Lara: And the physics of sound. In the Bankhead Theater you enjoy one of the best acoustical environments for small multipurpose theater I’ve ever heard. And it has to be because someone did the math right. Sounds vibrate at certain frequencies and there’s numbers behind that.

Chris: You know the way the wooden panels are set up around the theater? One thing you’ll notice is there’s very few right angles in the theater because right angles are really bad for music. But I understand they are movable and we can adjust those. They were set up for symphony, for orchestra … and they haven’t been moved since! But the original set up was for orchestral music. If you want to hear a good symphony, come to the Bankhead, it’s definitely designed for that.

So you talked about this a little bit but how has the last 10 months been for you? Not being able to be with the orchestra and not being able to perform. It must be a really challenge.

Lara:  I think I did give you a few desperate phone calls. “How are you surviving?” Not just on the economic level but when you must have other musicians and artists and collaborators in order to do what you do, it’s definitely been very strange. And I know that is not just true of orchestral musicians and conductors, but also of theater companies and ballet companies and music schools everywhere, anyone in a chorus is particular hampered.

So you know, it happened in stages. Initially it was all about “Can we continue? What are we able to do safely?” And that quickly deteriorated to “Just stop everything” and so we were all forced to figure out how to continue to serve our communities without being able to produce a normal product. For me, there was maintaining my own integrity, musically. There’s a wonderful cellist in our orchestra, Alan Copeland, who is also on the board of Del Valle Fine Arts, just an extraordinary man who just happens to make instruments, violins, cellos. He lives not far from me and I called him and said, “Quick before we’re not allowed to leave our houses, do you have a cello I could borrow?” So I returned to my second instrument, the cello, for the first time in 30 years and I’ve been practicing and using myself as an example to keep my own community musicians practicing. As my mother would say to her students as a teacher, “Practice 20 minutes a day, no matter what, whatever it is, play it for 20 minutes a day. Make yourself do it, even if you sound terrible. Do your chores, make some kind of music.” So I’ve been trying to follow that to greater or less extent. I’ve been singing more. That’s my first instrument. My husband happens to be quite a good pianist and he’s been practicing. So I have an accompanist.

But as far as my orchestral work, I’ve been really lucky that many of our musicians have been willing to collaborate and throw themselves out there with me. So our principal wind players, some of our string players, our percussionist, they’ve made videos to share with our community on our website and social media. Just two or three minutes of “this is my instrument, this is how it works, this is why I care about what I do” and then playing a little bit. Our board president Alan Frank is really adept at audio recording and visual stuff and he’s been putting together some videos. He did something using Copeland’s Our Town which features views of Livermore with a live performance recorded at the Bankhead of our orchestra playing that piece, which is quite moving to see. And we’ve done sort of collaboration where we got the orchestra together on camera from their own homes playing Sleigh Ride along with themselves from the previous year’s recording, and it’s remarkable. We’ve all seen a lot of Zoom orchestras and Zoom theater or Zoom Broadway or new ways of collaborating on screen. But when it’s your own orchestra getting together, it’s very meaningful despite the fact that it’s so absurdly different than our normal collaboration.

“When it’s your own orchestra getting together, it’s very meaningful
despite the fact that it’s so absurdly different than our normal collaboration.”

By far the most rewarding work we did this fall was the woodwinds and brass players who joined in your Vineyard Vibes presentation in August in the middle of fire and smoke when we recorded it. That was really rewarding and an effective choice on the theaters part to do, which we valued so much. And then later in the summer and fall, I enjoy access to a really large space in my backyard. And I was able to host rehearsals with the string players of the orchestra. Obviously great rigorous health protocols to be able to just make music together. And thinking ahead about how to come back. And how to maintain ourselves during this period. So choosing repertoire that allows musicians to safely gather outdoors and play in some way to keep them in contact with each other. In a way, it hones your skills because you have to use your ears with this great nine-foot distance between people outside, with no acoustics to cradle sound around your ears. But it was remarkably rewarding and effective to have these short gatherings. And we did do one with woodwinds, they were sixteen feet apart! And I had them draping their instruments so that nothing could emit. We followed all the science to keep everyone safe. And even after months long absences of playing with each other, from 16 feet apart, they played in tune, in sync. In a way it’s forcing us to hone our skills in a different way

Chris: Does it sound different when they’re so far apart?

Lara: Oh sure. Woodwinds and brass carry better outdoors than strings do, but in all cases, it goes back to what you were asking earlier in our conversation, it comes down to listening. You have to change how you’re listening. So when I’m a conductor in normal times and I’m on the podium on the Bankhead Theater stage, I have to listen to the orchestra as if my ears are on the back wall of the theater anyway. I have to really mix the sound in my own head. I’m already mixing it with what I want it to sound like, with what it’s actually sounding like. So we all have to develop that skill and in a way we’re developing it in his new way.

Chris: So what’s going to change then, once we do open back up? Is anything going to be different? What are your thoughts on moving forward?

Lara:  I personally feel and I’ve talked to a lot of other artist about this, from across the wide spectrum – other community orchestra conductors all way through to singers and instrumentalists who are soloists who are normally performing hundreds of concerts a year. There is, I think, an awareness that the act of making art is more important than the perfection of the delivery of that art. It’s not to say we shouldn’t have high artistic standards, that’s really important to say, that’s one of the reasons that it’s fun to make music is to make it better, right? To try to get better at doing it. But we tend to get hung up on “Is that the right note, is that the right interpretation , was it too fast or too slow, is the singer in good voice today, is somebody’s facility … gee, they’re not as good as they were last time.” This is not going to matter as much for a while. And it shouldn’t. Because just being able to share a common experience of making music together in a shared space, and hearing it together in a shared space, is now, we understand, such an incredible privilege. Again I’m sure my orchestra will quickly, if I say “Oh, perfection’s out the door,” by the fifteenth minute of the first rehearsal I’m sure I’ll be fixing something, right? But not for a while. We just need to play.

“Just being able to share a common experience of making music together
in a shared space, and hearing it together in a shared space,
is now, we understand, such an incredible privilege.”

Chris: I think we’re all appreciating how much we miss it. And the opportunity to see anything, people are really looking forward to that. I keep on my desk I still have the tickets to the last thing I saw here at the Bankhead and it was the opera. It was “The Florentine Tragedy” and that was the last show that happened before we closed. And it just makes me miss it so much and I’m looking forward to when we can do that again. I was going to ask you what are you thankful for right now, given everything that’s kind of been happening over the last year. It’s been a tough year for anybody working in the arts. What are you grateful for?

Lara: Well, on a fundamental level I’m grateful for my family I’m trapped in the pandemic with the first three people I would choose to be stuck with – my two kids and my husband. In my professional world, on a personal level, I’m really grateful that this kind of tragic pandemic did not occur early in my career or I wouldn’t have one. And one of my big concerns is for some of the soloists we presented on the Bankhead stage, who were literally right at the very beginning of their careers. You’re only as good as your last concert and there haven’t been a whole lot of concerts. So I am grateful that this occurred at a time when my ability to develop, and I’m always trying to develop as a musician, but my career had already started and grown quite a bit and morphed many times. I can withstand this in my development and career process. Much harder for people just staring out. Much harder. And I’m grateful for the creativity of the response of how we have to reinvent everything and just start over. I’m grateful for our school district and the way that they have responded to suddenly having to do all their collaborative work online in an instant. It’s terribly hard to get it exactly right but the effort’s been astounding. For many people it’s been very successful. I worry about those folks who don’t have the kind of access that you and I are enjoying right now.  But fundamentally, I’m grateful for the humanity behind the effort to stay connected. And we have to keep doing that. Especially now, in a very, very disconnected society.

Chris: Alright well, I’m not going to take any more of your time but I really want to say how much I appreciate you and what you do in this community for us and for all these wonderful musicians. I know they all miss it and they want to get back here. It’s such a great way to bring the community together. And I want to keep this conversation going. I think we have a lot more to talk about. Next time we do this, you’re going to have to play the cello, so get ready.

Lara:  Well, we’ll find the right audio filter for that!

Chris: Thank you Lara and have a great day. We’ll see you soon at the Bankhead Theater.

Lara: Thanks Chris, looking forward to being back.


To see what Livermore-Amador Symphony is doing, visit their website HERE.

Explore the other Interviews with Chris Carter in the series:

An Interview with Supervisor Scott Haggerty

An Interview with Congressman Eric Swalwell