Yamaha’s Make Waves Interviews: Kathryn McDowell
To celebrate World Women's Day on March 8, 2021, Yamaha's Make Waves Interviews has a very special guest: Kathryn McDowell (CBE) Director of the London Symphony Orchestra.
By Teri Saccone
As the first female director of the London Symphony Orchestra, Kathryn McDowell is a bona fide trailblazer. Her agile, vibrant and inclusive leadership has guided the LSO through various transformative challenges.
Kathryn has succeeded in a highly-coveted, multi-faceted role. She has guided the expansion of the LSO to embrace digital broadcasts and online education.
Kathryn's ascendancy has not only forged a path, but she's also ushered in a strong representation of women in all kinds of roles throughout the LSO.
Although women have made vast strides in business such as technology and finance, females rarely break through the glass ceiling within the music and arts industries. Kathryn understands the nuances.
"I think there have been a lot of breakthroughs for women in business," Kathryn begins in her vibrant tone and engaged manner. "Although it's been great to see many major corporations having more women directors. Within the arts, there are many impressive women at senior manager levels. But they're not always leading the institutions. There were a number of MD appointments in the last 20 years in the arts. But we've not kept up those numbers as they've slipped. I think it may have to do with the lifestyle involved as it's an incredibly time-consuming type of role, heading up a performing arts company. I guess I've become very focused on that myself. And for some women, this role does work well. Young women -- and young men, too -- are beginning to seek a better work/life balance. I'm sure we'll find a way to a better balance coming out of the pandemic. But we're not there yet."
The LSO -- through their active search for fresh musical talent -- cultivate relationships with many female composers who are now rising stars in their own right.
"We've made adjustments to get more composers of diversity into our programme," says Kathryn. "Over the last 15 years we've done a lot of work with young composers, a high percentage who are women. It's been really encouraging seeing them go on to great success. People like Ayanna Witter-Johnson, Hannah Kendall, Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian, Sasha Siem, and Helen Grime. They make us proud coming through this scheme."
With 2021 marking her 16th year as LSO's Director, Kathryn is reflective about her tenure "It's been really enjoyable," she admits emphatically. "I've never stayed in any role quite as long as this.
But there's always been something new to do, always a new challenge to address. I'd say it took me at least two years to get to grips with the LSO and to understand how it worked. Then we wanted to develop the international work, the education, community projects and LSO Live, leading right up to the London 2012 Olympics where we had a major role in the opening ceremony. Our young people were really involved in that as well. Beyond that, bringing in Simon Rattle as Music Director and the whole integration of his involvement. Then right up to the last year and the Covid situation."
On that topic, the LSO compassionately managed the crisis by creating a fund so that un-furloughed LSO musicians were paid during the lockdowns.
"There was simply nothing else we could do but help them," Kathryn says. "They are an orchestra of world class musicians and there's no way we could have lived with ourselves had we not taken care of them as we’d have failed them in our duty. And the LSO is a registered charity and we follow the good practices of that as a cooperative organization. I think it's a good way to handle a crisis, and to take this great orchestra forward."
It's clear that Kathryn's business acumen and respectful nature is endemic to her success. What other aspects of her job does she deem crucial to this role?
"I think you have to understand how the music works," she replies. "I don't think it would be easy to do my job had I come from a purely financial or administrative background because you must understand how musicians work and what they're trying to achieve. I always sought to have constructive, harmonious and positive relationships. There's a certain amount of tension that is helpful to get things done. But negative energy is not part of that, it's counterproductive."
Being a charity, maintaining the LSO's partnerships is a huge part of the job. "Working with our various partners is an incredibly important element to what we do," Kathryn asserts. "The LSO has always worked strongly with international partners. I've been able to build and extend those. That is very much a people business. Building trust, keeping loyalty and commitments strong are crucial."
Normally, the LSO performs in London at their home base at the Barbican Centre when not on tour. Although the lockdowns criplled live shows, the downtime provided another opportunity to expand the LSO digital imprint.
"We normally hold around 70 concerts a year at the Barbican where we've been based since the early 80's" says Kathryn. "It's a big commitment and we also spend up to 12 weeks a year touring internationally. During lockdown to counteract the lack of live shows we've worked towards the development of our digital potential. I think the future for us will be a blend of digital and some live performances."
Born outside of Belfast, Kathryn grew up an only-child. She displayed a natural aptitude for both sports and music as a child.
After completing a music degree at Edinburgh University, she travelled to Vienna to participate in a programme helping political refugees. Upon returning to the UK, she embarked solely on her career, working for The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, The Arts Council and the Welsh National Opera before joining the LSO in 2005.
As an inspiring woman herself, who inspired Kathryn?
"I've been very fortunate over the years to work with some really great people," she recounts. "As a child I had a completely inspiring piano teacher, who was fabulous and very devoted to her young students. Then when I started working in the arts, I was fortunate with my first boss -- a woman called Sue Harries -- at the Welsh National Opera who was a really inspirational role model for me."
The discipline she acquired early on to excel in both sports and musical endeavors has been instrumental to her success all along.
"I was brought up to enjoy life but to also be quite disciplined about how I lived," she adds. "Piano practice was a very important part of my childhood. So too, were all my sports. And you had to work at those things otherwise you didn't really succeed. I knew I didn't want to be a performer but I wasn't sure what I did want to do. Yet the discipline of performing and practice is something that stayed with me always. When you play an instrument you are learning a life skill."
A major career milestone was Kathryn's award of a CBE several years ago.
"I was delighted and my mother was still alive at the time and she was utterly thrilled," she recalls. "It was completely unexpected. I had no idea I had been put forward so it was a very lovely surprise. I know there can be criticisms of the honours system. But one has to take it for what it is. It's a recognition for a contribution a person has made and a celebration of that. I'm delighted to see in recent years a rather more diverse community of people coming through and being recognised. So I was very touched to receive it."
Having worked diligently to build an exceptional career, Kathryn’s perspective about how she visualises one's career trajectory is quite unique.
"I think sometimes in discussing people’s career opportunities and objectives they want to describe it as a 'ladder' as though a career is something that's going to have a very definite upward momentum to it," she explains. "But I don't think that's necessarily how it works. The image I've always preferred is one of a tree that you're on a journey that is like climbing a tree. You'll go on a particular branch, if you go too far on that branch and you're unsupported that branch may tip over. You may want to go back towards the centre of the tree and go up another branch. So you'll gradually climb higher in the tree, but it's not necessarily by a straight line. It's not the ladder on the core of the tree, the trunk of the tree, it's more about navigation on your way up higher."
With 2021 in full swing, Kathryn is excited about furthering the LSO’s Discovery Programme, a social outreach project which seeks to educate young, aspiring musicians across various socioeconomic backgrounds.
"The work that we do in the education community field is all about the next generation coming through, "Kathryn enthuses. "And if we are to thrive as an organisation into the future we've got to be alert to the themes and issues of our time and of the needs and interests of our younger generation. We have to engage with them and that's the joy of the Discovery Programme. We can reach a lot of young Londoners these days and increasingly people across the world where we can work again in partnership in those places. And hopefully that will enrich all our work."
Additionally, the LSO are tentatively planning to reconvene in a live capacity and continue expanding their digital scope. They have clearly pivoted to suit the changing times.
"We're putting so much online on our digital programme." explains Kathryn. "Hopefully we'll also be back in the Barbican in May with live audiences. There are some lovely projects with Simon Rattle ahead online, too."
Is there a philosophy on which she relies? "I guess it would have to be about keeping optimistic," Kathryn replies. "The belief that things will work out better. Yes there will be bumps along the way for us all. But if you can keep that optimism and positivity about how you address those things as you go, you'll come out the other side. I'm fortunate to have had a father with an even-tempered nature who could always see the sunny side in any circumstances. I think that kind of resilience is something that I hope people can find and develop within themselves. My generation was born in the years post-WWII and everything was possible and we saw those opportunities and forged ahead. I'm not sure if that's the case with millennials and younger people today. But I think if they can develop resilience and optimism, it would help."
Although she is a classical music lover when away from work Kathryn is equally fond of popular music. When she (often) hits the hiking trail, she may be listening to Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Charlie Parker, or Dixieland Jazz. "I really like high energy, outdoor pursuits, and it also helps me wind down."
The LSO has worked closely with Yamaha, their partnership further strengthened throughout the last year, something she is keen to highlight "Yamaha has been a wonderful partner for us throughout the lockdown period," Kathryn explains, "providing state-of-the-art digital equipment for us to reach out to the wider community during this difficult time. We look forward to developing the partnership with them further into the future."
Kathryn is a lead-by-example role model whose drive and dynamism (coupled with her integrity and connection with musicians, business alliances and colleagues) comprise her enduring success story.
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