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Martha Stoddard Embraces a New Era for the HNU Community Orchestra

Image credit: Carol DeArment

Following an extensive search, HNU Community Orchestra welcomes Martha Stoddard as their new conductor. A dynamic and charismatic conductor with strong ties to the local community, Stoddard will guide the orchestra into an exciting new era.

Stoddard is also the artistic director for the Oakland Civic Orchestra, a position she has held for the past 25 years, and was recently appointed as Music Director for the Women’s Community Orchestra in Oakland. She also serves as the principal conductor for the Piedmont Chamber Orchestra. Deeply involved in music education throughout her career, Stoddard taught instrumental music at Lick – Wilmerding High School in San Francisco for thirty years, served as Program Director for the John Adams Young Composers Program at the Crowden School,  and was the first Resident Conductor for Enriching Lives Through Music in San Rafael. Stoddard is also a published composer, and an accomplished flutist and avid tennis player.

What drew you to conducting and composing?

I began composing long before I got into conducting. I was first a songwriter really, beginning as a teen. Already a flutist, I played guitar seriously, and was inspired by great folk  artists of my generation:  Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Peter Paul and Mary and others. I then discovered English Rock bands whose classical influences were pronounced: keyboardist Rick Wakeman (Yes) and Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) and the Who. This path of discovery led me to the instrumental music of Bach, Stravinsky, Beethoven and Brahms. I was always writing my own stuff, moving into instrumental music with more classical influences.

As an undergraduate flute major, I played a lot of chamber music and wrote it too, with incredible encouragement and support from my professors. But my first conducting class was truly a revelation. There I learned about musical structure and texture and strengthened my musicianship. In my advanced course, I conducted the band and orchestra and was drawn to the magic of the podium. With a hunger to conduct more, I organized groups to play my own  pieces. I became the assistant conductor for the university orchestra under my first female conducting mentor and role model, Dr. Madeline Schatz. I wrote and conducted theater pieces at the university beginning a journey that would turn into a life’s work.

Why do you feel music is important?

In short (because I could go on forever about this), we need music like we need food, air, and water. It sustains, connects, inspires, challenges, and heals us. Through music we can better know ourselves and each other.

You are very active in the Oakland community and have served as the director for the Oakland Civic Orchestra for over 20 years, how would you describe the music community in Oakland?

Oakland has a rich musical landscape. In addition to having a fine professional orchestra, there are many ensembles full of talented, dedicated amateur musicians. There are discrete pockets of musical activities in chamber music, singing, band, and orchestral playing across this city and beyond. Many of the musicians see each other in multiple settings and there is a wonderful network within this community. There are also numerous youth orchestras working at various levels, cultivating the next generation of music lovers, listeners, and performers.

What inspired you to take on this new role as the HNU Community Orchestra conductor at Holy Names?

My first experience with the  HNU Orchestra was in a collaborative concert with the Oakland Civic Orchestra where I conducted Debussy’s famous La Mer. Through the generosity and  dedication of the orchestra, I shared the podium with former director, Steve Hofer, and his assistant, Julio Reyes. We were able to present a magnificent concert and I found the orchestra to be warm, welcoming and extremely capable. When the position opened up, I knew I wanted to pursue it. 

How can HNU community members get involved and support the orchestra?

I see great potential in the coming years as we reimagine the orchestra. We have the rare and  wonderful privilege to reside on this  beautiful campus and are blessed to have the Regents Theater as our concert home. We have a talented and dedicated core in the orchestra and we will grow from there. I want to get the word out to musicians from within the extended HNU community and from the surrounding area.

I seek to extend the range of our repertoire to be more inclusive and diverse, and will encourage relationships with living, local composers. In doing  this we will need to expand our financial base and cultivate a broader audience.

Additionally, I am in conversation with the new head of the Preparatory Department, Poppea Dorsam, about ways to strengthen our collaboration and create more opportunities for our youth through shared programming as soloists, as orchestra members, and potentially in conducting apprenticeship roles.

I hope the HNU community will show strong support for our renewed vision by coming out to play in and attend our performances, and through service as volunteer staff, and/or through donations to help fund orchestra programming.

What advice would you give to someone who’s interested in building a career in conducting?

The act of conducting is a temporal art form that requires the integration of intellect, intuition, and physicality. It only exists in time, but the preparation for the act of conducting is multifaceted. The conductor has to extract musical meaning from a written score and transform it into physical movement in order to convey meaning and context meaning to musicians who create sound and thus music. These include dynamics, tempo, rhythm, tone color, texture, and other often elusive expressive qualities.

Some suggestions for the aspiring conductor:

  1. Focus on being the best musician and person you can be:
    1. Practice your instrument
    2. Embrace your musical studies
    3. Focus on refining musicianship
    4. Maintain your personal integrity and take good care of yourself
  2. Sing – Use your voice and develop your ear through sight singing and ear training.
  3. Dance – Find the ways music lives in your body.
  4. Listen to as much music as possible.
    1. Learn to identify individual instrumental timbres
    2. Study orchestration
    3. Familiarize yourself with musical periods, styles, and genre
  5. Find  a good conducting mentor – Be selective about this.