Women Orchestrate Symphony's Success

Women have and continue to play a critical role in the life of the Long Beach Symphony–from a ground-breaking, history-making conductor to those who presently perform in crucial positions throughout the organization. From its president, Kelly Ruggirello, to assistant conductor Apostolia Nikouli and assistant concertmaster Agnes Gottschewski, women not only fill those key symphony positions but make up half of its musicians. That will be on display, March 11, when Long Beach Symphony takes to the stage to perform the sometimes raucous, always entertaining Carmina Burana, in the Terrace Theater. With a full orchestra accompanied by two choirs, three soloists and a piano duo, there will be a lot to take in.

Of course, the same can be said of past and ongoing contributions made by women to the symphony’s success. It was nearly 35 years ago that the Long Beach Symphony named JoAnn Falletta to the post of Music Director, a noteworthy move in 1989 when women in that position at major symphonies were rare. Yet, it was just one significant move by the symphony that, to this day, continues to be a benchmark of inclusiveness.

JoAnn Falletta
Credit: Lisa Hagstrand

While this is of note–especially during March, designated as Women’s History Month–Ruggirello says this is simply the result of a policy that looks to work with the best people the organization can find to work with. Still, though it seems like a rather straightforward formula, she allows that classical music like virtually all parts of society struggled for decades–centuries, actually–with inclusion.

“It took a lot longer for women,” she said.

Kelly Ruggirello

In Falletta’s hiring, Ruggirello credited a forward thinking board of directors that had the vision to recognize the qualities that would make her one of the world’s greatest conductors – Gramophone magazine ranked her as one of the 50 greatest living conductors – a Grammy winner who has gone on to direct other major symphonies and was appointed to the National Council on the Arts.

“It was visionary not just because she was a woman, but because she was adventurous in moving the audience to try unique music, to try and grow the repertoire,” Ruggirello said. “That’s something we’ve tried to do, to bring as many voices to the stage, because we believe that makes for the best artistic product.”

JoAnn Falletta

That product will be all about the Terrace Theater’s (300 E. Ocean Blvd.) stage, March 11 when the symphony Symphony presents Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana – or Songs of Bavaria – a rollicking work set to 24 poetic texts that will not only utilize the orchestra, but the Long Beach Camerata Singers, South Bay Children’s Choir), soloists Amy Schubert (soprano), Ashley Faatoalia (tenor) and James M. Schaefer (baritone), along with the acclaimed piano duo of Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg.

Helping to bring all that together will be assistant conductor Apostolia Nikouli and assistant concertmaster Agnes Gottschewski, whose position as second chair violin and assistant concertmaster, means she must not only play exceptionally but lead as well.“

You have to have great confidence to not only play but lead, and Agnes has that,” Ruggirello said. “We’re lucky to have her.”

Agnes Gottschewski

Ruggirello describes Nikouli as Music Director Eckart Preu’s “right hand, he relies heavily on her.” Not only does Nikouli provide an able substitute as a conductor,, but is also responsible to listen for balance between singers and musicians, particularly important when it comes to the March 11 performance.

Apostolia Nikouli

Carmina Burana, which will be preceded by a performance of Ana Lara’s Angeles de Llama y Hielo (Angels of Fire and Ice), begins with a monumental choral performance of both power and immediacy that will be familiar to just about anyone since it has been featured in everything from “Lord of the Rings” to “Paul Blart, Mall Cop” to countless commercials.

"Carmina is a lot of fun,” Ruggirello said. “Two choirs, three soloists, a piano duo, there’s a lot going on. It’s the kind of piece that those who might be intimidated by the term classical music will immediately recognize and take to. it’s a wonderful, welcoming piece.”

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Steve Lowery