Dr. Emily Isaacson energizes Maine’s classical music scene.
Dr. Emily Isaacson is prone to outbursts of great enthusiasm and episodes of thoughtful pause in equal measure as she discusses her time spent conducting. Gesticulating for emphasis, she leans forward and says fervently, “part of my mission has been to tear down what I see as unnecessary restrictions to incredible music.” One can easily visualize her on stage, coaxing strains of Bach from an ensemble with her baton. A fourth-generation Mainer, Isaacson’s musical education has taken her both across the country and across the pond. In 2013, she returned to her home state to become the artistic director for the Oratorio Chorale and Maine Chamber Ensemble. “In Maine you can make things happen,” says Isaacson. “I really value that about this community.”
Isaacson began her life in Brunswick. “My parents fostered creativity and curiosity in me,” she says. Her mother, Margaret McGaughey, recently retired as the Appellate Chief of the United States Attorney’s Office in Maine. Her father, George Isaacson, is a senior partner with Brann & Isaacson in Lewiston. They began their daughter’s musical education early. “I was going to the Bowdoin International Music Festival concerts in the Ergo [baby carrier] on my mom’s chest,” Isaacson says. She began participating in Maine State Music Theatre productions in fourth grade, working with former artistic director Charles Abbott. She also trained in ballet, and performed at the Theater Project in Brunswick with artistic director Al Miller and executive director Wendy Poole. “I was captivated by art and music and theater and dance, right from the get-go,” she says.
As Isaacson transitioned into adolescence, she no longer had the same opportunities. “I auditioned for all sorts of plays and I didn’t get in,” she says. “I was too young to play an adult role and too old to play a cute kid role.” Her mother persuaded her to try out for the Bowdoin International Music Festival chorus, which she reluctantly did. This turned out to be life-changing: that summer they were performing “Chichester Psalms” by Leonard Bernstein. “This gorgeous piece was important in my musical evolution, in terms of thinking about what music can do and be and sound like,” says Isaacson. “It blew my mind as a composition.”
Isaacson became the youngest member of the chorus that year. She earned a solo, which enabled her to work closely with harpist June Han (who often plays with the New York Philharmonic) and conductor Jeff Milarsky (now on the faculty at Columbia University and Julliard). “I got access to these musicians that were in another stratosphere of creativity,” says Isaacson. She has vivid memories of working with Han and Milarsky in a tiny Cleveland Street apartment in Brunswick. “I was part of art in a way I had never experienced before,” she says. “Something transformative for myself and also expressive of something so much greater than the three people in the room.” When she performed the piece in public with the rest of the Bowdoin International Music Festival chorus, Isaacson was hooked. “During that concert I said, ‘I want to be a part of this for the rest of my life.’”
Isaacson graduated from Brunswick High School and went on to Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where she explored various directions for her musical interests. “I had a lot of ideas—some good, some bad,” she says. She realized that she was not meant to perform as a singer or instrumentalist. “If I have any gifts they are not in exceptional musical talent,” says Isaacson. “They are in my ability to communicate, both as a musical leader and also as a member of the community and advocating for the arts.” She decided on a career as a conductor. “I wanted to be the one creating the vision and communicating it to other people.” Isaacson learned that getting the necessary education for her chosen career would be a challenge. Conducting requires a broad base of knowledge: from music theory and history, to understanding multiple languages and instruments. “Music grad school is a really brutal place,” says Isaacson. “I hear people at med school and law school talk about their experiences and I can identify, except there were only two of us in my class. It’s critique on a much more intimate, heightened level.” Isaacson earned two master’s degrees: one in musicology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and a second in conducting at the University of Oregon. She spent her summers doing programs that would improve her abilities in music. It was difficult to be female in a predominantly male field. “In graduate school and in these summer programs, I got a number of comments about my body, but I’ve never heard them make a comment about a man’s body on the podium,” she says. “I’m now trying to use it as an asset, but that was certainly a struggle.”
While completing her doctorate in musical arts at the University of Illinois, Isaacson moved to Boston. She became the assistant music director of the ensemble Juventas and a conductor of the Boston City Singers, as well as a teaching artist in the Boston Public Schools. Then she learned that the Oratorio Chorale was looking for a new director. Soon after giving birth to her first child, Isaacson took over the role from Peter Frewen while still living in Boston. She commuted on the Amtrak Downeaster train to Brunswick, where her parents babysat for her daughter, Anna, while she conducted rehearsals.
Isaacson has made it her mission to help people experience traditional music in new ways. For the past two years, she has co- directed the Portland Bach Festival, which held this year’s popular “Bachtails” event (a combination of cocktails and classical music in a casual setting) at the newly renovated Bayside Bowl. In early November, Isaacson will conduct her first Handel’s “Messiah,” a milestone in any conducting career. “I’ve spent 10 years preparing for this seminal piece and it has been well worth the wait,” she says. “It’s epic.”
Now living in Portland with her husband, Matthew Tzuker, Isaacson has added a son, Levi, to her family. This busy artist, mom, and entrepreneur continues to forge her own path as a conductor, which has led her, perhaps not surprisingly, back to the state from which she came. “I hope to be pushing music to new levels in the state of Maine for decades to come.”