Conductor  Catherine  Comet

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Comet, Catherine, French conductor; b. Fontainebleau, Dec. 6, 1944. She studied at the Paris Conservatoire (1958–63), where she took a premier prix in piano; concurrently received private training in analysis, harmony, counterpoint, and fugue from Boulanger before pursuing conducting studies with Morel at the Juilliard School of Music N.Y (1964–68), where she received B.A. and M.A. degrees. In 1966 she won first prize in the Besançon conducting competition, and in 1967 she made her professional conducting debut with the Lille Radio Sym. Orch. at the Besançon Festival. In 1970–71 she was an assistant to Boulez with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London. She was conductor of the Paris Opéra Ballet from 1972 to 1975; from 1979 to 1981 she was music director of the University of Wisconsin symphony and chamber orchestras in Madison. After serving as the Exxon-Arts Endowment Conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (1981–84), she was associate conductor of the Baltimore Sym. Orch. (1984–86). In 1986 she became music director of the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Symphony Orchestra, becoming the first woman to hold a post as music director of a professional orchestra in the United States. In 1988 she was named co-recipient of the Seaver/NEA Conductors Award. From 1990 to 1992 she was music director of the American Symphony Orchestra in NY. Comet has appeared with fine success as a guest conductor with principal North American orchestras, including those of Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Toronto, and Washington, D.C.


Comet [pronounced koh-MAY] led the Chicago Symphony in January of 1991, and I had the pleasure of doing an interview with her at that time.  The concert was a particularly interesting one
at least from my particular viewpoint, since I crave scores which are new to me.  First was the Concert Overture by the Chicago composer Leo Sowerby (1895-1968), who won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1946; then the Valse Nobles et Sentimentales of Ravel; Le Chausseur Maudit of Franck; and finally, the Symphony #1 of Vasily Kalinnikov (1866-1901).  

comet It was early in her career, and we spoke of many things.  Part of our conversation shows how this particular concert came about, and illustrates one of the ways a world-class orchestra functions . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You are here in Chicago this week to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  How is it different conducting a major orchestra, such as Chicago or Philadelphia where you have been, as opposed to a smaller orchestra where you have to do more teaching?

Catherine Comet:   It is different, but it’s very exciting.  Your heart beats a little faster at the first rehearsal.  I’ve not worked with the orchestra yet, so I think my heart will beat a little faster tomorrow morning but, yes, it is different.  Those are the best orchestras in the world, and are legends that I’ve known for a long time.

BD:   What about it makes it one of the best orchestras in the world?

CC:   Because they are the best musicians!

BD:   Technically or artistically?

CC:   Technically, sure, but also artistically.

BD:   Do you come with certain expectations?

CC:   I expect it is going to be magic, like music should be.  I hope to be at that level of magic, too.

BD:   I hope they will respond to you.  I assume that most orchestras respond to what you bring them, and to your technique.

CC:   Oh, yes.

BD:   Do you ever find that you must communicate differently from orchestra to orchestra?

CC:   No, not really.  The best it is when you talk very little.

BD:   Why?

CC:   With an orchestra of this level you don’t need to talk very much, because they really watch.  You can show a lot without talking.

BD:   Do you have certain expectations of how these particular scores will sound?

CC:   Absolutely, yes.  Knowing the scores, that’s my life.

BD:   Do you ever get into a situation where you begin to rehearse a piece, and then discover new things that you didn’t know you should expect?

CC:   Yes and no.  It’s such a difficult question.  You prepare yourself so very much for any concert you give, and at that time you can maybe be surprised by an idea, but not too much, really.  Maybe later, when you listen to the tape
if that specific concert was recorded for the radio, for instanceyou might wonder how you could have done this, or this?  Then, you try to improve on it.  But immediately no, because your mind is made up at this point.  However, it shouldn’t be made up for life.  That’s what’s wonderful about musicthat it is an endless labor of love.

BD:   I assume that you’re always discovering new things in all of these scores?

CC:   Yes.

BD:   Do you ever discover something on the night of the concert?  Might you have a streak of inspiration then?

CC:   I don’t know.  When you’re in a concert, it’s really very different because you’re only functioning ahead, going ahead of the orchestra.  With a rehearsal, one ear is ahead but the other is behind, so in a concert you can really let go of the checking ear, if you want.  You’re ahead, then, so a concert is always slightly different from a rehearsal, really.  It’s the best part of it.

comet BD:   So all your work is not done during rehearsal?

CC:   That’s true.

BD:   Do you ever experiment with changing the seating of the orchestra
the arrangement of where the violins and the cellos are?

CC:   I have done this with my own orchestra, because as a whole, you want to make use of the acoustical possibilities of the hall you’re in.  I’m talking about orchestras of which you are music director.  I would never change
and I’ve never changedany orchestra of which I am the guest conductor, because I believe those decisions belong to the music director.  Also, you’re working to a hall you don’t know, but every single musician in this orchestra knows the hall, so unless there is something specifically indicated in a score, it is best to go with what is there.  It’s rare about seating, but something might be required by a very special score.

BD:   Two choirs and trumpets each side, for example?

CC:   Yes, or if I’m doing the Fauré Requiem, for instance, which I do in the original version.  I cannot consider not doing it in the original version, where, in terms of the orchestra, there’s only violas, and cellos, and one violin solo.  Then, of course, I would ask the violas to sit where the first violins usually sit, and put the violin solo in front, facing the audience like a soloist.  So, that would be different, but that is really required by the score.

BD:   You mentioned that everyone is used to their own hall.  How long does it take you to get used to each different hall that you play in?

CC:   It is a difficult question to answer because you hear it from the podium.  You don’t really hear the hall unless you’ve been in the hall and heard the orchestra from the audience seats in different parts of the hall.  That way, very quickly you see if it’s a hall which is very live or very dead, and you feel it very quickly.  It’s physical, but you really feel if musicians can hear themselves and each other, because an orchestra is much less heavy on the stick, on the beating hand.  In some halls, you feel you have to be very clear because of the balance from one side of the stage to the other, and you feel it very clearly in your hand.

BD:   I would think that you are in perhaps the worst position to balance the orchestra.

CC:   Yes, the podium is not always the best seat in the house, that’s true.  But you get used to it, and I like it.  [Both laugh]  I’ve been an assistant conductor and an associate conductor, and you give a lot of concerts in very, very different places, so you very quickly learn to adapt.

BD:   Trial by fire?

CC:   Absolutely!  [More laughter]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You have the whole realm of symphonic literature to present to the public.  How do you decide which pieces you will program, and which pieces you will perhaps let go for a while?

CC:   Are you talking about a guest engagement?

BD:   There are two levels.  Being music director, you have more control than being guest conductor where it’s just a single concert.

CC:   Yes, it’s different, because as a music director you’re thinking in terms of seasons, a whole year of music you want to present to your audience.  This is the audience which is supporting your orchestra, and you also want to challenge your orchestra to grow.  As a guest conductor it’s different because you’re one of several throughout the season.  You’re given guidelines, and the final decision rests really with the music director, or the person in charge of the artistic policy of this orchestra.

BD:   I notice that this concert is a fairly unusual one.  There is some Leo Sowerby, and also Vasily Kalinnikov.

CC:   It all came in at different stages.  I can trace for you how each piece came about...  The Chicago Symphony Artistic Administrator told me that the orchestra wanted this year to program works and give concerts which had been either world premiered or American premiered by them.  You’re in the hundredth anniversary of the orchestra, and the list is absolutely very impressive.  The list of works which were created in America, or created world-wide by this organization is just amazing, and among those works was Le Chasseur Maudit of Franck, which had its American premiere here in Chicago in 1898.  And at the same time, as you know, we are in the hundredth anniversary of César Franck this year.  I know he was born in Belgium, but we French people say he’s French, and Le Chasseur Maudit is such a wonderful symphonic poem that I like very much.  So I said it would be very interesting, and I really would like to do it.  For the Sowerby work, more asked of me because I really did not know this composer.  It was pointed out to me that he’s from Grand Rapids, where my orchestra is, of which I am music director on the other side of Lake Michigan.  I really have to admit honestly that I did now know much about Leo Sowerby, and the Chicago Symphony was asking a lot about Sowerby symphonies and long works.  But I settled on a shorter work.  He’s a very interesting composer who was played a lot by the Chicago Symphony
not this specific piece, which is a short overture, but a lot of his music was American premiered and world premiered by the Chicago Symphony.  As for the rest, I proposed different things.  There was supposed to be a soloist at first, and then there was no soloist things changed.  Programs changed back and forth a lot, and I proposed different symphonies, among which was the Kalinnikov.  It was expressed to me that the orchestra was very interested in it at the time.  When the program was made, there had been an exchange, and the Chicago Symphony was going to Leningrad.  So, among many other works, I was interested in the Kalinnikov symphony, which used to be played a lot in this country earlier in the century, but not so very much anymore.  I think it is a very interesting work   If Kalinnikov had not had such a tragic life and died so young, certainly his (unwritten) Symphonies Nos. 3, 4, 5, and 6, would be now as famous as those of Tchaikovsky.

BD:   [Somewhat surprised]  You put him in that league?

kalinnikov Vasily Sergeyevich Kalinnikov (Васи́лий Серге́евич Кали́нников; January 13 [O.S. January 1] 1866 – 11 January 1901 [O.S. 29 December 1900]) was a policeman's son. He studied at the seminary at Oryol, becoming director of the choir there at fourteen. Later he went to the Moscow Conservatory but could not afford the tuition fees. On a scholarship he went to the Moscow Philharmonic Society School, where he received bassoon and composition lessons from Alexander Ilyinsky. He played bassoon, timpani and violin in theater orchestras and supplemented his income working as a music copyist.

In 1892, Tchaikovsky recommended Kalinnikov for the position of main conductor of the Maly Theater, and later that same year to the Moscow Italian Theater. However, due to his worsening tuberculosis, Kalinnikov had to resign from his theater appointments and move to the warmer southern clime of the Crimea. He lived at Yalta for the rest of his life, and it was there that he wrote the main part of his music, including his two symphonies and the incidental music for Alexey Tolstoy's Tsar Boris. Exhausted, he died of tuberculosis on 11 January 1901, just two days before his 35th birthday.

Thanks to Rachmaninoff's help, Tchaikovsky's publisher P. Jurgenson bought three Kalinnikov songs for 120 rubles, and later the Symphony No. 2 in A major. The Symphony No. 1 in G minor, which uses some cyclic principles, was performed in Berlin, Vienna and Moscow during his lifetime, but not published until after his death, so Jurgenson increased the fees he would have paid Kalinnikov, and paid them to his widow. He was also survived by a brother, Viktor, who composed choral music and taught at the Moscow Philharmonic Society School.

His reputation was established with his First Symphony, written between 1894 and 1895, which had great success when Vinogradsky conducted it at a Russian Musical Society concert in Kiev on 20 February 1897. Further performances swiftly followed, in Moscow, Vienna, Berlin, and Paris.

In Russia his First Symphony remains in the repertory, and his place in musical history is secure. On 7 November 1943, Arturo Toscanini conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra in a broadcast performance of the First Symphony. A wind band transcription of the finale of the First Symphony by Glenn Cliffe Bainum has also become a staple of the band repertoire

CC:   Yes.  He was cut short by death, and by working in very tragic and difficult conditions.  But there is really a great talent, and you can feel it.  There are some weaker places, but the first symphony is the first symphony.

BD:   Because you have this feeling for Kalinnikov and the promise unfulfilled, is there any chance that you put too much into this first symphony when you play it?

CC:   That is a very good question.  Yes, when you do a work for the first time, you tend to want to do too much with it, that’s true.  But you learn, and it’s not the first time I’m doing it.  You learn to be a bit circumspect, and it takes a very long time.  Maybe when you’re ninety years old you get wise enough to let it be.  [Both laugh]  Your question is very good, and it’s a very long-range question.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you have any special expectations of the audience that comes to hear your concerts
either here in Chicago, or in Grand Rapids, or any place that you conduct?

CC:   I don’t have any special expectations, though I would like in Grand Rapids to fulfill the expectation of our audience, which supports us and for whom we exist.  You really do not exist as musician unless you’re heard and perceived, and so far so good in Grand Rapids.  We are sold out, mainly, so it’s fine.  I expect the audience to be happy, to be touched, to be reached by the music because this is what music is about.  It is about communication, and expression, and sentiments especially in a world which sometimes nowadays very difficult and very hard.  Music is really quite an experience.

BD:   Is the concert music that you conduct art, or is it entertainment?

comet CC:   I don’t see why things have to be categorized.  This is very much an American idea to always want to put in a specific tag on things.  One thing which has enormously shocked me in America is why an orchestra would be in a separate category.  An orchestra is part of the life of a city.  I believe that an orchestra belongs to a city, or to a community, and the musicians, who make this orchestra, are important as the firemen, the mayor, or the lawyer, or the grocer, everybody who makes a community.  I don’t know why we have to separate things very much, call it entertainment or art.

BD:   Then, where’s the balance then between those two extremes?

CC:   It’s in between.  It’s part of life.  Experiencing music is a very important part of life.  That’s why I believe strongly in education on concerts put out by orchestras.  This is very important, because it’s presenting to the next generation a very important part of their lives.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of concert music?

CC:   Yes.  I want to be, and I do everything I possibly can to support it.

BD:   Have you made some recordings?

CC:   I am a little part of a recording that Leonard Slatkin did because he asked me, but no others as yet.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Michael Colgrass, Jacob Druckman, and Leonard Slatkin.]

BD:   Is that something you look forward to, or something of no interest?

CC:   Of course I’d be interested.  [She has made a few recordings since that time, as illustrated on this webpage.]

BD:   When you conduct a work, do you ever feel that you’re competing against the pile of recordings which have been made?

CC:   I never thought of it as a competition.  It’s not a word which really ever quite entered my mind.  I don’t feel it’s a competition.  When you’re trying to make a big career, you’re not thinking this is the only way.  This is my way, and that’s the only way one can really be honest about it, because there is no make-up in music.  You cannot hide.  If you really believe in something, it will transmit, and if you don’t, it won’t.  So, if you believe in a work, you’ll transmit it your own way, and maybe it will touch and reach people.  Some people will say that’s not the way it should go, but I feel it differently, and that’s normal.  It is like a painting in a museum which is seen by many different people in many different ways.

BD:   You say you conduct the work the way you believe in it.  Do you ever have to conduct works you don’t believe in?

CC:   Yes.  [Laughs]

BD:   How do you overcome that?

CC:   [Smiles]  Let’s not talk about that.

BD:   What advice do you have for people who would like to write works for the symphony orchestra?

CC:   You don’t give advice to a composer to start with, because that is something stronger than you.  You don’t need advice to write music, but you will do anyhow.  You have to be patient, and you have to believe that someone will feed you, and someone will play your music at some point.  It’s difficult because there are many composers, and there are so many orchestras, and so many concerts, but I personally believe one should play American music in America, so I do, at least with the orchestras of which I am music director.

BD:   You’re music director in Grand Rapids, and with the American Symphony Orchestra.  Do you give enough time to each orchestra?

CC:   The American Symphony gives four concerts a year in Carnegie Hall, so it’s not a full season at all.  In Grand Rapids, I’m there twenty-two or twenty-three weeks a season.

BD:   With an orchestra that gives just four concerts a year, how can you build a continuity?

CC:   I don’t know yet.  I’m thinking about it.  I just started, and we have given two concerts so far.  But you still can learn, and you’re trying to grow and improve.  But that’s really very different.  In Grand Rapids there is continuity.

BD:   What advice do you have for someone who would like to conduct the symphony orchestra?

CC:   [Laughs]  You’re making me feel like I’m old!  I don’t feel like giving advice at this point.  I still receive lots of advice from all sorts of people.

BD:   [Gently]  You are one who has done it successfully, so you must have gleaned something...

CC:   I never thought I would do anything else.  That was my world; that was what I wanted.  For me it’s magic, but it’s not a good profession.  I would not recommend it if you don’t feel so obsessed with this music that you have to do it.  Unless it’s something that you wouldn’t even consider doing anything else, it’s not a profession that you recommend to your kid, like being a lawyer or a doctor, something like with lots of opportunity.  You have to be slightly crazy to be a conductor!  [Both laugh]  Maybe more than slightly!

comet BD:   But you would have it no other way?

CC:   Oh, no, no absolutely not, that’s for sure.

BD:   One more bit of advice... what advice would you give to someone who wants to be an orchestral player?

CC:   To work very hard.  It takes a lot of dedication and a lot of work to be a good orchestral player.  It’s a wonderful team.  It’s a lifetime process, really, and it is really a beautiful team.  There is a symbiosis between the musicians as a whole and voice of each musician, which is so important.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you approach a score that you haven’t conducted before, about how long does it take to get into your blood?

CC:   It varies.  It’s a lot of work.  It takes a long time, but it varies, of course.  I can’t tell you the number of hours.  You study a lot as a conductor, and that fact is not really known by the audience.  What the audience sees a conductor do at a concert, or even at rehearsal, is only five percent of the work.  Ninety-five per cent is very lonely, and long work at home with a score.  It takes a lot of contemplation to try to make this score yours, and get into it completely, and put it in your blood, as you say.

BD:   Are there some scores that are easier to absorb than others?

CC:   Yes, and after a while, if you play a certain composer a lot, even if it’s a new score of the same composer that you’re doing, you already have all sorts of landmarks to refer to in the new score.  Then, at the same time, your knowledge is increasing as you go by, and so it’s not like you start from scratch each time.  But each time you are enlarging the circle of knowledge, and trying to reach further into the thoughts not only of that piece specifically, but all the music this composer wrote, or even music written at the same period, or what influences there were, and so on and so forth.  That’s why conductors study all their lives, and live long lives!  [Laughs]  Maybe at about age ninety, if I am feeling well I might understand how that goes!  [Both laugh]  But it’s not just because you’ve done something well that you say, “That’s it.  It’s not forever.  It just doesn’t work that way.

BD:   It seems that in the seventeenth and eighteenth, and even much of the nineteenth century, the styles were a little more prescribed.  Now, in the twentieth century, especially as we’re heading towards the twenty-first century, there are so many divergent styles.

CC:   This is because we are living in the middle of it.  That’s why.  If you go back and really look at the period of a specific composer, there was an enormous amount of things going on.  What makes most composers great is how they escape those prescribed rules.  So, in a way, that’s what’s happening... except that right now we are experiencing where every single composer is going.  It’s not clear yet, so that’s why it feels so diversified.  But it is true that in the United States there is a large group of composers of very many different schools or ideas.  That does represent your land, which is huge and very diversified.  So you should be very proud of it as an American.

BD:   Of course.  Is there is any chance that we have too many composers these days?

CC:   There are not ever too many musicians or too many composers.

BD:   You grew up in France.  Do you try to bring a number of French scores with you whenever you conduct, especially here in the United States?

CC:   No, not really, but I do like French music, certainly.

BD:   Do you still conduct in France occasionally?

CC:   I have not, because I’m really booked all year long in this country.  Then, when I went abroad, I went to Australia, to the Orient, to Singapore, and last summer I was in the Soviet Union and all the Eastern countries.

BD:   Do you take American scores with you when you go away?

CC:   Oh, yes, absolutely.  I try to very much.

BD:   Do you like being a wandering minstrel?

CC:   You mean taking planes a lot?  No, I don’t like taking planes.  I don’t like airports but, I have to use them.

BD:   But is it special for you to set down in each community and present the music?

CC:   [Wistfully]  Well, that’s how it goes.  That’s the way it works nowadays.  It’s very important for me to build.  Grand Rapids is very important to me because we are really building, and I say ‘we’ very much purposely, because an orchestra doesn’t build just because of the music director.  There are very many people who are involved.  Besides the music director, there is the Board, the musicians, as well as the community.  So, it’s really a ‘we’ process, specifically here in America where orchestras really do depend and live with their community.  This is very interesting, but, at the same time, when you’re asked to guest conduct, then you’re asked a lot, and then your management signs you up, and off you go.  But I’m not complaining.  It’s fine.  [Laughs]

BD:   Do you do all the conducting in Grand Rapids, or are there some guest conductors, too?

CC:   I invite two guest conductors every year.

BD:   Does that make it easier for you to understand things when you go and guest conduct someplace else?

CC:   Oh, yes, certainly.

BD:   Is conducting fun?

CC:   Oh, yes, lots!  It’s an adventure.

BD:   Do you feel any special affinity for young people that come to concerts?

CC:   Oh, yes, absolutely.  That’s very important.  Young people should go to concerts, and they got a lot out of going to concerts.  There is nothing like going to a concert.  Whatever wonderful CD and technique you have at home, it will never replace a live concert.

BD:   Is there anything we can do to steal them away from television, and sports events to go to concerts?

comet CC:   Lots, but alas, it’s not easy.  Certainly, you have to work at it all the time.  Make it something really that important for the community, for the experience, and then if you give very good concerts, people come back because they really do like this experience.  But that’s true, we are competing with TV, and with tapes, especially videos, and the fact that you can put things on and stay at home.

BD:   So you’ve got to be exciting enough to bring them out?

CC:   That’s right.  But you have to be true enough to what you represent.

BD:   You have a child.  Are you teaching her about music?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Donald Erb, and Richard Stoltzman.]

CC:   Yes... well she knows about music because it’s in the house.  It’s part of my life, but yes, absolutely.  It’s an important thing to her, too.

BD:   I just wondered if you’re perhaps giving her too much music to overcompensate for the outside environment.

CC:   No, because she has her own music, too, and that is fine.

BD:   Are you going to be horrified if she becomes a Rock singer?

CC:   [Laughing]  Oh, she won’t become a Rock singer.  I’m sure of that.  

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Oh, you never know...

CC:   No, you never know, but I will not be horrified at whatever she does, if that is what she wants to do... [pauses] but I hope it’s not a Rock singer.  [Much laughter]  This is Mother talking now.

BD:   Are we making any progress as far as having it become irrelevant that the conductor’s a man or a woman?

CC:   Oh, yes, I think so.  You see, you’re not asking any questions about that idea.  That’s big progress.

BD:   Yes, I almost hesitate to bring it up here, even at the very end of the interview.  There should be no difference at all?

CC:   No, it’s totally irrelevant.  I don’t think gender or race has any impact on music making.

BD:   It’s just who you are, the conductor.

CC:   Your heart, and your soul, yes.

BD:   I wish you lots of success with these concerts with the Chicago Symphony.  I know they’re expecting good things, and they’re expecting to do good things for you.

CC:   Thank you.

BD:   Thank you so much for the speaking with me today.

CC:   You
re welcome.


This photo is from a commercial website, hence their ‘watermark

© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 7, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following day, and again in 1994 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.