Julie Desbordes - Conductor of the Queer Urban Orchestra

Julie Desbordes conducts professional and community orchestras in North and South America, her native France and Asia. Currently living in both New York City and Baltimore, her recent international appearances as guest conductor include concerts in Venezuela, Cuba, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Malaysia in recent seasons. Her repertoire stands from master works to premieres of contemporary pieces. She is the Artistic Director of two orchestras in New York City: the Turtle Bay Youth Orchestra and the Queer Urban Orchestra.

Mrs. Desbordes harbors a passion for education and outreach. She is a leader in the El Sistema movement, being invited to conduct many El Sistema inspired youth orchestras internationally, having been runner-up for the Directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s El Sistema-inspired Youth Orchestra program (YOLA), being a featured guest at El Sistema programs nationwide, as well as being featured in a powerful documentary about El Sistema-inspired programs in the US: “Crescendo! The Power of Music” (available on Netflix), by Jamie Bernstein (daughter of Leonard Bernstein). Mrs. Desbordes made her conducting debut in France with l’Harmonie Municipale de Limoges at age 17. Since then she worked internationally, including debuting on the Asian professional scene in 2016 with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in Kuala Lumpur.

Equally committed to developing new audience for classical music, she presents numerous innovative programs each season; for example “We are One” this past season with QUO, when regular concerts were paired with outreach performances in which the audience and musicians where sitting together as one unit to co-create their experience. Ms. Desbordes holds multiple degrees in both conducting and trumpet from three different Music Conservatoires: Limoges, Bordeaux, and Montreal. Her conducting teachers have included Raffi Armenian and Gustav Meier. In parallel of her professional commitments, she will complete her Doctorate in Orchestral Conducting at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where she studies with Marin Alsop.

 

Julie is a straight woman who acts as a fierce ally for the community conducting the Queer Urban Orchestra in New York City. We had the chance to talk while she had a rare quiet moment in her schedule between arriving back in NYC from France and before heading to Taiwan to conduct. What I found so interesting about Julie and her work, is the openness and kindness with which she seems to direct. The way she talked about the QUO and its members paired with the genuine gratitude she expressed for having the position of conducting the group gave me the warm fuzzies. I watched youtube clips of her conducting in preparation for our conversation, and there is no wonder why the group loves her. Her technical skill, musicality, and honest and clear personality make her a force to be reckoned with.

 

{Jacob} - How long have you been with the Queer Urban Orchestra?

{Julie} – I have been with them for five years. I auditioned in the summer of 2014. They were in need of a new conductor, and I started right away in September.

{Jacob} - How did you find them? Were you in France at the time?

{Julie} - I found them on a website that posts opening for conductors. I was already living in New York at the time. I moved there in 2010 after studying in Montreal. I am a trumpeter as well and I was already playing in a few orchestras in NYC. One of them was the Chelsea Symphony. At the time, there were members of the Chelsea Symphony that were also members of QUO. We were talking and they said that I should consider applying and would be a good match, so I trusted their input. Meeting the board, members, and auditioning felt very pleasant and organic.

{Jacob} - When I had a look through the website, it was pretty clear that although QUO is geared toward LGBT+ people, they are more than happy to have membership from their straight allies as well. I suppose you are a product of that too!

{Julie} - Absolutely. Originally, the orchestra was born from the desire of some members of the LGBAC (which is the LGBT symphonic band here in New York) to play some symphonic music in a similar context (meaning LGBTQ inclined), and where they can express who they are and feel safe while playing and performing music together.

{Jacob} - While on the website, I also had a look through those programs. I think I was expecting the repertoire to be camp-ier, or at least focused on LGBT composers. But it is pretty standard orchestral repertoire. What you might expect any community group to play. Is that by design?

{Julie} – We are developing seasons in very interesting ways since my very first season with QUO. I really fell in love with the orchestra and its members on audition day. We just felt good together and immediately started to create our relationship. As a conductor, you are sensitive to an orchestra like you would be to a person; each has a personality and very unique history. I decided to start programming for QUO with repertoire that they already felt comfortable playing while progressively broadening their horizons. I wanted to make sure they were comfortable with what
I was doing from the very beginning. My goal was to install a trust in my vision, while coming from something familiar, taking the musicians were they were and starting to grow together. Now, as I go into my fifth season with QUO, we are exploring much more of the LGBTQ composers’ repertoire. Last season we also focused a lot on female composers because we wanted to have a shining look on minorities. That was our entry point to this season, which is themed “Queer We
Are”; we are very proud of the season that we are presenting to you this year, and as you will see, the standard repertoire will be there only to accompany much newer, ambitious and exciting pieces, including premiering various works from LGBT composers. Our goal is to widen the audiences’ horizon, and I truly believe that everyone deserves an entry point, whether it is a classical overture, a concerto performed by a passionate soloist, or a contemporary piece. Our seasons are progressively becoming queerer! It is very exciting to see this artistic development taking place for our community.

{Jacob} - Before working with or joining QUO, do you think the members have thought about their identity and music much? Do you get the impression that the members have a strong pull toward understanding both parts of them?

{Julie} - We actually schedule conversations about that as an ensemble. I think it is very important.

{Jacob} - Oh that’s amazing! What does that look like?

{Julie} – We discuss who we are and what we want to become as a group, for example: what have we been doing that people feel is working, or not? Is our orchestra’s name still relevant to what we are? Is our presentation still relevant and how can we improve it? How can we become more visible? I really treat the orchestra as I would treat a relationship. I think that an open and frequent communication is very healthy. We also do a survey after each concert to gauge the musicians’ thoughts and desires.

{Jacob} - I’m jealous. Every ensemble should do that. I wish we could schedule that time with my groups!

{Julie} - I know! It is a very powerful to enable everyone to use their voice! We don’t have that luxury of time during rehearsals, but I build time around that to make sure we do communicate. I like to start each rehearsal cycle with a quick chat that reset why we’re here and what our goals are for this next 8-10 weeks. I want the musicians to feel enabled to express themselves.

{Jacob} - You’re a trumpet player as well as being a conductor. Two very well documented boys clubs. How have you found that in your education and career?

{Julie} – I realized that while studying in France already, but have been lucky enough to have very supportive male mentors throughout my artistic development. Growing up, through my childhood, I never noticed that I was different. Or didn’t feel like I was anyway. Until, I had one trumpet teacher (only one!) who before an exam said to me: “Hey! You sound pretty good for a girl!” And I had never thought of it that way before! But eventually comes a time in your development when you have to be in charge of how you look and how people see you. With awareness comes responsibility, but it never changed my enjoyment of practicing these skills, even if there were not that many women around me at the time. Now, we are lucky enough that there are more and more of us, and it is a very good thing. I have had wonderful mentors that guided me through that part of the realities of being a performer, and I have been lucky that it hasn’t been too much of a problem in my development. Here and there, you go to work and you can sense that this is the first time the musicians have a woman on the podium. Sadly, it still happens. Sometimes, some react; but in an orchestra, there will always be reactions to who is on the podium anyway, so as a conductor you learn how to be at peace with that and focus on doing the best you can to produce a beautiful performance together. QUO had never had a woman on the podium before, and I believe they have also never had a straight person either, but I think they see me as a genuine artist most of all. I just want the group to be the best it can be, and hope that my intent and passion are strong enough for any group to overcome any other thoughts that they might have about the other things that define me.

{Jacob} - So, after living in France through your childhood, how did you arrive in Montreal?

{Julie} – They were not yet giving Masters in France during the time I graduated there. I felt the need to develop my internationality, so I started looking for programs out of the country. I have been accepted in programs in both Germany and Canada, but chose Montreal they had a good trumpet program and a good conducting program, both francophone programs, at the Conservatoire. They would also allow me to take two Masters (in trumpet and conducting) at the same time. Also, my now husband was living in New York, and Montreal was closer to him. So
all these factors contributed to my decision. My teacher was Manon Lafrance who is a powerful woman playing trumpet, and I needed that mentorship in my life at the time because I had never have a female trumpet teacher before. And my conducting teacher was Raffi Armenian, a very inspiring conductor of Germanic tradition.

{Jacob} - So you enjoyed your time in Montreal?

{Julie} – Yes, I loved it! I developed strong friendships there. I’m just not fond of the cold weather; I’d rather be warm! Though, I honestly didn’t explore much of the region before my last few months there. Doing two master’s programs at the same time is very time and energy consuming.

{Jacob} - No. That sounds rough. I would imagine that is stressful. Before I let you go, do you have any thoughts on why we see so many more LGBT choirs than orchestras? Do you think there is something about the voice and singing that lends itself easier to being a queer specific group?

{Julie} - Possibly, yes. I admire singers of any level really. To be able to express yourself emotionally with just your voice, not hiding behind an instrument, is something powerful. Maybe it is possible that they are literally just more vocal about who they are. Often community ensemble instrumentalists tend to be shyer about expressing themselves, about “having a voice” (it is a revelatory English term). Learning an instrument, even to a basic level, requires a lot of time and dedication also, that alone may lead to people thinking that singing is more accessible for them.

{Jacob} - Perhaps that immediacy of the voice is something that lends itself to being a natural expression of identity. Something that is so present and part of each person.

{Julie} - In my experience with choirs, bands, and orchestras - community groups in general - it is very common that the singers appear to be less shy on stage. One of the reasons is that they actually practice how they present themselves visually much more that instrumentalists do. I think it is an important aspect to think about: when you are in the middle of a violin section, you almost feel like you can hide, because very rarely section principals or conductors will address how you present yourself. (I try to do so with my groups, but it is a slow process to change that perception in people’s mind). However, when you are in the middle of the tenor section in a choir, it is much more likely that people have been informed about/ or have the awareness of how to present. So the appearance of confidence is more palpable. Anyway, I believe that it is a matter of individual taste whether you feel that your voice is better expressed by your actual voice or by a cello or a clarinet. I had a young girl, trumpet student of mine, who once told me one day that she chose the trumpet because she could then finally be heard! Whatever instrument you chose, let that be heard. Also, people could be very shy when you talk to them off stage, but truthfully, once on stage you have nothing to hide behind, and it is ok and beautiful because the group energy always carries you.

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