Nan Washburn didn’t intend to be a conductor. As a child, she wanted to become a softball player – and climb trees.
But after injuring her finger while playing ball at age 14, her flute teacher gave her an ultimatum.
“He’s the one who said, ‘You’ve got to make a decision. Are you going to play the flute or are you going to play softball?” she recalls.
Washburn, 52, chose the flute.
Her love for reconstructing scores from messy 1800s manuscripts and seeing “the whole picture” pushed her to higher grounds. But it wasn’t until she was 30 that she enrolled in beginning conducting classes.
“I still love playing the flute,” she says. “But I don’t have lots of time to do it.”
Now, as the conductor for Orchestra Canton (which she began a few years ago) and Plymouth Symphony, she’s ran more bases than ever trying to whip the ensembles into shape. Washburn will conduct Orchestra Canton in “Tchaikovsky & Friends” at 8 p.m. Jan. 20 at Village Theater at Cherry Hill in Canton.
Before Washburn made the move eight years ago, leaving behind West Hollywood for the Plymouth Symphony, the orchestra was on a tight budget, playing few shows and bringing in small audiences.
“I was brought on to fix some of those things,” Washburn says. “The orchestra’s really taken off. … I’ve worked toward really making both ensembles as artistically excellent as possible. My feeling is it’s really hard to ask the community to support you if you’re not giving back absolutely the best product you can.”
While Washburn tends to work them to the bone, her ensemble’s aware she’s giving it her all, too. “They are very willing to (work hard) because they can see the results, and hear the results, more importantly,” she says.
The winner of 16 American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers awards for adventuresome programming, Washburn has conducted throughout the United States. As the co-founder, artistic director and associate conductor of the San Francisco-based Women’s Philharmonic from 1980 to 1990, she gained national attention.
Washburn earned her Bachelor of Music with highest honors from the University of California at Santa Barbara and earned a master’s in performance from New England Conservatory of Music.
While conducting in West Hollywood, Washburn was recognized with the “Women in Leadership” honor. Not only was it an accomplishment in itself, but futhermore because of the city’s high gay-male population.
“It was really nice to be recognized since it’s sort of known as the boys’ town,” she says.
Her whole life, she’s been on the go, moving from state to state. But now she’s ready to settle down with her partner of 20 years, Catherine Byrd, who she met in San Francisco while Byrd played the viola in the first Washburn-conducted orchestra. The two women share, besides a Plymouth home, a similar musical palette.
“(Our musical styles) pretty much merge after 20 years,” she laughs.
Byrd, though, opened Washburn up to Judy Garland and musical scores. Washburn – a bluegrass and world-music fan – typically avoids classical music. And who can blame her?
“That’s work,” Washburn laughs.
ÒTchaikovsky & FriendsÓ
8 p.m. Jan. 20
Village Theater at Cherry Hill, Canton