CATHERINE Comet was 12 years old when she showed up, with a note in her hand, at the Paris home of Nadia Boulanger, one of the most influential teachers of composition and musical analysis in this century. ``I told her I wanted to be a conductor,'' Ms. Comet recalls, twisting around in the front seat of her car en route to a distant concert on Maryland's eastern shore. ``She didn't laugh at me. She just put the `Eroica' [Beethoven's Third Symphony] on the piano and said, `Talk to me about it.' '' Catherine Comet (pronounced ko-MAY) went on to study with Boulanger, and she's been talking and thinking about such music ever since.
If anyone has laughed at her wanting to be a conductor, it certainly hasn't stood in the way of this musician from Fontainebleau, France.
Last year, when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra appointed her associate conductor, she became the first woman ever to break into the all-male conducting enclave of major American orchestras. Baltimore may represent only the outer ring of the big-time orchestral galaxy, but it's as close as any woman has ever come to the orbits of Seiji Ozawa, Christoph von Dohn'anyi, and Andr'e Previn.
So, it's interesting that almost no one, including Comet herself, talks much about Comet, the woman conductor. What they do talk about is the conductor who is building a career, score by score, with all deliberate care and scholarship. The complexity of this task emerged during a string of interviews with orchestral musicians, as well as a three-hour car ride with Comet, during which the talkative and energetic woman with salt-and- pepper hair and a strong French accent roamed from anecd ote to musical insight. She covered territory as diverse as the musical instincts of Rudolf Nureyev and the lessons she learned during a month in 1969 spent under the tutelage of Pierre Boulez -- with whom one engaged in ``analysis and analysis and analysis.''
In 1972, the Shah of Iran invited her to lead a chamber orchestra in such places as pre-revolutionary Shiraz, where she remembers performing for the Shah with armed guards on the roofs, in the wings, everywhere. (Audiences elsewhere in Iran ``expected a sitar; and they wondered what this woman was doing waving a stick -- why didn't she sing?'') She conducted the Paris Opera Ballet in performances with Nureyev. (``You didn't have to ever slow down the tempo for him. He's very aware of the music. You coul d play it just the way it was written.'')
It has been, she acknowledges, a life without the blazing accolades given to ``hot'' young conductors who burn their way into the international press; but this is not to say that a significant talent hasn't been blooming behind the baton of Catherine Comet.
``The orchestra was just blown away by her audition [which included Debussy's ``La Mer'' and Berlioz's ``Symphonie fantastique''] -- by her phrasing, musicality, and depth,'' recalls Peter Landgren, associate principal French horn for the Baltimore Symphony. Similarly, during her audition for the St. Louis Symphony -- where she served for three years as the Exxon-sponsored assistant conductor before coming to Baltimore -- she impressed one violinist as ``being rooted to the ground. There was a solidity there.''
Musicians with the St. Louis were not consistently ``blown away'' by all her performances. Yet, in the words of one, they acknowledge that in spite of ``a certain shyness and stiffness that communicated itself to the orchestra and got in her way,'' she came across as a musician who dug deeply into scores and had ``good musical instincts, obviously well schooled with lots of good ideas.''
At the end of that tenure, she put together, in short order, a performance of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony that took the orchestra in new directions on what had become for it a comfortable war horse.
``She's a very intense person,'' comments Joseph Turner, principal oboist in Baltimore. ``This is projected in her conducting. It's a good thing. She has very strong ideas of what she wants. Frequently, for a conductor in her position [without the clout the music director has], the only command they have on the podium comes from what they have to bring to it. The honesty and integrity she has serves her in very good stead.''
All of which was much in evidence one night recently when she took the podium at a concert for one of Maryland's far-flung symphonic societies.
Striding onto the stage, she led the Baltimore Symphony with a spare but forceful conducting style, using her eyes and a slightly lifted shoulder to communicate the direction of a phrase or a nuance of shading, bending her personna to suit the purposes of the music: pliant and tender with Debussy's ``Afternoon of a Faun,'' jazzy and syncopated for Gershwin's Concerto in F for Piano.
``The orchestra respects her a great deal,'' solo pianist Christopher O'Riley remarked as he boarded an orchestra bus after the concert, adding that playing under her direction was ``like [performing] chamber music. You don't often get a chance to work with a conductor so easy to talk to.''
Later, on the way back to Baltimore, Comet recalled that she had been planning to do Roger Sessions' Second Symphony instead of Prokofiev's Fifth in St. Louis. This was an adventurous choice for the only yearly subscription concert of an emerging conductor. But the music publisher ``sent such terrible parts to the orchestra that the players refused to play it. Joseph Schwantner [who was composer-in-residence there] investigated and found that the parts were made in 1946, when his students hurriedly copi ed them out for the world premiere. [The publisher] just kept them on a shelf.''
Right now, that way leads through the unglamorous vineyards of youth concerts, promotional marathons, and regional trips, as well as several front-rank concerts, most of which have so far failed to ignite a roaring fire among critics.
She talks about this with a quiet outrage that musical scores should ever accorded anything less than the reverential treatment she herself gives them; and, according to most observers, giving proper attention to what is in a score is how she makes her way in the musical world.
Few of the musicians reached for this article feel that being a woman in a profession dominated by men has been a major problem for Comet, although one player acknowledges that there is occasional grumbling in the orchestra that ``a man wouldn't conduct a passage that way.''
To which she rejoins, ``Well, I don't care what they think, as long as they play it my way.''
Even if nobody's laughing at Catherine Comet for wanting to be a great conductor, she acknowledges that the idea may not always be taken with total seriousness.
After a stop for dinner at a drive-thru restaurant, Comet turns around in her seat and remarks dryly: ``You didn't ask me what I'm going to wear for the concert. Usually, that's the first question.''