When a hit-and-run accident brought the singing career of soprano Susan Davenny Wyner to a halt in 1983, she began rebuilding her professional identity in a field traditionally reserved for men - this time as a conductor.
Today, Davenny Wyner is one of the top conductors in America, dividing her time between duties as conductor and music director of both the New England String Ensemble and the Warren Philharmonic Orchestra near Cleveland, with invitations from orchestras around the country.
She was recently included in the Library of Congress 2003 "Women Who Dare" Engagement Calendar, honoring women of stature throughout history who followed their own aspirations to major achievement against great odds.
Being in the commemorative company of such legends as Anne Frank, Clara Barton, and Edith Wharton was an unexpected recognition of the daunting challenges she overcame.
"I feel as if my whole life had been preparation in some strange way for this adventure I have gone on, and I love that it draws on all kinds of things that I had never expected," says Davenny Wyner, a slim and vivacious maestro. On the podium, she presents a romantic visual image, wearing long skirts and vibrantly hued jackets instead of the "penguin suit," the customary badge of the male-dominated profession.
Her burgeoning conducting career has brought her to the attention of audiences worldwide, from Los Angeles to New York to the Czech Republic, for CBS Radio, and at Tanglewood and Aspen.
"She has a sense of completeness in her vision," says Doriot Anthony Dwyer, former first flautist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. "She uses judgment and understanding of a composer's intention.
Interesting role reversals have been part of Davenny Wyner's transformation. For instance, conducting Andre Previn as a piano soloist after he conducted her as a singer.
The daughter of a concert pianist, she grew up in Cleveland and took frequent trips to hear the Cleveland Orchestra. She was first trained as a violinist and violist. She later discovered her singing voice and became a soprano at the Metropolitan and New York City Operas and with orchestras throughout the United States and Europe.
As a singer, she had the opportunity to work with, and observe at close range, the art of conducting with such legendary greats as Leonard Bernstein, Colin Davis, Seiji Ozawa, and Andre Previn without realizing she would follow in their footsteps.
"Because of her fine training as a string player, she communicates perfectly with orchestral musicians," says renowned clarinetist Richard Stoltzman.
Raised during a time when the old-fashioned feminine virtues of gentleness and unobtrusiveness were prized, Davenny Wyner found her own way to communicate with orchestras and audiences without resorting to the aggressive traits often associated with conducting.
"That's the antithesis of the way I work," she says. "What I'm after, as an artist, as a human being, is a kind of working with people that's built on love," she says, reflecting on her career at her Boston home on a crisp afternoon in front of a cozy fire.
"Conducting is completely different from being a soloist," she says. "With conducting, you are in charge of every aspect of the musicmaking - you are shaping and forging a vision with a whole group of individual artists. Your hands are silent until they are filled with the sounds from other people's souls. It's an electrifying experience."
Among her most vivid recollections was conducting Handel's Messiah for the first time, with 2,600 singers in Chicago, the orchestra behind her back. "How extraordinary it was," Wyner recalls, "to lift my hands and have that many individuals react as one!"
Running on boundless energy with a daunting performance schedule, Davenny Wyner says conducting can be exhausting.
"It can be the last thing on earth we feel ready to be doing, but when the music begins, something catches on, it sparks life, a kind of spiritual force that grabs us with its intensity."