A Trailblazing Conductor: Alumna Hannah von Wiehler (née Schneider) (C’15) Breaks Barriers with Baton
Though she is a recent graduate of Georgetown College, Hannah von Wiehler (C’15) has already created a name for herself as a conductor. In addition to her international work directing orchestras, the alumna is working to make music more accessible for all.
Pursuing a Passion
Von Wiehler grew up in Russia, where she attended conservatory from 2010-2011 with plans to become a concert violinist. However, von Wiehler says that her plans changed when she was deciding where to go to school.
“I was injured, which made it much more painful to play, but I also kept noticing that I was thinking bigger than my solo performance and that I was interested in so many different kinds of things,” von Wiehler explains. “So I decided to go to Georgetown to pursue a career in foreign service because I thought that music might not be for me. At this point, I had not thought about conducting at all.”
She arrived on campus in 2011 and declared a major in Russian, learning not only the language but politics, history and culture of the country. A lover of languages, Scheider also studied Chinese and Hebrew at Georgetown, eager to absorb as many as she could.
It wasn’t until the spring semester of her senior year that she thought conducting could be the right career for her.
In February of 2015, Anita Kondoyanidi who was taught Cultural Cold War introduced von Wiehler to famous Russian conductor Valery Gergiev to assist with the Tchaikovsky Competition. Von Wiehler began working for Gergiev as an administrative assistant before she graduated, flying to Russia and Europe on the weekends to help organize the competition.
“That semester was a bit wild because every other weekend I got a call from Gergiev and he would say ‘Okay, can you get on the plane to Paris today?’ which I did and I managed to not miss a single class,” says von Wiehler. “I continued to work for him after I graduated, and during that year, I got to witness up close what conductors do and it made me realize that it was what I wanted to do as well.”
Von Wiehler explains that conducting goes beyond understanding music. It requires managerial and organizational skills, the ability to have a vision for what the end product will be and the capacity to inspire. She also says that she was particularly drawn to conducting after learning more about opera because it combined her love of music with the knowledge of language and literature she gained while at the university.
“Every language has its own natural poetry and I was attracted to how much more richly you can understand the culture, if you start to learn the way that they natively express things,” von Wiehler says. “Georgetown helped me so much in regards to my literature and language skills and I’m glad that I ended up on the nontraditional path to being a conductor that I did. Had I known that I wanted to conduct before starting school, I would have gone to conservatory for classical music training. But I am so glad I didn’t know because I actually think Georgetown gave me an incredible education for being a conductor.”
In addition to working as an administrative assistant, von Wiehler also started her master’s of philosophy degree in music, specializing in composition at Oxford through her Rhodes scholarship. While there, she founded an orchestra to gain experience as a conductor, but also because she noticed that orchestras were very exclusionary, both in the type of music that was played and in the cost of a ticket.
“I wanted to do something else, something that’s much more accessible, so I founded a group called Oxford Alternative Orchestra and we started doing performances in prisons, homeless shelters, hospitals, nursing homes, refugee detention centres and even bars,” von Wiehler explains. “We did some traditional concerts as well, but it was really born out of a desire to bring the orchestra to the city and that was really how I earned my conducting wings.”
Making Her Mark
The alumna now works as a freelance conductor, working for different opera and orchestra companies across Europe, Russia and the United States. She is doing a recording with the London Chamber orchestra and then conducting some contemporary opera in October based on the life of Van Gogh.
Earlier this year, von Wiehler earned her Ph.D. from Oxford focusing on Soviet opera. She says that this built on what she learned at Georgetown with the help of her mentors Olga Meerson, Lioudmila Fedorova and Joshua Mitchell.
“I completed my PhD in three years, which would not have been possible had I not done four years of preparatory work at Georgetown studying the language, history, culture and politics of Russia,” von Wiehler says. “That is another incredible thing about Georgetown — there are these brilliant minds who are willing to spend a ton of time with you. I have stayed in touch with Professors Meerson, Fedorova and Mitchell to this day and they have helped me become who I am.”
Von Wiehler was also able to focus the majority of her time completing her Ph.D. as the pandemic cancelled the concerts and offers she had booked in 2020. She still managed to find creative projects to work on by focusing on a digital work called The Chrysalis Project, for which she collaborated with choreographers composers and filmmakers from Burkina Faso, Korea, New Zealand, the UK, the US and Russia on a series of videos that involved a new piece of music, dance and filmmaking in each compilation.
“The idea for this project was from the idea that a caterpillar has to go into this dark and confined place for a really long time and then when it emerges, it becomes something else,” von Wiehler says. “We wanted to explore what it would be like to put yourself in the position of the caterpillar – if you could be sentient knowing that you’re kind of stuck and trapped but looking forward to what might be coming. It was wonderful to be able to direct and collaborate on something during the pandemic.”
The fifth of six films, Chrysalis: United Kingdom, will be released on YouTube on October 9.
A Bold Baton
Though von Wiehler has made enormous strides in the field of conducting, her journey has not been without its challenges. As a woman pursuing a career in a male dominated field, von Wiehler has had to work hard to prove her ability.
“I’ve had musicians walk out on me when they realize I’m going to be the conductor before I’ve even started working,” says von Wiehler. “The fact that I am a woman must also have been one of the reasons it took me so long to find my way to conducting because none of my instructors in 20 years of music training suggested it as an option, though they say it makes perfect sense when I tell them now. However, there is so much more support today than there used to be, so I think it’s a good moment to be a female conductor.”
As she continues to do impactful work, von Wiehler wants to focus on making orchestra and opera more sustainable and accessible for others by reducing spending costs and waste.