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The Genre-Bending Influence of Edwin Outwater

Fresh off a collaboration with rock legend Sting, SFCM's Music Director explains how his ability to jump into any music genre is rooted in his classical music training, and what every music student can learn from it.

April 10, 2024 by Mark Taylor

Music has been called the universal language, but in reality there are many different dialects, and Edwin Outwater seems to speak all of them fluently.

No matter the genre of music, Outwater has seamlessly glided from podium to podium conducting prestigious symphonies, rock legends, metalheads, pop singers, and Broadway stars, and that's just in the last few years. It's a body of work he traces directly to his classical music education.

"That is one of the main messages I try to teach students, that classical training is the most valuable because it is the foundation of everything," Outwater said. "Classical training can help you to jump into any genre." The conductor and teacher has been Music Director at the school since 2020. In addition to leading the SFCM Orchestra, Outwater works directly with conducting students.

Sting, Edwin Outwater

Sting performs with Outwater conducting the San Francisco Symphony. Photo by Kristen Loken.

Most recently, Outwater worked with rock legend Sting in February as the former Police bassist performed alongside the San Francisco Symphony with Outwater at the podium, transforming his biggest hits into orchestral delights. "Sting is a wonderful collaborator, everything was golden, and he had a great centered quality that we all rallied around," Outwater said. 

Through his connections, Outwater brought beloved San Francisco avant-garde rockers The Residents to SFCM for Winter Term in 2023 to work with students as he says there is something you can learn from every style of music. "Even these rock collaborations have an element of chamber music to them," Outwater continued. "As a conductor you want to create a space for everyone to be a part of something bigger, of making music."  

Edwin Outwater with Metallica and Michael Tilson Thomas.

Edwin Outwater with Metallica and Michael Tilson Thomas.

His reputation as the go-to baton for anything that pushes the norm can be traced back to his historic collaboration with Metallica in 2019 at the grand opening of the Chase Center in San Francisco. "That was a game-changer for me," Outwater said. "It led me to other collaborations, but more importantly, set the precedent that I am open to this type of thing and willing to try new things." 

Cynthia Erivo and Edwin Outwater.

Cynthia Erivo and Edwin Outwater.

Since then he's shared the stage with not only rock legends but pop stars like Diana Ross, Jennifer Hudson, and Cynthia Erivo, not to mention his usual repertoire of classical music titans like the San Francisco Symphony, LA Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to name a few. 

"Edwin truly understands music making in the 21st century," said Jaco Wong ('22) a past student of Outwater's and SFCM graduate. "Bouncing between all genres of music effortlessly and also constantly reflecting on how to present music in compelling experiences: multimedia, new premieres, crossovers, or otherwise," Wong added. 

The sentiment is shared with David Baker ('23) who traveled with Outwater during his time at SFCM in a conducting program "field trip." "Assisting Edwin during the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2022 residency in Orlando was life-changing for me because I learned the ins and outs of what goes into shows that feature major pop, rock, and jazz artists," Baker said. 

Collaboration and trying new things is something Edwin ingrains into his curriculum. This year he planned a collaboration between pianist Lara Downes and the SFCM Orchestra, where the orchestra performed a reimagined Rhapsody in Blue for the piece's 100th anniversary. The orchestra also did a special recording of the piece, which was later released on SFCM's Alliance partner PENTATONE Records. "I like how beautifully that project came together," Outwater continued. "I like that SFCM is a place where new and creative projects can happen at the highest level, and that our students get to be a part of them."

Outside the practice room or performance stage, students also look forward to working with Outwater. "Edwin is not only a terrific mentor, but also such a caring friend and colleague. He always balanced the intensity of our work together with warmth and support, always taking time out of his busy schedule for us. He has always been there for me even after I graduated, and for that, I am forever grateful," Baker said.

Edwin Outwater and the SFCM Orchestra

Edwin Outwater conducts the SFCM Orchestra.

While his reputation in the music world may be one of a-man-of-many-talents, it is his role at SFCM that he wants to make most clear to students. "I am available to the entire school. If a student wants to play for me or sing or talk about career paths, I will schedule that," Outwater said. 

"I always have office hours, that's my philosophy, and the spirit of SFCM's as well," he added.

Learn more about Edwin Outwater.