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Official Biography, April 2023

Alaska-born conductor Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey is emblematic of the 21st century’s newest vanguard of orchestral leadership. She is a leader in social justice and environmental sustainability within music, both on and off the podium, and her bold orchestral initiatives are pioneering in tackling the pressing issues of our time. Since first travelling to Afghanistan in 2018, she has worked particularly closely with Afghan musicians, composers, and conductors of the country to create genre-defying work that has been described as ‘mesmerising, moving and original’.

Cayenna is a long-time advocate of new music which addresses environmental and social issues, commissioning and premiering dozens of new compositions from composers including Nicola LeFanu, Shirley Thompson OBE, Sadie Harrison, Toby Young, Rhian Samuel, Solfa Carlile, and Arson Fahim. A particular focus since 2012 has been to raise awareness about global water security through new orchestral music, including her on-going Water-Culture: Women’s Work(s) commissioning project (works by women composers which highlight women’s historic role in domestic water provision), and the creation of Art, Science & the Thirsty World, a video exploring the intersection of the arts and sciences around issues of water scarcity installed in Visualising Water Worlds installed at an exhibition in the Arsenale di Venezia as part of AQUAE Venice 2015, sponsored by EXPO Milan. Her recording with the Orchestra of St John’s of Reaching Water (2021), with the pop band ‘pecq’ was featured by Gramophone Magazine in UNESCO’s Global Network of Water Museums. 

Cayenna has led several impactful Arts Council England-funded intercultural engagement projects including Many Worlds in One Place and Displaced Voices with collaborating composer Toby Young and the Orchestra of St John's, which amplified the voices of young refugees through music. After bringing the Afghan Women’s Orchestra (Ensemble Zohra) to Oxford for a residency at Somerville College in 2019, she was awarded a prestigious 3-year Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellowship at the University of Sheffield to write a book about the orchestras of Afghanistan which she is currently undertaking in collaboration with exiled Afghan music scholars. In partnership with Afghan composer Arson Fahim, Cayenna is ensuring that Afghanistan’s orchestral music continues to flourish while censored in its own country through The Orchestral Music of Afghanistan: Looking Forward commissioning and performance project. Generously supported by the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, Spitalfields Music, Leverhulme Trust, University of Sheffield, and private donors, Cayenna commissioned and premiered eight new orchestral works by Afghan composers in 2022, work that was featured by BBC Radio 3’s ‘Music Matters’, The Guardian, and The Times. Cayenna and OPO will perform these new works again on 15 June 2023 at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford.


She also has a specialism in the works of underrepresented historical composers, and has given a number of Oxford premieres of historical works including: Germaine Tailleferre’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (No. 1) in its original orchestration for 13 instruments with pianist Daniel Grimwood in the Holywell Music Room in 2016; Grace Williams’ Sea Sketches in the Ashmolean Museum in 2018; the Sheldonian Theatre premiere of Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto with the Oxford University Orchestra and Canadian pianist Carson Beck in 2019 (it was first performed by Oxford student Amy Chang with a student orchestra in Christ Church and her own edition); and Fanny Mendelssohn’s Overture in C with the Oxford Philharmonic in Spring 2022. She also brought the 2nd and 3rd Symphonies of French composer Louise Farrenc to the south of France in 2019 and 2022 where they would have been heard for the first time, and will give the Oxford premiere of Welsh composer Morfydd Owen’s Nocturne later this year. Her performance of Florence Price’s Piano Concerto with Price scholar and interpreter Samantha Ege is the first time the piece will have been performed in Oxford and one of less than a handful in entirety of the UK in its 89-year history.

In addition to her Leverhulme Fellowship at the University of Sheffield, Cayenna is the Conducting Fellow and Coordinator of the Side-By-Side programme of the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, Director of Performance at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, and Director of Research for the Oxford Conducting Institute. She holds master’s degrees in orchestral conducting, percussion performance (Ithaca), and a doctorate in the social psychology of orchestral performance (DPhil in Music) from the University of Oxford. Conducting tutors and masterclass mentors have included Neil Thompson, Marios Papadopoulos, Valery Gergiev and Marin Alsop. She is featured in a recent documentary by Swedish filmmaker Christina Olofson, Call Me Madame Maestro, alongside JoAnn Falletta and Victoria Bond, on the current climate for women conductors. Her work has been funded by Arts Council England, British Council, Leverhulme Trust, Oxfordshire Community Foundation, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, and many others.

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