Women on the podium ... progress made but at an incremental pace

“I’ve been the first woman to do a lot of things, and I’m really proud,” conductor Marin Alsop told the New York Times. “But I also think it’s pathetic."

Pathetic that in mid-2019, Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since 2007, was talking to the New York Times about a topic that should have been retired decades ago: whether women have the skills and temperament to conduct a symphony orchestra. When Alsop arrived in Baltimore, it was as the first woman to head a major American orchestra. In 2019, she was about to add another top conducting job — principal conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra — to her hectic schedule. In addition, at the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, she is chief conductor and curator. (In Baltimore, she will become music director laureate after this season.)

Without a doubt, women have come a long way since the 1980s, when Alsop started her career. Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki is chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic and also principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Her name consistently pops up on lists of potential candidates to head the world’s leading orchestras.

Since 2016, Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has been music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, a highly prestigious post that helped bring Alsop and Sir Simon Rattle to international attention. (In January, Gražinytė-Tyla announced plans to step down in 2022, citing the job’s “organizational and administrative” load. She will stay on for an additional year as Birmingham’s principal guest conductor.)

Two women have held conducting posts at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra: Stephanie Childress is assistant conductor and Gemma New just finished a four-year term as resident conductor. Anna Rakitina is assistant conductor at the Boston Symphony, and Nathalie Stutzmann joins the Philadelphia Orchestra as principal guest conductor in the fall. Erina Yashima, who worked with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a Sir Georg Solti Conducting Apprentice, is assistant conductor at Philadelphia. Lina González-Granados, the CSO's current Solti Apprentice, also is a conducting fellow at Philadelphia.

In 2015, the Dallas Opera established the Dallas Opera Hart Institute for Women Conductors, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra currently has a female assistant conductor, Katharina Wincor, and New is its principal guest conductor. After several impressive years at the New York Philharmonic, first as assistant, then as associate conductor, Xian Zhang is earning high praise as music director of the New Jersey Symphony.

But the overall percentage of professional female conductors is still discouragingly small. In 2016, according to the most recent data available from the League of American Orchestras, only 14.6 percent of U.S orchestra conductors at all levels — including youth and pop orchestras and choruses — were women. Only 9.2 percent have the title of music director, an orchestra’s top conducting job, barely up from 8.5 percent reported in 2006. Among the country’s top-tier orchestras, the percentages are lower.

But maybe the pace of change is beginning to speed up. Alsop has been encouraged by the heated discussions about gender equality and misogyny in the classical music world that have exploded in recent years.

“I feel empowered to speak out even further,” she said in her 2019 interview with the New York Times. “Now I feel at least I have company, and that there’s a safety net."

“I’ve been the first woman to do a lot of things, and I’m really proud,” conductor Marin Alsop says. “But I also think it’s pathetic.”

Adriane White

The following article, also by Wynne Delacoma, was originally published in Ravinia magazine. An updated version is reprinted here, with permission.

One would have thought (a) that horse has left the barn, (b) that ship has sailed, or (c) it’s over, deal with it.

But no. A woman (Angela Merkel) is chancellor of Germany. A woman (Christine Lagarde) heads the European Central Bank. Yet a shockingly retro debate about a woman’s proper place has roiled the classical music world. In some quarters, it seems, women who choose to become orchestral conductors — rather than singers, composers, teachers, violinists, flute players or instrumentalists of any other stripe — are considered to be an exotic species.

In recent years, some noted classical music figures have questioned whether women have the chops to make it in the cutthroat conducting biz. (Running Germany and the ECB, the primary financial institution of the European Union, is, of course, so much easier than getting an orchestra safely through Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.)

Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko has expressed worries about male musicians keeping their focus with “a sweet girl on the podium.” (He later backpedaled a bit, saying he was referring only to the situation in Russia rather than worldwide.) His veteran compatriot Yuri Temirkanov made an unequivocal pronouncement: “The essence of the conductor’s profession is strength. The essence of a woman is weakness.”

Bruno Mantovani, head of the Paris Conservatory, raised “the maternity problem” and questioned women’s ability to handle the travel and other physical demands conductors typically face. Jorma Panula of Finland, a revered conducting teacher whose students included Esa-Pekka Salonen and Osmo Vänskä, criticized women conductors — “some of them are making faces, sweating and fussing” — in a broadcast interview. Half of his current students are women, but he advises aspiring female conductors to stick with “feminine music. Bruckner or Stravinsky will not do, but Debussy is OK. This is purely an issue of biology.”

Criticism of the men’s comments was quick and fierce. In recent seasons, Ravinia’s audience have had a chance to judge the controversy for themselves, with the debuts there of some the most exciting young conductors on today’s scene, including Susanna Mälkki, a former Panula student.

Quite sensibly, Mälkki refused to be drawn into the controversy. Her publicist politely refused a request for comment, adding that “since the beginning of her career, Ms. Mälkki has not been giving any specific interviews on this subject … She understands the interest in the subject and the importance of it, but considers her work to be a sufficient contribution to the discussion.”

Mälkki’s work, indeed, does speak for itself. She made her CSO debut in 2011 and returned since. Mälkki’s résumé includes appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam and the Munich Philharmonic. Ironically, in 2010, she conducted the world premiere of a ballet by Bruno Mantovani at the Paris Opera. She has been music director of the Ensemble InterContemporain in Paris and in 2011 became the first woman to conduct at La Scala. 

Mälkki is hardly the only notable woman conductor on the scene. Marin Alsop has been music director of the Baltimore Symphony since 2007. The orchestra has blossomed artistically under her leadership, and its community outreach programs set an industry standard. Winner of the prestigious Koussevitzky Prize for conducting, as well as a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” she has conducted leading orchestras in the United States and Europe.

The recent controversy over “female conductors” is especially shocking because the issue should have been settled decades ago. During the 20th century, a steady stream of gifted, well-trained women proved themselves more than capable of conducting the world’s major orchestras.

Nadia Boulanger, best known as the teacher of composers from Aaron Copland to Philip Glass, conducted her first concerts in Paris and Berlin in 1913 at age 25. In 1938, she became the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra. At the first rehearsal, according to Leonie Rosenstiel’s biography, Nadia Boulanger/A Life in Music, “the men of the orchestra were disruptive, inconsiderate and inattentive.” The conflicts quickly dissipated, however. The performance of Fauré’s Requiem was a triumph, and Boulanger became the toast of Boston. The following year she scored a similarly huge success with the New York Philharmonic.

Antonia Brico, born in the Netherlands in 1902 and raised in California, beat Boulanger to the punch in New York, becoming the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic, in 1938. She had been assistant to the director of San Francisco Opera and made her professional conducting debut in 1930 with the Berlin Philharmonic.

Sarah Caldwell, who started out as a child prodigy violinist, founded an opera company in Boston and staged and conducted notable productions in that city from 1958 until the company disbanded in 1991. In 1976, she became the first woman to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera. But she presided in the Met pit only because her friend and colleague, superstar soprano Beverly Sills, insisted that Caldwell conduct the Met’s production of La traviata starring Sills. (That same year, she also became the first woman to conduct at Ravinia; that concert, which marked her CSO debut, was also to feature Sills, who ultimately had to cancel.)

Granted, conducting is an extremely difficult field for men as well as women. Jobs are scarce, and far too many candidates are vying for far too few jobs. But time and again women have proven their mettle on the podium, yet few have been able to build thriving careers. The number of young women studying conducting is slowly rising in the United States and Europe, but women remain underrepresented on the professional circuit. According to the League of American Orchestras, only a dozen of the country’s 103 largest orchestras have women in the top musical posts. Women guest conductors are still a rarity at the world’s leading symphonic halls and opera houses.

Jane Glover, one of the most distinguished women on today’s conducting scene and music director of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque since 2002, offered a blunt assessment of the situation. “Absolutely, there are many more women conductors than when I started, but I would still say not nearly enough," she said. "The fact that we’re still having this conversation is sort of bonkers. It is ridiculous that after all these years we’re still asking the question. But people are. And more than that, people like [Petrenko and Panula] are still making idiotic remarks.

“It’s like saying that women can’t run marathons. And it’s ridiculous to imply that men conduct in one way and women conduct in another. Do all men violinists play in a different way from women violinists? These are the old arguments.”

Born in Britain and now visiting professor at London’s Royal Academy of Music in addition to her Chicago post, Glover brings a potent combination of zest and probing insight to her performances. When she made her Metropolitan Opera debut with a version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute designed for families, the New York Times praised the way she “conveyed the music’s whimsy and humor, but also its richness and mystery.”

But the paper also focused on the fact that Glover was only the third female to conduct at the Met since its founding in 1880. Since Caldwell’s debut in 1976, the pattern works out to roughly one woman every 20 years. The pace is picking up. Mälkki, for instance, made her Met debut during the 2016-17 season with Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin.

Gifted female conductors are finding support. Since 2003, 24 women have been aided by the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship that Alsop created expressly for promising female conductors. Glover recalled that, early in her career, Brian Dickey, who held major posts with Britain’s prestigious Glyndebourne Festival in the 1970s and ’80s, took a gamble on a young, inexperienced woman who wanted to conduct. They eventually became colleagues in Chicago, where Dickey was general director of Chicago Opera Theater from 1999 to 2012, and where Glover has conducted several productions.

“Every time I stood up on the podium,” said Glover of her first  appearances, “people would write articles — and about the wrong things: the shoes, the makeup, rather than what the music sounded like. To be honest, I wanted time out of the limelight. Never having properly learned the job, but doing it instinctively, I wanted to learn about it in a really great place. I wrote to Brian, who already knew me, and said, ‘Look, I really want to be a small cog in a big wheel.’ ”

Mei-Ann Chen, another woman whose conducting career has taken off, recalls similar support at a critical point. Chen, the ebullient music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, was born in Taiwan in 1973 and has made her career in the United States. In the mid-2000s, she won some important awards, including a Taki Fellowship, and was chief conductor of the well-regarded Portland (Ore.) Youth Philharmonic.

In 2006, she auditioned for an assistant conductor’s job at the Atlanta Symphony, a post she held for two years. “I didn’t have a manager,” Chen said. “When it comes to presenting women conductors, there are very few managers who feel female conductors are marketable. So I couldn’t get on people’s radar. Before I started my tenure with the Atlanta Symphony, the musicians [and] Robert Spano [the orchestra’s music director], literally, they got on the phone with their colleagues across the country. They said, ‘Look, I know you don’t know this name, but if you need a music director candidate or a guest conductor, please consider Mei-Ann Chen.’ By the end of my first year with Atlanta, I had received invitations from 16 orchestras.

“There are angels in our industry,” she said.

The podium is possibly the last frontier for women to conquer in the classical music world. Once it seemed completely outlandish that a woman could make a living as a composer or become CEO of a major orchestra. Now there are so many high-profile female composers and women running top orchestras that we barely give it a thought.

Deborah Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. (and former CSOA president), thinks that eventually more women will take the podium. Orchestral rosters throughout the United States are becoming more diverse, and audiences are used to seeing women in roles ranging from concertmaster to principal percussionist to composer-in-residence.

“We want to see more and more success in this, and we have a really good chance in America to do that,” Rutter said. “I think the change is happening.”

Change may be coming, but Karen Fishman, who stepped down in 2017 after 18 years as executive director of Music of the Baroque, worries that the process is so slow that young women will get discouraged. “If we don’t hire the women who already are in the pipeline,” she said, “how are there going to be more coming into the pipeline? If no young female musician perceives that she can make a living as a conductor, how will we get them in the pipeline?”

Perhaps women conductors and the people who support them should take a cue from Christine Lagarde. She makes an appearance in a book titled The Confidence Gap that explores the baffling divide between what many women think they can accomplish and their extraordinarily high achievements. According to a New York Times interview with the book’s authors, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, Lagarde carries a secret weapon in her purse.

“She got so fed up with men coming up to her and saying, ‘You know, we’d love to have more women at the top of companies,’ or ‘We’d love to have more women running things, but we just can’t find good candidates.’ This annoyed her so much that she wrote down a list of 10 really good women, qualified women, and put it in her purse. Every time a man came up to her and said, ‘It’s such a shame we can’t find a qualified woman,’ out would come the list.”

There’s an idea worth stealing. She’s got a little list, women who really shouldn’t be missed. Now, if only more arts organizations would ask to see it.

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