WOMEN SYMPHONY CONDUCTORS: A RARE BREED Why Aren’t There More of Them? by John Francis

Why Aren’t There More of Them?

In 1964, the St. Louis Symphony had 18 women out of 88 musicians, but by 2016, more than half were women. It was also like that with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which went from three women out of 104 in 1964 to 41 out of 102 in 2016, as well as the New York Philharmonic, which went from no women to 41 out of 100. Now, more than 50 percent of the positions in the top 250 U.S. orchestras are filled by women.

There is no more important person in a symphony orchestra than the conductor, the heart and leader of the orchestra. The conductor shapes the music, leads the orchestra, and interprets the musical work in new and enlightening ways.

But even with half of all orchestras consisting of women, there are still precious few women conducting those orchestras. A 2014 survey found that out of 150 top conductors in the world, only five were women. Of the 61 full-member orchestras in the Association of British Orchestras, with 100 positions for conductors, women held only four of those positions.

So what gives? Why are there so few women on the conductor’s podium? Sexism? Misogyny? Gender Inequality? Prejudice? Tradition?

In 2013, just before Marin Alsop was about to take the podium as the first woman in its 118-year history to conduct the “Last Night of the Proms,” the biggest night in Britain’s classical music calendar, Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko told an interviewer that musicians react better to a man conducting them than a woman and that “a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things.”

So prejudice, if not outright misogyny, still exists in this realm, with a little of all of the above.

Alsop, who is currently the Music Director at both the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra and one of the leading women conductors in the world, has another take on it, “if a woman makes a gesture, it is interpreted in a totally different way from a man making the same gesture.”

“I don’t know that I could call it overt prejudice, but I interpret it as a societal lack of comfort. It’s not what people are used to, and therefore we don’t gravitate towards it,” she told a BBC interviewer. “Listen, I have to admit, when I see women fly planes, even I hesitate because it’s not what I’m used to! We are inordinately proud of the equality we think we’ve achieved. And then you look around the world and realize that women really don’t have the kind of equality we might reasonably hope for in this day and age.”

Alsop also says that projecting power and confidence, which is essential for a conductor, may be more difficult with women.

“Confidence is an issue for all young people today, but I do find that the challenges for women seem to be projecting strength unapologetically,” she told The Guardian newspaper in 2017. “Society interprets women’s gestures very differently, so that if women are exuding an aura of extreme confidence that can be deemed off-putting, whereas it’s desirous for men. It’s more about power, taking it and feeling entitled to take it. Those are the things I’m trying to address.”

And the tide seems to be turning. Alsop launched a successful fellowship for women conductors and Morley College in London has established a women-only course for aspiring conductors, for example.

Elim Chan became the first woman to win the Donatella Flick conducting competition in 2014. In 2015, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales appointed Xian Zhang as its principal guest conductor. In 2010, Nazanin Aghakhani became the first female orchestra conductor in Iran, conducting the Tehran Symphony Orchestra. And in 2016, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra appointed their new musical director: Mirga Gražinytë-Tyla, a 29-year-old Lithuanian woman.

And recently, Susanna Malkki was appointed as principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, only the third person in the Philharmonic to have held the post, after Simon Rattle and Michael Tilson Thomas.

But there still remains a lot of work ahead for women conductors to get to the level of the women in the orchestras they are conducting.

“I hope that today’s generation of young girls will never consider not doing something because they’re a woman. Maybe it won’t even be on their agenda. I hope so,” says Alsop, telling the BBC, “Maybe one day we won’t even think of a composer named Anna Clyne as a ‘female composer,’ or a conductor named Marin Alsop as a ‘female conductor,’ I venture. I do dream of that day. And maybe it will come. We’ll see. I won’t hold my breath.”

All books are available at amazon.com. Click on title to learn more.
The Symphony Orchestra in Crisis: A Conductor’s View
by John Axelrod
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Conducting Music
by Michael Miller
Twice Through The Heart Etc/ Marin Alsop
by Mark Anthony Turnage

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