Every few months or so there seems to be yet another article discussing various perspectives regarding women on the podium. I noticed a distinct uptick after the finale of the Proms, at which the eminent Marin Alsop appeared (finally). From the ridiculous to the well-reasoned, female conductors are a hot topic these days.

656-female-symbol-2-clip-artYou may wonder what angle could possibly be missing from the avalanche of words spilled (and sometimes wasted) on what is rapidly becoming a tiresome dialogue (to me, anyway). Here’s a little secret, at least in my experience: nobody cares. That is to say, truly gifted conductors are in such short supply these days that most orchestras wouldn’t care if you are male, female, or some combination as long as you possess that intangible and complex set of skills that both inspires and challenges a large group of musicians to play their best on a regular basis without growing to despise you in the process. And even if that happens, they’ll still be happy about some great concerts.

The thing is, you can’t teach this stuff, kind of like having a great business vision, mastering creative bike tricks, or becoming a great quarterback. There’s a certain alchemy to conducting, along with the aforementioned exceptional artistic qualities, and you don’t get that in “school”. Further, conductors’ engagements and early career development are often determined by word of mouth between artistic administrators and managers, many of whom (not all) have less than comprehensive knowledge with regard to conducting ability and potential. I couldn’t possibly count the number of times I’ve seen a 20 or 30-something “rising star” (male or female) who was clearly in over their head within the first 30 minutes, sometimes embarrassingly so. In my experience with very rare exceptions, from the musicians’ standpoint gender is almost an afterthought, given the current scarcity of conducting talent with real promise and durability. Perhaps every orchestra has its share of traditionalists and/or bigots, and orchestral musicians are notorious for having wildly diverging evaluations of the same conductor or concert. But it does seem as if general attitudes are more inclusive these days.

I am not at all dismissing the unique obstacles for any woman attempting to develop a conducting career. As some recent articles have noted, extra scrutiny, ingrained stereotyping, the relative “maleness” of the conducting profession, etc. are all factors to one degree or another. And these are obviously more pronounced in certain cultures and orchestras (say, the Vienna Philharmonic, for example. Or the entire country of Russia, if you believe some of what you read). batonBut what about the numbers themselves? Countless young males imagine they can slog through a conducting program and instantly be taken very seriously, no matter what their abilities (and sometimes they do sustain an over-hyped career for a few seasons). Far less women embark on this path (except maybe in Finland), so proportionally alone the odds are against them. In other words, there are huge numbers of mediocre male conductors, so why would the talent level be automatically higher with a much smaller talent pool of women? Beyond the hype and sometimes counterproductive marketing of conductors (which often perpetuate negative stereotypes), it seems to me that a truly gifted conductor who happens to be a women may enjoy a huge advantage simply by virtue of those two elements alone.

The relative scarcity of women conductors is a complex topic, and this is obviously a singular perspective after 25 years of sitting very close to the podium (and more recently, occasionally standing on it). One of the great joys of playing in an orchestra is having either a guest conductor or Music Director that truly leads, inspires, shows professional respect, knows the scores in detail, doesn’t waste time, and allows you to both play your best and push the boundaries artistically. Admittedly a tall order, and such a rare event that when it does take place, matters of gender, race, or anything else just don’t matter to me. I could be mistaken, but based my own totally unscientific surveys of some colleagues, I don’t think my attitude is unique. Still, I’ll consider it real progress when the issues of quality dominate the narrative and evaluation of any conductor, and gender truly becomes irrelevant on a broader scale. I look forward to that.

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11 thoughts on “Maestrogen”

  1. I would agree that among musicians I play with (and I’m not pretending that I play at a level even approaching anything you experience) the gender of the conductor is irrelevant to an individual performance or group.

    However, as a woman who has played in an orchestra of some sort or other her entire adult life and never had the opportunity to play under a female conductor, it’s dispiriting to say the least. When you don’t see examples of people like yourself in such roles it does color your perception of what the possibilities are out there. What if it never occurs to either of my daughters that they might conduct because they only ever see men do it? So I think it is an issue worth discussing. The same way it’s worth discussing the lack of racial diversity in symphony orchestras. Both are evidence of an environment that isn’t presenting similar opportunities earlier on, or a culture that doesn’t embrace everyone (even those with potential and talent) equally.

    • When I was growing up I used to count the women in the Pittsburgh Symphony (four, I believe). I never took my talent seriously, and did not pursue a career in music. You are right to be concerned for what your daughters will absorb as mine was not a conscious decision.

  2. Your lead to paragraph II, “The thing is, you can’t teach this stuff, kind of like having a great business vision, mastering creative bike tricks, or becoming a great quarterback” reminds me of a great quote from the late Paul Desmond: “Jazz can be learned but not taught.”

  3. I agree with all of this, which presents an opportunity for a humorous story. My friend Janine, at one time a Broadway show violinist in New York, had a little problem when one of her young children decided that he would no longer allow his grandmother to babysit for him. The best solution was to bring him to work, where he was quite well-behaved, sitting near his mother, in the pit. At the time, a woman was conducting. Some weeks later, child still sitting in pit, there was a conductor change, a man this time. The 7-year old was agitated, and said to his mother, “Mom! This is terrible! That man is doing ladies’ work!”

  4. We need, I think, to pay homage to three women in history who were the full equals of more celebrated males: Antonia Brico, Nadia Boulanger and Veronika Dudarova. The last-named in the Soviet era was chief conductor and artistic director of the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. Boulanger has the most durable recorded legacy. Brico’s single Columbia Lp of pieces by Mozart, the “Haffner” Symphony and several overtures, made very late in her life, can hold its own (in the symphony at least) with Bruno Walter’s later work. Dudarova’s legacy now consists of Chaikin’s Accordion Concerto and a disc comprising Tchaikovsky’s “The Storm,” “Fate,” “The Voyevode,” and Overture in F major. By most accounts, she was the Russian Fritz Reiner. As for today, I’m troubled that the froth and fizz of p.r. does swirl mostly around male podium figures. Women, it seems, are welcome to lead ballet orchestras, probably because they are in a theater pit and less visible. That is manifestly unfair. Equally so that a woman’s podium manner is supposed to be textbook proper. Imagine the outcry if a woman maestro leaped about like Bernstein. Maybe that’s what we need: A Yula Wang lookalike who could twerk on the podium with Argerich-like ferocity and – of course – supreme musicianship.

    • Thanks for this, which incites a little trivia. Ms. Dudarova was in fact the conductor for the finals of the Tchaikovsky Comp. in 1986, so David Kim and I both experienced her firsthand. Suffice to say she was not necessarily a calming presence, nor particularly interested in accompanying a couple of silly American kids. It was actually pretty scary, and excellent training, although I certainly didn’t know it at the time.

  5. As a female, I was surprised when I started reading all of the recent articles on discrimination against women. I was still taking lessons with the piccoloist of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera when they went through the search for a new conductor. My teacher was telling me how much the orchestra liked the one they eventually hired, and the fact that she is female brought about no debate at all. As a musician and now a developing arts administrator, I have never felt any discrimination because of my gender, although I have chosen typically female paths (playing the flute and now joining many other females getting arts administration degrees). Granted, men hold most of the Executive Director positions, though I have an alternate idea for that as well. Even then, I never felt a pressure to go those routes because I was female; that’s just where my interests are.


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