Where Men Conduct and Women Twirl the Baton

April 8, 2014

Last summer, when a few famous conductors spouted off about women conductors, convinced that the profession was properly the domain of men, a fuss was made for the seemingly unending length of the news cycle. And when it was over, the issue went underground again. Last week, Jorma Panula, the 83-year-old Finn who has trained a number of famous conductors (including Susanna Mälkki) repeated the zombie idea to a Finnish broadcaster]. And just the other day, on Alex Ross’ blog, The Rest Is Noise, there was a link to the notice about the latest Solti Foundation award recipients — seven men and no women (38 of the Foundation’s 39 awardees have been men. According to Ross, Sara Jobin was the exception, in 2006).

Now, my first thought about this problem was that we’ve been here before — a couple of decades ago we were discussing whether women could be great composers; at this point, even a beginning list of highly successful, well-regarded women composers would take half the length of a newspaper column.

And let’s not forget the salvos that have been launched at the Vienna Philharmonic for its slow and grudging admission of women to its ranks.

In a sense, there is no difference between the difficulties women (and, just to be clear, people of color) have in gaining prestigious conducting gigs and the prejudices they face in directing big-budget films or Broadway musicals. (Julie Taymor broke the Broadway barrier with The Lion King in 1997. Women didn’t get to direct major movies until the late 1980s/early 1990s, and Kathryn Bigelow was famously the first woman to take home a best director Oscar, in 2010.)

But in another sense, the classical music world is special, because so many people in it are concerned with tradition — with preserving the old ways, while deprecating the new. If you think of the opera house and the symphony orchestra as the big-budget classical equivalents of Broadway musicals and “tent-pole” or “blockbuster” movies, you see the difference immediately. For most major opera companies and symphony orchestras, new works occupy a very small percentage of the organization’s artistic program and budget. And with the concentration on the older, classical repertory comes the associated prejudices in favor of continuity over change.

It would be hard to specify a single path that led today’s established women conductors to break through the professional barriers, and many will tell you they were simply lucky. But a number of them seem to have made a specialty of conducting new music (Mälkki, Sara Jobin, Marin Alsop, Nicole Paiement) or to have come from the early music subculture (Jane Glover, Jeanne Lamon, Jeanette Sorrell). They make their mark in the area outside the bastions of tradition, and eventually get invited into the big tent.

The Solti Foundation, by contrast, has found all but one of its conducting fellows this year from within the ranks of the assistant conductors of major symphony orchestras — in other words, the Foundation (by design) is assisting people who are already in traditional conducting careers. While this is laudable, women conductors (given what we observed above) are much less likely to be found in those positions. So, without meaning to perhaps, the Foundation contributes to the perception that conducting is a male sport, with women at the periphery.

In the end, conducting, like most things in the arts, is not quantifiable ... As Panula said, “This is purely a biological question.”

Tradition always seems to have an aura of inevitability about it. That’s why we’re reading about conductors who are openly skeptical of or resistant to women conductors speaking as if they’re just repeating an obvious truth. As Panula said, “This is purely a biological question.” And when the women conductors (including the one he has trained) end up paying no attention and becoming conductors anyway, that will just signify to the old guard the end of another tradition that should have been preserved.

In the end, conducting, like most things in the arts, is not quantifiable. Your ability is tested through a series of judgment calls that might involve the musicians you lead (or might not). Whether, and where, you’re hired will depend on an orchestra or opera company executive and a Board, which may (or may not) solicit good, professional advice. In that sense, everybody who has a career in conducting has been lucky.

But we know where this debate ends, because we’ve been here before. Women musicians are fully as capable as their male counterparts as instrumentalists, composers, rock stars, bandleaders, what have you. Conducting is just another musical activity, and as women dare to put themselves forward, arts organizations — those which are not so self-destructive as to ignore the talent of half the planet’s musicians — will begin to hand them the baton more often. And then tradition will bend and change, as it always has in classical music, as everywhere else in human history.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.