All the Women Conductors in San Francisco Opera and Symphony History

Janos Gereben on June 24, 2019
Eun Sun Kim studies the score to Rusalka in San Francisco | Credit: Cory Weaver

Prompted by lavish, unanimous, and well deserved praise for Eun Sun Kim’s conducting of the San Francisco Opera’s hit productions of Rusalka, SFCV looked back on decades of writing about the struggle of women to gain a foothold on the podiums of major musical organizations, and we set out to create a record of this drive locally.

There have been woman conductors in Europe going back a full century, such as Nadia Boulanger, who led concerts with the London Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, and the New York Philharmonic, but for decades, regardless of exceptional ability, women remained the exceptions in numbers.

It’s been only in the last two score years that the likes of Marin Alsop, Simone Young, Xian Zhang, Alice Farnham, Susanna Mälkki, Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, Alondra de la Parra, and many others have emerged, received guest-conducting opportunities, and eventually orchestras of their own.

Nadia Boulanger with Leonard Bernstein when she conducted the New York Philharmonic in 1962; she made her conducting debut in 1912

What of San Francisco? Given the inane global constraints on gender when it comes to conducting, SF Opera and SF Symphony have done relatively well. Women’s participation and leadership in other musical organization locally will be the subject on another day.

The answer to the question “who was first in the War Memorial?” was given in a 2013 SFCV article, if we’re speaking of “mainstage, subscription performances,” but a complete list (see below) is a more complex matter. As reported in the article, it was Sara Jobin who, in 2004, broke through the glass ceiling over the podium:

After conducting the SFO Orchestra in a quirky Opera Center triple bill of Jack Beeson’s Dr. Heidegger’s Fountain of Youth, Ernst Toch’s Edgar & Emily, and William Walton’s The Bear, Sara Jobin appeared in the War Memorial pit to lead Tosca and The Flying Dutchman, the first woman in the company’s then 81-year-long history.

Jobin’s female predecessors at SFO, none at a mainstage subscription performance, included Kathryn Cathcart, who conducted student and family matinees of La traviata in the Opera House, and others who led Showcase performances, and four appearing on the podium for Spring Opera: Fiora Contino, Paulette Houpt-Nolen, Judith Somogi, and Thea Musgrave.”

Eun Sun Kim earlier this month, leading a rehearsal of San Francisco Opera’s Rusalka | Credit: Cory Weaver

Here’s a more complete, detailed list, with help from S.F. Opera’s Jeffery McMillan:

* Fiora Contino: Bach’s The Passion According to St. Matthew, 1976-77, Spring Opera Theater

* Paulette Haupt-Nolen: Bizet’s Carmen, 1977-78, Spring Opera Theater

* Judith Somogi: Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, 1978-79, Spring Opera Theater

* Thea Musgrave: Musgrave’s Mary, Queen of Scots, 1979-80, Spring Opera Theater

* Kathryn Cathcart: Verdi’s La traviata, 1983-84, Student/senior performances

* Dáirine Ní Mheadhra: Ana Sokolovic’s Svadba (Wedding), 2015-16, S.F. Opera Lab, Wilsey Opera Center

Subscription performances in the War Memorial:

* Sara Jobin: Puccini’s Tosca, Nov. 7, 2004; Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer, Dec. 1, 2004; four of nine performances of Bellini’s Norma, 2005-06; the last performance of Glass’ Appomattox (2007-08); also co-productions in Berkeley: Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince (2007-08); Nolan Gasser’s The Secret Garden (2012-13)

*Anne Manson: Mozart’s Così fan tutte (2004-05)

* Karen Kamensek: Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah (2014-15)

* Eun Sun Kim: Dvorák’s Rusalka, currently

* Michelle Merrill: the June 20, 2019 performance of Bizet’s Carmen, substituting for James Gaffigan

Sara Jobin, a busy conductor in San Francisco before, is now artistic director of the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York | Credit: Robert Cummerow

Jobin told SFCV about the circumstances of her mainstage debut:

I am grateful to Maestro [former Music Director Donald] Runnicles for his mentoring. He is a superb conductor and a superbly generous human being. I’m also grateful to Pamela Rosenberg for her role in bringing the San Francisco Opera into the 21st century on this issue.

Thanks to Kip Cranna, who remembered that I liked American opera and anything new, they asked me to assist Dennis Russell Davies for the premiere of Appomattox. I agreed to do it with no scheduled performances; later they added a performance at the end of the run, for which Dennis was not available, and gave it to me.

I came back to work on the Ring cycle with Runnicles and Zambello in 2011 and led pretty much all the piano rehearsals for Rheingold and Götterdämmerung — Nina Stemme was learning her first Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde, which was awesome to witness.”

For the Symphony, it’s an impressively large list, initially compiled for SFCV by S.F. Symphony Director of Public Relations Robin Freeman.

The first woman to lead SFS in a summer concert was Antonia Brico, on Aug. 26, 1930, in the Civic Auditorium, with inauguration of the orchestra’s future home, the War Memorial Opera House, still two years away.

The program was subscription-concert substantial: Dvorák, Symphony No. 7; Wagner, The Flying Dutchman Overture; Sigisimund Stojowsky, Symphonic Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra (with the composer at the piano); R. Strauss, Don Juan.

Susanna Mälkki is one of the frequent (and acclaimed) visitors to S.F. Symphony | Credit: Berlin Philharmonic

Decades passed after 1930 before Sarah Caldwell became the first woman to lead the S.F. Symphony in a subscription concert in 1977.

As there is a distinction for S.F. Opera between mainstage subscription operas and other productions, so is the difference between subscription concerts at the Symphony and such events as Summer Series, Holiday Series, Film Series, Chinese New Year Concert, and Diá de los Muertos events, Wet Ink and Mavericks festivals, or other special concerts.

* Helen Quach: 1975 Pension Fund Concert — Beethoven Symphony No. 8; Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade; Rossini, L’Italiana in Algeri Overture

Subscription concerts:

* Sarah Caldwell: 1976-77 Subscription Series — Debussy, Nocturnes; Debussy, Printemps; Poulenc La Voix humaine with soprano Phyllis Curtin

* Thea Musgrave: 1984-85 Subscription Series — Musgrave, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra Musgrave led her own piece, while Edo de Waart led the other half of the concert

* Catherine Comet: 1989-90 Subscription Series — Stravinsky, Danses concertantes; Saint-Saëns, Concerto No. 1 for Cello and Orchestra; Fauré, Pavane; Bizet, Symphony in C

* Iona Brown (conductor and violinist):

  • 1989-90 Subscription Series — J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 2 & 5; J.S. Bach, Concerto in D Minor for Oboe, Violin, and Orchestra; J.S. Bach, Overture-Suite No. 3 in D Major
  • 1990-91 Subscription Series — Schoenberg, Transfigured Night; Mozart, Serenade No. 7
  • 1991-92 Subscription Series — J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 3; J.S. Bach, Concerto No. 3 in D Minor for Two Violins, Strings, and Continuo; Vivaldi, The Four Seasons
  • 1993-94: Subscription Series — Haydn, Symphony No. 43; Arvo Pärt, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten; Britten, Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings

* Apo Hsu: 2000 Opening Gala — one of four conductors leading the Mozart Notturno for Four Orchestras

* Jane Glover:

  • 2006-07: Subscription Series — Handel, Messiah
  • 2011-12: Subscription Series — Handel, Water Music Suite No. 3; Bach, Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 2, 3, 6; Handel, Music for the Royal Fireworks
  • 2014-15: Subscription Series — Handel, Messiah.
  • 2018-19: Subscription Series — Handel, Messiah

* Susanna Mälkki:

  • 2011-12: Subscription Series — Gerard Grisey, Modulations; Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 3; Sibelius, Symphony No. 1
  • 2014-15: Subscription Series — Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Roman Sketches, The White Peacock; Bartók, Piano Concerto No. 3; Brahms, Symphony No. 2 
  • 2015-16: Subscription Series — Mussorgsky, Khovanshchina Prelude; Shostakovich, Violin Concerto No.1; Prokofiev, Symphony No. 5
  • 2015-16: Subscription Series — Jukka Tiensuu, Alma III: Soma; Chopin, Piano Concerto No. 1; Sibelius, Symphony No. 5
  • 2016-17: Subscription Series — Stravinsky, Scherzo fantastique; Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 1; Stravinsky, Le Sacre du printemps
  • 2017-18: Subscription Series — Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto; Kaija Saariaho, Laterna Magica; Scriabin, The Poem of Ecstasy

* Simone Young:

  • 2018-19: Subscription Series — Ravel, Pavane pour une infante défunte; Ravel, Piano Concerto in G major; Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade
  • 2019-20: Subscription Series — R. Strauss, Metamorphosen; Wagner, Die Walküre Act I

* Karina Canellakis: 2019-20: Subscription Series — Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 1; Shostakovich, Symphony No. 7

Summer and holiday concerts, other events:

* Antonia Brico, 1930, see above

* Winifred Baker:

  • 1969, summer (with Arthur Fiedler) —Borodin, Prince Igor, Polovtsian Dances; Wagner, Tannhäuser Finale; Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov Prologue and Coronation Scene; J. Strauss, Die Fledermaus Act III; songs by Victor Herbert
  • 1977, summer (with Mitch Miller) — Mozart, Eine kleine Nachtmusik; J. Strauss, Die Fledermaus Act III

* Anne Bryant: 1993 Holiday concert

* Lorraine Vaillancourt: 1993 Wet Ink Festival — Pauline Oliveros, Inside/Outside/Space/Is; Saariaho, Lichtbogen

* Gail Deadrick: 1994 Holiday concert, also 1995, 1997-2003, & 2013 Natalie Cole concert

* Marin Alsop:

  • 1999 summer: Copland, El Salón México; Wagner, Die Walküre “Ride of the Valkyries”; Holst, The Planets, “Jupiter”; Bizet, Carmen Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra; Mussorgsky, A Night on Bald Mountain
  • 1999 summer: R. Strauss, Also sprach Zarathustra, “Introduction & Sunrise”; Jerry Goldsmith, Star Trek: First Contact, Title Music; James Horner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; Holst, The Planets, “Mars” and “Jupiter”

* Apo Hsu: 2000: American Mavericks Festival — Cage, Dance/4 Orchestras (she was one of four conductors leading this piece)

* Keri-Lynn Wilson: 2001 summer: Tchaikovsky, Marche slave; Copland, Fanfare for the Common Man; Stravinsky, The Firebird Suite

* JoAnn Falletta: 2005 summer: — Astor Piazzolla, Aconcagua Concerto for Bandoneón; Ginastera, Estancia Suite

* Carolyn Kuan: Chinese New Year concerts, 2007-12

* Elizabeth Schulze: 2008 holiday concert

* Alondra de la Parra:

  • 2009 Día de los Muertos concert
  • 2010: summer — Ellington, New World a-Comin’; Copland, Old American Songs; Ferde Grofé, Grand Canyon Suite
  • 2010: summer — Glinka, Ruslan and Ludmila Overture; Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 3; Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition
  • 2010 summer — John Adams, Short Ride in a Fast Machine; Copland, Three Latin-American Sketches, Paisaje Mexicano and Danza de Jalisco; Ives, The Unanswered Question; Copland, Lincoln Portrait; Ives, Variations on America; Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue
  • 2010: Dolores Park concert
  • 2017: Día de los Muertos concert
  • 2019: Summer Series

* Sarah Hicks:

  • 2014-18 film series: Fantasia, Pixar, Home Alone, Star Trek, Back to the Future, E.T., Ratatouille, Singin’ in the Rain, Casablanca, Batman
  • 2018-19 film series: Star Wars: A New Hope, Out of this World

* Mei-Ann Chen: 2013, 2015-18 Chinese New Year concerts

* Xian Zhang: 2019 Chinese New Year concert

* Gemma New:

  • 2019 Frost Amphitheater Series — all-Tchaikovsky program
  • July 13-14, 2019 — Ravel, Shéhérazade; Beethoven, Symphony No. 9