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A Look into the World of Female Conductors

Women Are Taking Over the Podium - Are We Finally Working Towards Gender Equality?

Gender inequality is still present in our Western society, be it on a greater or lesser extent. When we speak about classical music, the gap between the sexes gets more significant, especially in the field of conducting. Even though women have come a long way, the podium in front of an orchestra is still one of the most unequal places in classical music. In 2017 Alice Farnham, one of the leading female conductors, said to The Journal of Music: “Ask any professional musician how many female conductors they have played for, and they would be lucky to use more than the fingers of one hand. Ask them how many male conductors and they would quickly lose count.” But why is that? Why are there not so many female conductors on the podiums of the world’s leading orchestras? And how can we change that?

“I’ve been a woman for a little more than fifty years, and I’ve gotten over my original astonishment.” — Nadia Boulanger on being asked how it felt to be the first female conductor of the Boston Symphony

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A look into history already explains a lot, but let’s start from the beginning of conducting in general. As early as musicians began to play in ensembles, there was a need for a person to lead the group. The field of conducting as we know today, however, started evolving in the late 18th century. As musical groups became bigger and technology changed and shaped the way people made music, different ideas on how to best lead an ensemble or orchestra came up: audible time-beating, divided leadership, small signals such as eye contact or head-nodding, or directing with a violin-bow are a few of them. For smaller groups, some of those still work. Orchestras and big ensembles had to think of something else or a combination of at least two of these options. The idea of a formal conductor came up around the same time as the soloist did. But early conductors were not focused on interpreting the music, they were already satisfied with the orchestra performing without significant mistakes. In the beginning, they were seen as the long arm of the composer, who only interprets the piece in the composer’s interests. Over time, however, the conductor gained power, money, and prestige and became the centre of music-making.

Not only this very view of a conductor, but the strongly patriarchal society that also caused the expectations people had, and often still have, towards men and women, explains why females were held back from this position for so long. Musical education differed a lot between men and women. Up until the early 20th century, girls weren’t allowed to join conservatories or attend music lessons along with their male colleagues. Not only because the institutions forbade it, but in many cases also the girls’ fathers did. Reasons for that could have been either the sheer urge for protecting females, the notion that women are neither physically nor mentally capable of leading an orchestra, or even both. What girls and young women did sometimes get were private music lessons. However, they still missed out on both valuable social contacts that large educational institutions can offer, as well as ideas and inputs from other students. The private sector was dedicated to them, while the public, representational, and ‘powerful’ one to men. Some women fought against this structure and built their own, often women-only, orchestras (since women weren’t allowed to play in already existing orchestras either) to follow and express their passion.

But that alone didn’t do the trick. The difficulties women faced in all sorts of workplaces and industries, and especially in leadership positions, go on until today. Therefore, it’s not surprising that in classical music, women entering jobs that require leadership tasks encounter similar problems to female employees in many other fields. Research shows that women still have to prove themselves a lot more and a lot more frequently in order to be respected than their male counterparts. Moreover, different prevailing gender biases make it harder for females to succeed. This is especially true for women working in majority-male workplaces. Despite this fact, progress (in classical music) is plodding, allowing more and more women to make their way up to the podium, especially in the past few decades.

“In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” — Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook)

Next to Antonia Brico, pioneers of the 19th century were Elisabeth Kuyper, Ethel Leginska, and Frédérique Petrides. Brico was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and moved with her parents to the United States when she was six years old. With lots of effort, engagement, and passion, she became the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic in 1938. Unfortunately, there are not many recordings that feature her work, but on Primephonic you can still find some of her recordings of Mozart’s overtures. Up until now, a new generation of impressive women made their way into the front of the orchestras and are successful and pioneering in what they do and love. Sylvia Caduff, Marin Alsop, Stephanie Childress, and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla are just a few, the list goes on.

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Lucie Leguay (France, 1990) is one of the young upcoming conductors. She is currently the assistant conductor of the Orchestre National d’Île-de-France. Her aim is to spread classical music to everyone, especially in places where people would not expect it, also in order to reach new audiences. Different projects include cross-over productions with non-classical musicians in non-classical locations. She herself, in the course of a short three-part portrait published on Julius Bär, says that a conductor for her is neither a man nor a woman, it’s a connector.

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Another promising conductor, with a different approach, is Beatrice Venezi, known as the youngest female conductor in Italy. As a woman, she very much engages with her femininity and strives to be a role model for many more women to come. She isn’t interested in replicating male conducting styles or dressing like one. Instead, she tries to use her own body language, one that reflects her young and female self. Due to her varied background, not only in conducting but also in instrumental and especially musicology education, she aspires to interact with young people and make it easier for them to enter the wonderful world of classical music. In 2018, Forbes Italia mentioned her as one of the 100 Young People Under 30 as being one of the leaders of the future. You can listen to her debut album “My Journey” on Primephonic.

 

Many of the women mentioned in this article are working on programmes and taking initiatives to support and encourage young women to pursue their dream of conducting. One that is definitely worth noting is the aforementioned Alice Farnham. Together with the National Concert Hall, she developed the Female Conductor Programme, which does precisely that: encourage, educate, and support women to become conductors. Luckily, there is not only this programme but many others that follow the same purpose. Furthermore, festival organizers and filmmakers assign themselves to make people aware of this extreme gender-imbalance. Magazines and newspapers give more and more female conductors a voice to speak about their experiences and the situations they might encounter. Also, streaming services, such as Primephonic, play a part in promoting these artists. The playlist Female Conductors is a good example of Primephonic’s endorsement of women on the podium.

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