Missing From Podiums: Women

Anne Manson leading the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra.

“Dinosaur, go back to your cave!” the British conductor Sian Edwards said over the phone with a laugh, her eyes audibly rolling.

I had asked for her response to the bizarrely retrograde comments a few respected male musicians had made recently about female conductors. In August, the young Russian maestro Vasily Petrenko told an interviewer that players, presumably men, “react better when they have a man in front of them.” He added, “A sweet girl on the podium can make one’s thoughts drift toward something else.”

Not long after, controversy erupted over comments that Bruno Mantovani, a composer and the director of the Paris Conservatory of Music and Dance made on French radio. “Sometimes women are discouraged by the very physical aspect,” he said. “Conducting, taking a plane, taking another plane, conducting again.” Then the New Yorker critic Alex Ross provided a translation of an interview that the venerable Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov, one of Mr. Petrenko’s mentors, gave last year. “The essence of the conductor’s profession is strength,” he said. “The essence of a woman is weakness.”

The ridiculousness of this flurry, in 2013, has rightfully drawn attention to the broader situation faced by women in the field. Female conductors no longer attract open-mouthed attention among music lovers or the news media, yet they remain far from being fairly represented. According to the League of American Orchestras, of the 103 ensembles with the biggest budgets, 12 have female conductors; just one of the top-tier 22 is led by a woman.

ImageLast week, Jane Glover became the third female conductor at the Met, only the third female conductor in the company’s 133-year history.
Credit...Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Last Monday, the British conductor Jane Glover made her Metropolitan Opera debut, in the hardly enviable assignment of the holiday abridgment — over an hour of the score is cut — of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” She is only the third female conductor in the company’s 133-year history.

But the Met should not take the blame alone. Women have also been barely present on the podiums of San Francisco Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera and the other major American houses. “I wish I could tell you that our record was better,” the spokeswoman for Santa Fe Opera wrote me.

Orchestras have perhaps predictably had better numbers — there are more of them, and the pool of experienced talent is larger — but more than half of the 20 top ones I canvassed had no female guest leaders on their main series this season or last; only five hosted women both seasons. Just two female conductors appear on the schedules of New York’s major instrumental concert programs this season, according to WQXR. That’s absurd.

The pace is agonizing, but things are improving. Recent conversations I’ve had with conductors at various stages of their careers, as well as administrators, artist managers and teachers, suggest that what’s preventing equity is now less overt sexism, though those comments by the Russian maestros and Mr. Mantovani have made clear it still exists, than simply time — the trickle of a younger, more heterogeneous generation as it permeates the field — and incremental societal shifts in attitudes about the face of leadership.

Credit...Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

“I’m aware I don’t really look like your standard conductor,” said Gemma New, 26, the associate conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. “I look very young. Many people ask what college I’m in. But once they start to talk to me and see my work, I think their ideas are changed.”

In 2007, Marin Alsop, probably the most prominent female conductor in the world, became the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the first time a woman had led a major ensemble. (Her predecessor was none other than Mr. Temirkanov.) Looking back on her career in a phone interview from Brazil, where she is also music director of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, she said: “When I started, I kind of naturally assumed that there would be more and more women entering the field. But it was strange because the numbers didn’t really change 10 years down the line, 20 years down the line, even 30. The numbers hadn’t increased in the way I assumed they would.”

In certain ways, we are still living in the old world. The enterprising Antonia Brico was supposed to have made her Met debut back in the 1930s. But the popular baritone John Charles Thomas declared that he would never perform under a woman’s baton, and that was that. The conductor Anne Manson said, “There was one conversation my agent had with one of the opera companies in Britain and they said, ‘We could never put a woman in front of this orchestra.’ I believe the quote was ‘She’d get eaten alive.’ ” Another American conductor, Laura Jackson, said that in the early 1990s, she was told by a female official of an orchestra in New England that “we don’t do women conductors here.”

It took until 1976, decades after Brico was denied, for the barrier to be broken at the Met by the formidable stage director, impresario and conductor Sarah Caldwell, and she was tapped only at the insistence of a star singer, Beverly Sills. Simone Young followed in 1996.

Credit...Daemon Baizan

The gap after Ms. Glover will be considerably narrower: The Met recently announced that the Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki will make her debut in the 2016-17 season, leading the company’s premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de Loin,” the second opera by a female composer in the Met’s history. Ms. Malkki, whose career has accelerated in recent years, will make her New York Philharmonic debut next season; in 2009, she first led the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a last-minute replacement for — who else? — Mr. Temirkanov.

But Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said that no other women had been engaged for the immediate future, including his wife, Keri-Lynn Wilson, who was recently named the music director of the National Slovenian Philharmonic. “My wife is a wonderful conductor,” he said with a laugh, “but my marriage has prevented me from engaging her.”

Nearly everyone I spoke to said that the problem was that the field of experienced women was not yet deep enough for it really to percolate into the top orchestras and opera companies, making the training grounds for young artists the next battleground. While Ms. Manson said that she had not long ago participated in a top summer music program for young musicians and hadn’t seen a single other female conductor, the numbers in such programs and conservatories are slowly rising.

Hugh Wolff, the director of the conducting program at the New England Conservatory, said that seven out of 51 applicants to the most recent class at the school were women. When he evaluated applications for the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen, a prestigious summer program, in 2011, he reviewed 46 applicants, and eight were women: still far from parity, but an improvement on the current percentages among the top-tier orchestras.

Credit...Matt Roth for The New York Times

Deborah Borda, the president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said: “Things have really changed radically. In the old days, even 10 years ago, you might have one woman who would come for an assistant conductor audition, and now it might be half.” When Ms. Jackson became music director of the Reno Philharmonic in Nevada in 2009, there were three women among the five finalists for the position.

But the industry still needs to do more to encourage women who study conducting to remain with the daunting career. A post on the blog of the magazine Mother Jones said that the percentage of women among those completing doctoral degrees in conducting still significantly exceeded their presence in the field as practitioners. The young Lithuanian conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, recently a Dudamel Conducting Fellow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, told me that more of the male students she studied alongside in Austria had ended up serious conductors than the women.

Even for those able to make the career work, there have been the complications of how, exactly, to conduct when the physical models have been male. “When men make forceful gestures, they come off as being masculine and virile,” Ms. Alsop said. “Sometimes when women do that, they’re interpreted as being pushy and bossy. I’ve really worked hard at trying to, sort of, de-genderize my gestures.”

It helps that the image of conducting has broadened in recent decades from the imposing, patriarchal model of Toscanini and von Karajan. Men like Simon Rattle have flourished with easier-going personalities and an emphasis on community building, a landscape that makes the idea of women on the podium seem more natural to audiences, institutions and donors. “He showed that you could be informal,” Sian Edwards said of Mr. Rattle. “You didn’t have to have this authoritarian, rather grand image that had been peddled by Deutsche Grammophon.”

Credit...Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

In September, Ms. Alsop became the first woman to conduct the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms, a little-known event in America but a widely televised blockbuster in Europe. The concert’s success — not least in the adroit way she used the conductor’s traditional speech to dedicate the evening to “progress” — led to chatter that she might yet be in line for a starrier position than Baltimore or São Paulo.

“Nobody’s yet broken completely through the glass ceiling, but Marin’s going to do it,” Ms. Glover said in an interview at the Met. “She’s going to get one of the big orchestras before she stops. There’s no question of that. On which side of the Atlantic, I’m not sure.”

Ms. Alsop, insisting that she was not driven by the need to attain any particular level in the field, said, “It’s not that I wouldn’t want to see in my lifetime someone” — someone female — “lead the quote, unquote Big Five orchestras,” referring to the ensembles of Boston, New York, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Chicago. “If it’s me, great. If it’s someone else, fantastic.”

How long will it take to achieve fairness? Decades ago, blind auditions swiftly equalized the gender makeup of orchestra players. (They did much less to address racial inequality.) But you can’t have blind auditions for conductors. Ms. Edwards, who recently became head of conducting at the Royal Academy of Music in England, predicted that evenly divided classes would emerge in conservatories over the next 20 or 30 years.

When Ms. Alsop received a MacArthur grant in 2005, she gave the money toward the endowment of the Taki Concordia Fellowship for female conductors, which she had founded in 2002. (This year’s winner, Karina Canellakis, was just named assistant conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.) Ms. Edwards is participating in a new pilot course at Morley College, a popular continuing-education center in London, aimed at encouraging teenage girls studying music to learn about, and try conducting.

All we can do, other than wait and hope that certain men keep their mouths shut, is foster opportunities like these for young women and put pressure on orchestras and opera companies to push further toward gender equity. Musicians, too, should demand the chance to play under women as much as possible. And if major donors made a point of the issue in their meetings with administrators, I suspect that the numbers would really start rising.

“The processes are slow,” Ms. Edwards said. “But they are there and they are moving.”