Laziness, cynicism and hypocrisy? The hard truth about the “why are there no women conductors?” question

The music world has reacted this week with a mixture of genuine moral outrage and cynical Schadenfreude to one conductor’s recent take on the place of women in the conducting world.

For all the howls of indignation, what I haven’t seen from most people writing about the issue is a knowledge of the talents, achievements and potential of almost any actual women conductors other than the current music director of the Baltimore Symphony (very occasionally someone mentions the current conductor of the Hamburg Opera), whose name has been mentioned in virtually every news and opinion item related to the story so far, including the retraction/apology issued by the conductor whose comments started the whole conversation.

I’m reminded of the days when, as a young person, I used to find myself visiting parts of the deep South (my parents are both from Atlanta) and I’d be shocked to hear so many otherwise apparently respectable people sitting around in supposedly polite company talking about how all the ills of society, from the schools to the streets, were being caused by “the blacks.” When I finally got old enough and brave enough to call them out on their casual racism, they would always explain that they weren’t really racist because they had the utmost respect for this or that specific black person- always one off a small list of candidates.  “I’m not prejudiced black people- some of them do great things! I have tons of respect for Bill Cosby!” they would protest, very occasionally substituting Martin Luther King Jr or Sidney Poitier.

Although the context and the conversation here are substantially different, too many people on all sides of this debate are too content to sit back and say “I have tons of respect  for women conductors- the current music director of the Baltimore Symphony is great!”

I’ve only met the current music director of the Baltimore Symphony once when I was student, but I feel confident in guessing that at this stage of her career, being the one name everyone seems to grab for when desperate to mention a woman conductor they respect is getting old. That’s why I’ve left her name out of this blog post.

I think that many people writing about this issue, proclaiming the viability and importance of women on the podium, need to get beyond the “Bill Cosby” clause and get out there and get to know the work of some other women conductors.

The music press have been behind the curve on this issue for a long time. I think it’s the height of laziness for any journalist to ask the seemingly ubiquitous question: “why are there no women conductors?” Of course there are women conductors! Why don’t you know who they are and where they are working? “It’s not us,” say the question-askers in their own defense “We’re totally well-informed on women conductors- we love the current music director of the Baltimore Symphony!”

I thought long and hard about creating a list of great women colleagues here, but as a performer myself, I try not to get into the slippery business of ranking my peers, and I’d feel awful if I caused hurt to a friend or student by omitting their name, and it’s very awkward an probably unfair for one performer to write critically about another. This is really work for a journalist.

So, dear music journalists, here is your challenge: write a feature article profiling at least 20 to 30 women conductors working today.

Many of my brilliantly gifted female colleagues know all-too-well the frustration of trying to get a critic to come to their concert or trying to get their latest CD reviewed. Find them- pay attention to them! Get out there, dear journalists, and please get beyond the absolute top-tier of major orchestras. If you want to know who is really up and coming, you’ve got to look at youth orchestras, community orchestras, university groups, new music ensembles, collectives and people in minor staff positions. Of course, there are a lot of important and well-established women conductors in the field making major professional careers other than the current music director of the Baltimore Symphony. Don’t forget them. Your list should include conductors at all stages of career and life.

If you really want to see more gender equity on the podiums of the great orchestras around the world, ask what you can do to bring new names and new talents into the conversation.

In doing so, let’s try to avoid looking for a prototype- find a diverse array of individuals. Let’s try to avoid treating these individuals as if everyone were equally gifted and meritorious just because they were female. Far too many people in this industry are afraid to say anything critical about any woman conductor for fear of appearing sexist. This does nobody any favors- there are many, many female conductors out there capable of delivering superb performances of the broadest array of rep. You’re not helping them find their place and their path in the field if you’re afraid to constructively criticize other women who aren’t able to deliver the musical goods.

But Ken, you may say- weren’t you the one just the other day saying “don’t call them women conductors, just call them conductors?” Now you’re telling us to go hunting women conductors.

Well- here’s the thing. As long as Bill Cosby is the only black person one knows by name, it’s pretty easy for anyone else with similar skin color to simply be one of “the blacks.”  I’m quite confident that if you really take the time to go to the rehearsals and concerts of a truly diverse group of women conductors, you’ll find that their gender and profession are the only things they have in common. You’ll find a group of individuals with distinct and diverse personalities and skill sets, some who excel in Elgar, others who flounder in Franck, but may persuade in Panufnik. You’ll see leaders of great personal charm and hard-nosed bullies. You’ll meet alcoholics and yoga fanatics. You may end up writing a feature piece for one of the music magazines on “thirty women conductors who are not currently music director of the Baltimore Symphony,” but next time you think of or encounter no. 17 on the list, you may just find yourself remembering them not as number 17, but as “the conductor who galvanized a county youth orchestra into a truly memorable performance of Mahler 1.”

And, hopefully, you won’t even notice that you just caught yourself calling them a “conductor,” and not a “woman conductor” after all.

UPDATE- Journalist extraordinaire Jessica Duchen has been tweeting a wonderfully extensive list of talented female conductors who are not currently the music director of the Baltimore Symphony. I’ll try to paste that list below.

 

  1. .@jessicaduchen And the wonderful if deceptively named Laurence Equilby. A brilliant choral conductor. #Accentus

  2. @TobyDeller @jessicaduchen @hollyjmathieson Did anyone mention Tania Miller of Victoria (Canada) ?

  3. @Capriccioblog He’s doing Rosenkavalier next summer – will be really interested to hear that.

     

  4. @jessicaduchen @kennethwoods Anne Manson. Iona Brown(RIP).

  5. @jessicaduchen Sarah Ioannides was born in Oz but grew up in the UK and now is based in the US. http://sarahioannides.net/  #womenconductors

  6. @JohnofOz Got ’em both. Interested that more people have tweeted back with Jessica Cottis’s name than anyone else’s.

  7. Another queen of the early music sphere: Jeanne Lamon of Tafelmusik http://www.tafelmusik.org/about/orchestra/bios/jeanne-lamon … (thanks, @JohnGilks)

  8. @jessicaduchen Ewa Strusinska spent some time @the_halle and now works internationally from Poland http://www.ewastrusinska.com  #womenconductors

  9. And please welcome, from Australia, the amazingly named @KellyLovelady http://kellylovelady.com/ 

  10. The extraordinary and incredible Emmanuelle Haim! http://www.leconcertdastree.fr/  (thanks again, @JohnBroggio)

  11. Susanna Malkki, principal conductor of the Gulbenkian Orchestra, Portugal: http://www.harrisonparrott.com/artist/profile/susanna-malkki … (thanks @JohnBroggio)

  12. Here is Sian Edwards’s website. She is head of conducting at the Royal Academy of Music. http://www.ingpen.co.uk/artist/sian-edwards/ …

  13. @JohnBroggio you just beat me to it as I found Jane Glover’s website! 🙂

  14. Let’s not forget arch-Mozartian Jane Glover: http://www.janeglover.co.uk/ 

  15. @prima_donnaanna 🙂 brilliant. Proves there are plenty of them to tweet about!

  16. And there’s @niallewelynj, young conductor being nurtured by CBSO among others

  17. @jessicaduchen Let’s not forget that the Ulster Orchestra has a female music director, JoAnn Falletta?

  18. @prima_donnaanna yes, she was absolutely up there in my second tweet!

  19. So, that was 7, without even trying very hard.

  20. Simone Young is extremely well-established on the international circuit http://www.simoneyoung.com/titel/ 

  21. Yes, we need more women conductors. How about some orchestras booking them? I can suggest some. First, Zoi Tsokanou. http://www.zoitsokanou.com/ 

     

    @kennethwoods @KellyLovelady Great post! Add Rosemary Thomson, Music Director @OkSymphonyOrch (British Columbia, Canada)

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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4 comments on “Laziness, cynicism and hypocrisy? The hard truth about the “why are there no women conductors?” question”

  1. Peter Fender

    I was on a conducting course in Italy earlier this year. The proportions were about 3/4 male and 1/4 female amongst the students. But the standard of the female conductors was in general a good bit higher than that of the male conductors. I wonder if that could represent something happening more widely (my sample of a couple of dozen conductors is admittedly rather small!) … because if it does then we will reach a situation where all types of orchestra just have to sit up and take note of women conductors.

  2. Petia

    I definitely agree, we take not of the big names but there are more women conductors out there. We just don’t pay attention to them because they don’t run the Baltimore Symphony.

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