Marin Alsop, the first woman to lead a major American orchestra, never wants to talk about being a woman conductor again. “I think I speak for everyone I know when I say that one more question about being a woman conductor and I’m going to be ill,” she tells me. Another one she’s tired of is about how it feels to be the first woman to get a particular gig. When Alsop broke that barrier at the Last Night of the BBC Proms in 2013, she famously said she was shocked that there can still be firsts for women. Eight years on, we keep celebrating firsts for women conductors. A new generation is planning to change that.
As outright misogyny becomes less socially acceptable, a secondary, and perhaps more sinister, problem has arisen: that of perceived possibility. Not one of the conductors interviewed for this story had seen a woman on the podium while growing up. Since men were the only conductors for centuries, it took time for women to even allow themselves to think that they could, in fact, stand on the podium and lead an orchestra. British conductor Sian Edwards, Head of Conducting at the Royal Academy of Music in London, has noticed more women coming forward in the last ten years. “Before, they weren’t really putting themselves forward. Which meant that they were often behind their male colleagues when it came to auditioning for a place like the Academy because they just hadn’t put themselves out there to do as much as the boys had,” she says.
Besides this exposure gap, women conductors also face discrimination behind the scenes. In 1998, American conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson won the Jorge Mester Conducting Scholarship to attend the Aspen Music Festival. She auditioned for several orchestras, reached the final round of the process three times—but never got the job. In 2007, nine years after going to Aspen, two years after winning the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship (the first Black woman to do so), she received some rare feedback: “The search committee chairperson, who was very kind, told me that the orchestra really enjoyed my conducting and the board thought I was talented, had a lot of great ideas and would be good to work with,” she says. “They just didn’t know how to market me. I didn’t understand what that meant. So I questioned him further and he said: ‘You don’t look like what our audience expects the conductor to look like.’”
This discrimination—sometimes blatant, often subtle—has led established women conductors with decades of industry experience to collectively step up to help their colleagues. Alsop founded the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship in 2002 to promote talented women conductors at the beginning of their careers. Her philosophy, adopted from her friend and mentor Tomio Taki, has been: It was tough for me, so I wanted to make it easier for you. Across the Atlantic, British conductors Alice Farnham and Andrea Brown co-founded Women Conductors in 2014, an award-winning program which is now being supported by the Royal Philharmonic Society. It provides a range of courses that are aimed to give women the tools needed to conduct, ranging from absolute beginners to professional musicians.
A few years ago, Sian Edwards noticed that few women were making it to the Master’s level at the Royal Academy of Music, and when they did, weren’t adequately prepared to face the competitiveness. She decided to start the Sorrell Women Conductors Programme. “It was about offering women who are interested in doing a master’s the chance to really sharpen up and understand, from somebody like myself and my colleagues, what they needed to do to get to that level where they were really competitive,” she says. Edwards will mentor aspiring conductors in the recently announced Opera North’s ten-week-long female conductor traineeship; she is seeing a systemic change in the way organizations are dealing with the dearth of women on the podium. “It’s an absolutely wonderful thing that a professional opera company is saying: ‘OK, we see a lot of very good young women, but they’re often not quite as ready as some of the young men for us to be able to hire them professionally, so let’s give somebody the opportunity to be with the company, sit in our rehearsals, really soak up the atmosphere and understand what we’re doing. And then they probably will be ready when we need somebody to assist us,’” Edwards tells me. “It’s a marvelous stepping stone.”
French conductor Claire Gibault, the first woman to lead the La Scala Orchestra, has said she was left aghast when a male conductor, serving on the jury with her for an international conducting competition, said that women’s arms were made for holding babies and not conducting orchestras. Gibault, who is the founder and artistic and music director of the Paris Mozart Orchestra, responded to this comment by cofounding the La Maestra International Competition for Women Conductors in 2020. “It is not just a matter of women, it is a matter of men and women. It is also a question of social justice,” she says.
These initiatives are designed to help women not only learn the basics and nuances of conducting but also acquire ancillary skills that are essential to leading an orchestra. According to Edwards, being tough is mandatory. “People expect you, as a woman, to perhaps soak up more of the tension and the difficulties, and also don’t necessarily trust you to come up with the solutions and the answers. So I think that is difficult,” she says. The Sorrell Women Conductors Programme includes leadership seminars and resilience training in addition to workshops and mentoring sessions on the technical aspects of conducting. The Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors at the Dallas Opera in the US teaches applicants to select the right artist manager and work with opera management. It also holds sessions on fundraising, personal branding, media management, and more.
But the most important thing a young conductor needs is actual experience in front of a professional orchestra. The Taki Alsop fellowship provides intensive coaching and mentoring with Alsop and other professionals, which, according to 2015 fellow Valentina Peleggi, involves a lot of time working with an orchestra. In the process, Peleggi learned how to anticipate where problems might arise and how to fix them in rehearsal. The latest chapter of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Women Conductors program will include a series of collaborative sessions over two years with the Royal Northern Sinfonia. Opera North’s traineeship will include conducting opportunities in rehearsals over the full opera season, mentoring by Opera North’s Music staff and guest conductors, and engaging with their education and outreach programs.
Also essential to finding success as a conductor is resilience and self-belief. After completing her studies at the Paris Conservatory, Gibault started working at the Lyon Opera. “I stayed at the Lyon Opera for almost 27 years, going from assistant to permanent conductor and conducting 90 performances a year,” she says. The path was not easy. “At the very beginning, I conducted what the men didn’t want to conduct—children’s operas, contemporary music, operettas, anything that wasn’t of a high prestige,” she says. Johnson, who eventually started the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra in Philadelphia, adds, “I always tell young musicians that talent is one thing, but being a musician—like a composer or a conductor—is like being in a war of attrition. Whoever lasts the longest wins.”
The impact of women-centric conducting initiatives can be wide-reaching. For Johnson, winning the Taki Alsop Fellowship was a sign from the universe to keep going. “It came along at a time when I was about to just give up conducting. It’s exhausting for any musician—the audition process and the constant rejection can be emotionally draining,” she says. Rebecca Tong, resident conductor of Jakarta Simfonia Orchestra and artistic director and music director of Ensemble Kontemporer, tells me: “The Taki Alsop Fellowship carries Marin’s name and has a certain weight and character that goes with it. I [can] say, with utter confidence, it has helped to boost my conducting career.” Tong, who also won the inaugural edition of La Maestra Competition in September 2020, says the exposure from the competition has brought many opportunities her way.
The domino effect of initiatives which put talented women on the podium is already changing the landscape of classical music. Women conductors seem more likely to make efforts to bring classical music to varied groups of people. Most of the Taki Alsop awardees have gone on to create initiatives of their own that are inclusive and purpose-driven: Take Johnson’s Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, Lina Gonzalez-Granados’s Unitas Ensemble, and Lidiya Yankovskaya’s Refugee Orchestra. Alsop agrees. “It is such a testament to their basic goodness as human beings and also, it is a real testament to how women view their roles in society. We don’t see our role as singularly linear. We see it as inclusive. When we have the opportunities to collaborate or to partner or to further a cause that is close to us, we are able to see how that’s possible,” she says.
Diversity among musicians on the stage can change the community an orchestra serves. “When people see themselves reflected in a participatory way, they are more likely to participate,” says Johnson. Her orchestra has musicians who are Black, Latinx, of various Asian ethnicities, and of various European and American backgrounds. This, she believes, allows them to perform a wide variety of repertoire and provide a richer experience. “The issue is dispelling this myth of the inverse relationship between artistic excellence and diversity,” she says.
Critics claim that the more we talk about race, gender, social justice, equality and representation, the less we talk about music. Alsop refuses to entertain the thought. “Somehow the industry has managed for centuries to not talk about equality, to not talk about race, to not talk about diversity, to play music from a very narrow swathe of creators—the majority being 99 percent male, 99 percent white. And it’s not as though there weren’t others to draw from. They chose not to,” she says. That music needs to be pure, not political, is a fallacy. “Think about Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3,” says Johnson. “When Napoleon declared himself Emperor and Beethoven felt like Napoleon had betrayed the ideals of equality, fraternity and democracy, he scratched his name out from the dedication. That was political.”
When James Murphy, then Managing Director of the Southbank Sinfonia, released a “10-minute provocation” in 2017 to talk about a collective unconscious bias against female conductors and ways to deal with it, he noted how this was not “a woman’s issue.” As Johnson puts it, “You have to fix people-problems with people-solutions. The music is not the problem.” ¶