Among the headline events for the 2013-14 season of Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series, announced on Tuesday, is an appearance by the French conductor Emmanuelle Haïm and her period ensemble Le Concert d'Astrée. While the program itself is noteworthy – Handel's rarely-performed cantata, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, on Oct. 27 – just as significant is the fact that Haïm is one of just two women conductors scheduled to appear on New York's major concert series next season.
With most of the city’s large concert halls and orchestras having announced their next seasons, only one other woman orchestra conductor is currently booked for the year: Susanna Mälkki, from Finland, who will lead a single program by Ensemble ACJW at Carnegie Hall on May 10, 2014. (A December performance by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus at the Walter Reade Theater will be led by its conductor, Dianne Berkun.)
The numbers are largely consistent with recent seasons in New York, meaning that women conductors remain a tiny minority. The League of American Orchestras, a service organization, reports that 20 percent of its member conductors are female. The majority of them work for smaller-budget and youth orchestras, however, and that number includes assistant and substitute conductors.
With New York being a destination for top-rank orchestras, audiences here seldom encounter up-and-comers like Mei-Ann Chen, who has led the Memphis Symphony since 2010, or Laura Jackson, who came to the Reno Philharmonic in 2009. The Baltimore Symphony remains the one big-budget orchestra to have a woman music director in Marin Alsop, who has been a regular guest in New York.
Inevitable questions arise as they have many times in the past: why aren't there more women conductors? What, if any, impediments stand in their way?
Evidence suggests that slowly more young women are entering the field. Fifty-four out of the 400 applicants for this year's Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Germany are women. Three out of the 20 shortlisted candidates for the London Symphony Orchestra's Donatella Flick Conducting Competition in September were women including Gemma New, who is a 27-year-old assistant conductor at the New Jersey Symphony. Altogether, about 15 percent of young international competitors are women.
But the ranks of women thin out the higher you go in the business. At the top level of artist management agencies, Columbia Artists Management Inc. (CAMI) has 58 conductors, of whom three are women. At the other agencies, only four of IMG Artists' 97 conductors are female, while Harrison Parrott has five out of 46, and Opus 3 Artists has three out of 46. These agencies tend to represent a pool of conductors from which major orchestras draw their artistic leaders.
In 2007, Haïm (at right, and pronounced aye-YEEM) became the first woman ever to conduct at Lyric Opera of Chicago. At the time she told the Chicago Tribune that the relative dearth of female conductors, at least in Europe, has a lot to do with traditional societal expectations of women – namely, that they stay home and raise children. "As a conductor, you travel a lot and study music perhaps more than any other performer does," she said. "A man is used to being supported and helped, but a woman more often has to do it on her own. How, then, would a family exist?"
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Photo: © Simon Fowler/Virgin Classics