On Major Podiums, Still a Man's World?

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The absence of women conductors at the world’s top orchestras is no longer news, but it stands out more every year, as women scale male bastions in business, sports and entertainment. Of the 20 largest orchestras in the U.S., only the Baltimore Symphony has a woman music director: Marin Alsop, who last month made history as the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms concert in its nearly 120-year history.

In New York this season, women conductors are noticeably scarce, their scheduled appearances countable on one hand. A similar male-to-female ratio can be found in London.

But that’s not to say that there's a lack of women conductors in the field. Recently, the British journalist and author Jessica Duchen compiled a list of more than 100 women conductors. “It’s quite clear to me that there are plenty of women conductors but they’re just not getting the top gigs,” she tells host Naomi Lewin in this podcast.

Many of the women on Duchen’s list are not recent college graduates or newcomers, but mid-career conductors, well at the point where a major podium is theoretically in reach. Some, like the conductor and harpsichordist Emmanuelle Haïm, have found that the niche of early-music remains an easier entry point.

“Early music is more of a collaborative effort,” said Haïm (right), who this Saturday conducts her ensemble, Le Concert d’Astrée, at Lincoln Center's White Light Festival. “Therefore you shock fewer people maybe in that field.” By contrast, when faced with 19th century masterworks, the principal of male power is deeply ingrained in the conductor mythology. “If I had gone that path it would have been much harder for me to conquest those bastions."

Some recent, highly-publicized remarks suggest that prejudice is alive and well in the business. The young Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko told a Norwegian newspaper, perhaps ironically, that orchestras simply play better for men, and that “a sweet girl on the podium can make one’s thoughts drift towards something else.”

And Bruno Mantovani, the head of the Paris Conservatory, recently made headlines when he said in a radio interview that conducting is too demanding for women: “The profession of a conductor is a profession that is particularly physically testing. Sometimes women are discouraged by the very physical aspect – conducting, taking a plane, taking another plane, conducting again. It is quite challenging.”

Duchen believes that this reflects wider obstacles in music schools and conservatories. “Several of the women conductors that I have interviewed say they were deliberately deterred at college level,” she said. “There were people at the institutions where they wanted to study who actively tried to put them off.”

Charlotte Lee, a vice president and artist manager at IMG Artists, sees less evidence that sexism is widespread in the classical music business, and believes that hiring boils down to questions of supply and demand. “I don’t feel that female conductors tend to get hired or not hired based solely on anything other than their talent,” she said. “The artistic programmers that I work with, at least, tend to hire you based on your talent.”

While many in the classical music business prefer not to talk about gender prejudice, Lee and Haïm both acknowledge that double standards exist. Orchestras have been known to ask woman conductors to change their hairstyle or tone down a style of dress. But Haim believes there are deeper societal questions at work too.

“Behind a great man, there is always a great woman – or another great man,” Haim said. “It’s somebody helping out. As a woman, it’s more difficult because it puts the man accompanying you in a difficult position. Socially speaking they are looked at as weird.”

Lee believes classical music will ultimately be forced to keep in step with society at large. “As time goes on we’ll have fewer firsts in general,” she said. “I should hope in 10 years we won’t be having this conversation.”

Listen to the full discussion above and tell us below what you think: has there been adequate progress for women conductors?