On Major Podiums, Still a Man's World?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Woman conductor (Shutterstock.com)

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?


Brian Wise


More in:

Comments [27]

Andy B. from Lower Merion, PA

I am not a fan of this male-female war/competition/discrimination battle, or whatever you want to call it.

I prefer to think people are free thinkers, and if they are successful at and have an inclination for something they will prevail. Marin Alsop and Joanne Falletta are cases in point for conductors, but so are the fair ranks of female virtuosi - Hilary Hahn, Martha Argerich, Alicia deLarrocha, Mitsuko Uchida, Anne-Sofie Mutter, Kyung Wha Chung, Tasmin Little, to name a very short list of the very highest profiles.

I don't like the term under-represented because that's automatically making a judgment about what is "proper" representation--if women were more talented and more inclined towards international conducting careers then I would expect them to be seen more frequently than men. The bottom line is that classical music is a rough business--exhausting travel, relentless practice, surprises left and right, no consistent comraderie--and I can easily understand why a woman would be less inclined to the lifestyle. Almost no chance at having a stable family life, children, etc. Anyone who is/was/knows a woman who was pregnant I'm sure can easily relate. I can't understand how so many men are able to do this--very few have family lives (Gil Shaham being one exceptions) or else they eventually slow the rigorous traveling to have more personal time. Refer to interviews with Simone Dinerstein, who has a family and has spoken on the subject of juggling priorities. That being said, I support all the efforts of women conductors and performers who can make it work.

I truly enjoy the work of Alsop, Falletta, and many female performers and composers. I go to concerts for the music and soloists, not so much for the conductor (quality, in my opinion, is more driven by the orchestra than the conductor anyway). Let's stop griping about who's on the podium, or who is the composer or performer and just enjoy the music.

Oct. 29 2013 03:35 PM
concetta nardone

I sometimes wonder if I would have done things differently had I been born when the women's movement was in full swing. In my world, everything was family. I am not complaining. In life you get what you get and make the best of it.

Oct. 29 2013 03:00 PM
Concetta nardone

Women are still not being encouraged to enter this field. I might be wrong. Music is a very tough and challenging field. Can a woman have it all? Career, children, husband? Do not think so. We still want to raise our children and not entrust them to nannies, boarding school. What about resentful husbands. Supper is not ready? etc. etc. This feeling I have is probably due to the fact that I am old and from an earlier time.

Oct. 29 2013 11:17 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front Roya, Va.

Richard, here are some facts of life. Conductors must travel extensively in-order to have steady work. Most cannot support themselves staying in one location. I do not want to appear sexist, however if a woman wants to have a family it is a lot easier for her economically to focus on a seat in a local symphony or opera orchestra as a member of the orchestra. Many skilled classical musicians can obtain teaching positions in local colleges and universities and also have an opportunity to supplement their performance income through private lessons or an affiliation with a regional music school.
It is easier for most men to endure the travel responsibilities that come with a conducting career. This is one artistic area where it is very difficult for a woman to have it all. Of course if she wants to devote her life to conducting and is ready to make the necessary sacrifices and travel extensively I see no reason that a skilled female conductor cannot climb the ladder into the podium of nationally and internationally known orchestras.
As someone who has adopted and raised a back Vietnamese orphan I find your analogy to be very presumptuous and ignorant. However the standard fallback position when a liberal does not like what he/or she hears is to bring up the race card, regardless of whom they are addressing. It just goes to show how ignorant you really are. When logic fails call the person a racist. I guess you have learned a lot from watching MSNBC, they are masters of the race card, but thus far even a liberal public radio station like WQXR has not fallen into that trap. It is a shame some of their listeners have. Shame on you sir. " love me love me love me I'm a liberal" Phil Oachs circa 1960 Charles Fischbein

Oct. 28 2013 08:58 PM
reder01 from Salt Lake City

I have one beef about JoAnn Falletta of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO). Well, not about her, because she is one of the outstanding American conductors on the symphonic scene today. But my complaint is about radio classical music announcers (I am not referring to anyone at WQXR)who think her name should be spelled, "Falledda," at least that is the way they pronounce it! One of the biggest offenders is Fred Child of Performance Today. Similarly, there are many announcers who think that Zubin Mehta's last name is "Mehda."

Oct. 28 2013 05:13 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

In the past I have cringed when social commentary started to invade the inner sanctum of music, but this time I've got ask the same question, "Where are the female conductors?" Orchestras are full of female virtuosi. Surely any of them could rise to the podium.

I can only recall one composer of any note: Felix Mendelsohn's sister Fanny. I'm sure there are others.

Why doesn't QXR have a special on female composers and conductors? Or are females relegated to the same forgotten folder as John Philip Sousa?

Oct. 28 2013 09:57 AM

The comment re. Ms. Higdon was in reference to this thread -- women conductors.

In a quick Google of Ms. Higdon, I have not seen that she has conducted any Operas in major venues, if at all.. Please let me know if my search is incomplete.

Not women Opera (why random capitalization?) conductors.

Oct. 28 2013 03:15 AM
David from Flushing

Classical music has long had divisions based on gender. Most people could not mention the name of a female composer. There are definitely traditional "male" and "female" instruments. Seeing a woman percussionist or brass player would raise some eyebrows even today. A male harpist would be equally a surprise. I agree with the last statement of the article, but not for the reasons intended.

Oct. 27 2013 04:20 PM
Richard Hall

Not wanting to appear sexist and actually avoiding doing so are clearly two different things as Mr. F. from Front Royal clearly illustrates. His comments can only remind one of the former baseball executive who said there were so few black managers because they lacked the "necessaries" to hold such a position. Such generalizations are, as they say, odious no matter in what field they appear.

Oct. 27 2013 02:35 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

"I do not want to appear sexist ... but the skill set needed to coordinate music with singing, on stage acting, and even changes in lighting, require split second precision."

Hahahaha! That's a hip slapper.

Chuckles, stop checking your jeans covered crotch for growth every time you dump on women.

Geez, (not JESUS for the overtly and ostentatiously devout amongst us) I remember when Shirley Muldowney regularly whipped the ass (jeans covered?) of "Big Daddy" Don Garlits in that ultimate manly man sport of drag racing. She could watch the "Christmas tree" lights and achieve that "split second precision" that seemed beyond the man hindered capabilities of "Big Daddy."

Does no one want to call BS on a BS professional? This ain't a Sunday talk show to be dominated by lying right wing professionals selected by a billionaire run right wing media.

"Q," if you decide that this post isn't appropriate, check some of the ad hominem posts by the former "cellostudent."

What a shower (pardon my French).

Oct. 27 2013 12:02 PM



Oct. 26 2013 06:26 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

In a quick Google of Ms. Higdon, I have not seen that she has conducted any Operas in major venues, if at all.. Please let me know if my search is incomplete.
The intricacies of conducting an Opera are much more difficult that conducting orchestral pieces.
I do not want to appear sexist, it may be a correct assumption that many female conductors have not had an opportunity to conduct at major Opera venues, but the skill set needed to coordinate music with singing, on stage acting, and even changes in lighting, require split second precision.
My present Cello teacher performs with several major Opera Companies and we have discussed in depth, during my private composition lessons, how much more difficult it is for a conductor and even a concert master and principle cellist to perform an Opera than a symphonic piece of music.
In time perhaps there will be more highly skilled female opera conductors, but for now the ranks are rather thin. If what took place at the Washington National Opera last week is any indication of a major female symphonic conductor cutting her teeth on a Verdi Opera is indicitative of the talent pool, it may be a very long time before women take regular roataions at major Opera Houses. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Oct. 26 2013 09:09 AM
R. Greene

Though mostly known for her composing, Jennifer Higdon has held a baton or two in her career. A wonderful and fascinating musical personality.

Oct. 25 2013 09:20 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Just found the date of her first Met appearance it was in 1976, however most of her Opera conducting in North America, aside from her Boston company, was at The New York City Opera. Regardless she has stood the test of time and is considered a gifted conductor. May she rest in peace. Thanks for the heads up. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Oct. 25 2013 02:22 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

I did in fact forget what a skilled conductor she was. I have looked at the Metropolitan Opera's extensive website, and have not been able to find her listed as a conductor, I will continue seeking information on her tenure at the Met, and once found, I would love to listen to her recordings if they are still available.
I fear however that she may be the exception to the rule.

Oct. 25 2013 02:10 PM

Let us not forget the late, great Sarah Caldwell of Boston Opera fame and, for a couple of seasons, the Met. Her Boston Opera Orchestra consisted primarily of members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and they certainly respected her. I remember a dress rehearsal of "L'Elisir d'Amore" with a young and oh-so-wonderful Jose Carreras at the Met as possibly the best performance I've ever experienced of that opera, and it was the irresistable excitement she whipped up in the pit that made it so.

Oct. 25 2013 12:53 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

While having morning coffee I read the recent review of the second cast of Washington National Opera's, La Forza del Destino, ( I saw it at Kennedy Center with first cast.)
Anne Midgette, The Washington Posts classical music and opera critic had the following to say about the conducting of Xian Zhang, and it fits directly into this article.
"The only shift in quality of Xian Zhang's conducting which had declined from not great to awful, she conducted faster and more heedlessly, muddying details of the score and leaving singers scrambling to catch up. She conducted with no sense of Verdi's line or the emotional content of what was happening onstage above her. I could speculate that she had grown more comfortable with the score and therefore less careful."
Conducting an opera, is much different than conducting a symphony. Francesca Zambello, the new WNO General and Artistic Director picked one of her own gender to conduct this Verdi Opera, and she fell flat on her face. I could not imagine the conducting being worse than it was the night I saw the production.
Zhang is considered a prime female conductor, and even she destroyed this challenging Verdi score.
Perhaps it is not yet time for very many female conductors to take the challenge of conducting a complex opera. In time maybe, but of Ms. Xhang's performance at WNO was an indication of the skills of female conductors, it does not bode well for aspiring female opera conductors.

Oct. 25 2013 09:06 AM

Dear WQXR online editors,

Please capitalize Are in your online headline. It may be a 'little' word, but as the verb, it's very important.

Thank you,


Oct. 25 2013 01:58 AM

... Thank-you "RP from New York City" for your comment about our JoAnn Falletta of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO). She's amazing & does lead several other major orchestras in the U.S. Having worked for "Billboard Magazine" 15-yrs. in L.A., Vegas-&-here in the Bflo./Rochester, NY markets & now, as "Editor-in-Chief" of "Glam Magazine," I've experienced her talents as a reporter/writer & T1 with the Bflo. Gay Men's Chorus (BGMC). BGMC performed with her several years ago & she was so welcoming, professional. I recently reviewed long-time friend/Broadway star Bernadette Peters, who opened the BPO's "Pops Season" & the orchestra never sounded better. We are very fortunate to have her here in Bflo./Niagara-&-WNY!!!

Oct. 24 2013 10:42 PM
Charles Fischbein from Fronr Royal, Va.

"Women make most of the purchasing decisions when it comes to concert tickets"
Come on Bernie, Mr? UWS< get out of your pantyhose and put your jeans back on, act like a man. God Speed, Charles Fischbein Front Royal, Va. Where Men are Men

Oct. 24 2013 09:12 PM

To S Daniel from Ireland: What's your point exactly???


Oct. 24 2013 08:38 PM
Bernie from UWS

Orchestras are running scared at a time when deficits are up and donations are down. They're not about to rock the boat with formats or leadership styles. Yes, many of them are hiring young conductors but that's a lot less risky (in their eyes) than hiring a woman. Ironically, women make most of the purchasing decisions when it comes to concert tickets in households and they might be drawn in by having a woman on the podium.

Oct. 24 2013 07:30 PM
RP from NYC

re: Joan Mckniff from Sarasota. You forgot something.... the name of your new conductor. Best wishes to her.

Oct. 24 2013 06:51 PM
joan mckniff from Sarasota

We not huge but we're good, Sarasota Orchestra, and our new conductor, a female starts w us this year!

Oct. 24 2013 06:38 PM
RP from New York City

I do believe you have left out one of the USA's important woman conductors... JoAnn Falletta of the Buffalo Philharmonic. Why don't you check out her biography on BPO 2013-2014 and find out what she has accomplished.
And please answer me this question -Why has she not conducted one of the top orchestras in New York City?
Seems she conducted the London Proms some time before Marin Alsop did. It also appears that she has conducted in many orchestras in many cities around the world. So why have only the listeners to WQXR heard of her and not the general public ? Are the males in the music business afraid of more competition than from only one female?
I have met Alsop and heard her conduct and she is terrific, but does that mean another woman in the field is going to frighten her? I think the men are beginning to run scared.

Just pay attention to the violinists today. The women far outplay the men... Maybe the male conductors should be scared. Women are showing what they can do and will no longer sit in the dark. Ladies, get yourselves some good publicists who know what they are doing and can get the talented conductors in front of great orchestras. Or are there no more great women who can hold that position? I refuse to believe that.

Oct. 24 2013 06:33 PM
Elaine Bergman from New Jersey

And,what about Jane Glover?

Oct. 24 2013 05:25 PM
S Daniel from Ireland

I experienced one female conductor at the Vienna Opera House a few years ago. I attended two performances of the same opera. She was a very bad conductor. Drowned out the singers, lost the tempo, distracted completely from the dramatic and musical flow of the opera. She was a bad conductor not because she was female but simply because she was a bad conductor. I had traveled some distance to see that opera and was quite put out that the experience had been about 80% ruined. I don't know how that all happened, but she wasn't bad because she was female; the two things just happened to come together.

Oct. 24 2013 05:23 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About Conducting Business

WQXR looks deeper into the issues affecting the classical music landscape. 

Conducting Business is hosted by Naomi Lewin and produced by Brian Wise.

subscribe to Conducting Business

Listen to Stitcher