Women Conductors - Why So Few?

By Hodgson, Anna | Contemporary Review, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Women Conductors - Why So Few?


Hodgson, Anna, Contemporary Review


If you are not a despot, sexually voracious, power-obsessed, long-lived and as fit as a marathon runner, don't bother to apply. The job? Conductor of a symphony orchestra. At least that is the myth we are asked to believe and according to Norman Lebrecht in The Maestro Myth the myth that the audiences, the orchestras and the music business have created. In order to bring music to the mass market a god-like intermediary is required.

It is hardly surprising that women conductors have had little success in overcoming this last bastion of male supremacy. In an age where almost any product can be marketed and women soloists, instrumentalists and singers are being promoted with all the hype previously reserved for pop stars, there has been a singular failure to market this particular product.

It's not that there aren't any women conductors of note. In April 1998 Andrea Quinn was appointed Music Director of the Royal Ballet. Anne Manson has recently been appointed the new music director of the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra for the 1999 season, Sian Edwards reigned briefly as Music Director of the English National Opera and Jane Glover and Odaline de la Martinez both have international careers and have conducted at the Proms. But none of the large self-governing British orchestras has a woman in the top job.

According to Janna Hymes-Bianchi, the newly appointed associate conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the problem is not with the audiences or even the orchestras themselves but with the boards and committees who appoint the musical directors. 'In my experience,' she says, 'it is the upper administrations and board members who feel it is risky and possibly dangerous to hire women music directors.'

Women conductors are not a recent development. As early as the 1860s the Viennese violinist Marie Gruner was appointed conductor of Vienna's Ludwig Morelli Orchestra, a triumph that seems to have inspired Joseph Strauss to write the Polka, Die Emanzipierte (op 282). A century later, in 1960, to give but one example, Veronika Dudarova was appointed chief conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. She has had a distinguished career mainly in Eastern Europe. She says she has a 'preference for large-scale works with complex philosophical content'. Western audiences will now have a welcome opportunity to hear her sensitive conducting in a new two-CD set of Tchaikovsky Overtures and Fantasies (Olympia OCD 512 A+B).

Odaline de la Martinez, the first woman to conduct at the Proms and founder of the Lontano Chamber Orchestra and the European Women's Orchestra, also believes that sexual discrimination exists at management level even though women conductors are often reluctant to admit it because to admit discrimination is perceived as failure.

What is it these boards fear? Odaline feels it is to do with an often subconscious belief that women 'look funny' on the podium and more importantly cannot exercise the necessary control. They are concerned that orchestras 'may grow wild or misbehave."When you are up against that sort of prejudice,' she says, 'what chance have you got?'

There is little justification for these fears. There is no doubt orchestras can be guilty of bolshie behaviour. It takes a mere ten minutes in the first rehearsal, it is commonly said, for an experienced orchestra to decide what they think of a new conductor. If this is the case it seems acceptance is based on personality, talent and 'chemistry.' The gender of the conductor is not going to make much difference. When Sian Edwards was appointed Musical Director of the English National Opera any difficulties she personally encountered with the orchestra were more to do with her youth and inexperience in dealing with players rather than with sexual discrimination. Where she expected to find resistance from the older male players, she often found support.

If there is a problem with orchestras it is more one of expectation. …

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