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Women on the podium

This week, the League of American Orchestras announced the award of four $10,000 grants to four female conductors. The Women Conductors Grant Program, put together with foundation moneys, is designed to give women a leg up in a field that, the theory goes, still remains a challenge to them.

I’m of two minds about this. It’s true that women have had an uphill battle, and it took them a long time to start being able to have professional careers as conductors. JoAnn Falletta, Marin Alsop, Simone Young are pioneers and trail-blazers who -- particularly the first two, who are slightly older -- had to overcome a lot of resistance to establish themselves at all, after generations of women before them no less gifted who simply had to seek out other lines of work because they found the door so firmly closed to them.

But it’s also true that women have made huge strides in the last few years. Xian Zhang, a former associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic, now heads the Verdi orchestra in Milan; Anne Manson, formerly music director of the Kansas City Symphony, is now music director of the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra; Keri-Lynn Wilson has an international career; Anu Tali conducts around Europe after founding her own Nordic Orchestra in 1997 (a traditional career path for women conductors unable to get gigs with orchestras has been to found their own: Eve Queler, Alsop, and Alondra de la Parra, one of the current grantees, are just a few examples). This is a relatively small sampling (readers: add your own names to the list).

Still, these and other women conductors remain a drop in the bucket relative to the men who continue to dominate the field. This, I think, is the idea underlying the current grants: we need to do something to help level the playing field and draw attention to the talents who are working.
(read more after the jump)

Not all of the women I’ve mentioned above are, by the way, equally talented. A particular beef of mine is what I see in some cases as a kind of reverse affirmative action, people praising praises so-so work from women that they’d never tolerate from men. I think this only hurts the cause of women in the field, however well-meaning it may be.

For this reason, I wonder if singling out women and giving them special grants has the effect one wants. I don’t want to see women being rewarded just for being women. This is nothing against the four conductors who received the current grant: Mihaela Cesa-Goje, Mei-Ann Chen, Alondra de la Parra, and Annunziata Tomaro. I’m just concerned that it fosters the idea that women somehow continue to need extra help and extra tolerance, and even reflects a touch of sexism -- though I can’t deny that the grant is a concrete step to tackle a problem that seems obdurately difficult to fix.

What are your thoughts on the grant, and on the glacial pace at which women are gradually breaking in to the field of conducting?

By Anne Midgette  |  April 30, 2010; 7:05 AM ET
Categories:  national , news , random musings  
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It's only a grant, which presumably is used for development of the conductors' skills, and it's an amount that probably wouldn't even cover a year's tuition at a university (as an example). It's not like this will influence anyone's hiring decision. It's nice to have on the resume, but I'm sure there are plenty of other grants and awards around for various conductors to have on their resumes. So I'd say this is barely a drop in the bucket, nice, good publicity for the grant giver, but probably makes no difference in the larger scheme of things.

Posted by: c-clef | April 30, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

Enlighted boards/hiring authorities are needed in order to bring qualified women to more of the nation's podiums. The powers with control over the National Symphony made a great mistake when they let Baltimore capture Marin Alsop after Leonard Slatkin resigned. (The mistake was musical as much as any other consideration.)

Posted by: wsheppard | April 30, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

I feel exactly the same way. Although I don't think anyone can deny the under-representation of women in conducting (and, I'd argue, in composition), it does feel a bit tokenistic, and sometimes criticism does tend towards amazement that they're doing it all, rather than genuine critique.

Out of curiousity (genuinely, I'm not being snarky), is there a similiar program for African-American or Hispanic conductors? Because whilst I could name several women, I can't think of one African-American male or female conductor and the only Hispanic I can think of off the top of my head is Dudamel.

Posted by: ianw2 | April 30, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

I would argue that because women are still a "drop in the bucket" compared to men, we do need to highlight them so other women can see their peers being recognized. It's easy for a young man to go to an opera, orchestra,or chorus concert and dream of being on the podium because by and large that's what he sees (and that goes for... See More... See More a lot of other professions as well), but women don't have that same recognition
Although, oddly enough, the majority of my music teachers (my mother included) have been women, right through grad school. And I as a young man, women were the ones I saw directing church choirs and the other kids my age, but they were not lauded and celebrated like many of the men I would later see. I'm not just talking about the superstars, but the people conducting local ensembles as well. So let's do take even a small moment to celebrate these women for the work they're doing to overcome decades and centuries of status quo.

Posted by: wooddm | April 30, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Ianw2 -

Hugh Wolff, Kent Nagano, Catherine Comet, Jahja Ling, Neal Stulberg, Kenneth Jean, Carl St. Clair, David Loebel, Christopher Wilkins, Robert Spano, Alan Gilbert, David Robertson, William Eddins, JoAnn Falletta, and Miguel Harth-Bedoya all won the prestigious Seaver/National Endowment for the Arts Conductors Award, given from 1985 until, apparently, the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and the commencement of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars [2002]. [The award was worth, I believe, $50,000 throughout the period the award existed.]

Those excellent conductors (and other excellent -- although perhaps less lucky --conductors such as Michael Morgan, Elizabeth Schulze, Piotr Gajewski, and Joana Carneiro) look like America in reality -- including women, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and African-Americans; although perhaps women are underrepresented for some reason which needs to be explored in greater depth given the prestige and amount of the national -- partially tax-payer funded --award.

I hope that not too many aspiring women, disabled, African-American, Hispanic- American, Asian-American, and Native and Pacific Islander-American young conductors will be forced by the Great Recession of 2007-09 to go to law school in order to support their true calling and passion.

Posted by: snaketime1 | April 30, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

"Although, oddly enough, the majority of my music teachers (my mother included) have been women, right through grad school. "

I find this a very interesting observation and one of my own experience as well. Women are certainly well represented in community and student organisations- I'd guess that the majority of students at my music school were women- yet seem to disappear on the podium. Hopefully its a generational thing and as these students careers start to mature we'll see more of a mix.

Is it the familiar family-raising argument (in that a career as conductor with all the travel is incompatible with raising a family) that prevents more women on the podium? Simone Young has a daughter which was one of the motivations of taking the OA post in Sydney- having her familial support network. And she now seems quite happily rooted in Hamburg, so there is a way to manage it.

Posted by: ianw2 | April 30, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of women conductors, I'm a little surprised the Post couldn't send someone up to Strathmore last night to hear the Baltimore Symphony. Marin Alsop led a program that included a world premiere by American composer Jonathan Leshnoff. I would have thought that would be of interest to many of the commentators on this blog, though his sound may be too lyrical and melodic for some.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | April 30, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

newcriticalcritic, the Post *did* send someone to the Baltimore Symphony last night. The review is being written now, and will either be in tomorrow's paper or on the blog tomorrow.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | April 30, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

Anne: To your list I would add two on the West Coast: Rachael Worby, for the past 10 years music director of the Pasadena (CA) Pops Orchestra, and Joanne Carneiro, who this year succeeded Kent Nagano at the Berkeley (CA Symphony. It is interesting to note that so far I haven't heard any woman's name seriously mentioned in either Philadelphia or Seattle (both of which are looking for directors).

Posted by: BobTatFORE | April 30, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

ianw2: I don't know of any programs to support African American conductors, but I can think of a few - I name them only because each should be more widely known: Willie Anthony Waters, Michael Morgan, James DePriest, or the late Henry Lewis, Marilyn Horne's ex-husband.

As for Hispanic conductors: it depends on how you define "Hispanic." If you mean "from the Americas," a few names that come to mind are Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Roberto Minczuk, the late Eduardo Mata, Alondra de la Parra (one of the grantees mentioned in this post), Gisele Ben-Dor (born in Uruguay). If you also mean "Spanish," plenty of other names could be added.

I'm sure people can add many names that I didn't think of off the top of my head.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | April 30, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

BobTatFORE: your comment brings up something I didn't touch on in my original post: there are quite a number of women conducting smaller ensembles. Laura Jackson was one of the candidates for the Fairfax Symphony post, who took over in Reno; Beatrice Jona Affron is conductor of the Pennsylvania Ballet, and there are many more.

This touches on something related to wooddm's comment about women being active as teachers, choir directors, etc: in almost every field you can name, women have been slow to break into the top echelons of a profession even while they may represent a majority at a lower stage of the food chain. It used to be that women represented more than half of the members of smaller American orchestras, but only something like 20% of the very top ones (I don't remember the exact statistic).

Posted by: Anne Midgette | April 30, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

You might also want to look at the Presidents of the largest orchestras. Two decades ago, while women made up the bulk of much of the staff, there were no women running the largest orchestras. Today, women run the LA Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Detroit Symphony and National Symphony among others. The top ten used to be run entirely by men. No longer.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | April 30, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

If we are to do a history of women on the podium, we might as well start with Antonia Brico, who conducted a number of top orchestras including "our own" National Symphony.

Nadia Boulanger was not a frequent presence on the podium, but she left us with some recordings of Monteverdi that put any HIP-ister to shame. And if we talked about old music, let's not forget about Blanche Honegger Moyse, which Ms. Midgette mentioned elsewhere.

We should also include choral conductors. First and foremost, the great Margaret Hillis who organized and trained the Chicago Symphony Chorus. There are plenty of women chorus conductors. On the top of my head: Margarete Dessoff, Amy Kaiser, Elizabeth Patterson, Dianne Berkun, or "our own" Joan Gregoryk.

One interesting thing about women conductors is that, until recently, most of these conductors came from Anglo-Saxon background; even the Netherlands-born Brico came as a child to the U.S. What is even more astonishing is that I can't think of one name from the German speaking world. Indeed, even the women conductors that the Vienna State Opera hired in the recent seasons, Simone Young and Julia Jones, came from the Anglo-Saxon world.

From Eastern Europe, I can olny think of a name: the dour Veronika Dudarova. Nonetheless, since one of the winners of the grant, Mihaela Cesa-Goje is Romanian, I will ask my Romanian friends whether there were any other women conductors in Romania or in any other Eastern European country. I will report back if and when I get an answer.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | May 3, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Since there was also a discussion of "Hispanic" conductors, well, I got news: there is an entire continent which once had a world-class opera house: Teatro Colon (my Argentine friends grudgingly admit that the theater lives from memory and that they would love not only the restauration of the building - which is ongoing - but also of the high standards of 40-50 years ago.) A respectable opera house is in Santiago de Chile as well, and the musical life in Argentina is by no way limited to Teatro Colon.

With it, there are plenty of Hispanic conductors. Apart from those mentioned, I can think of Giancarlo Guerrero, Enrique Batiz, Pedro Ignacio Calderon, Mario Perusso, even a woman: the Peruvian Carmen Moral.

If we add the Brazilian conductors, there are John Neschling and Eleazar de Carvalho just for start.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | May 3, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

There are several female presidents in charge of top ten orchestras, but none of women conductors stand on their podium as music directors yet.  Even though there are more women staff conductors now, the frequency of women guest conductors is still far below male conductors.  Some of the women conductors are indeed as good as their male colleagues, but a lot of them simply do not have the same oppertunities as male conductors do.  For conducting, it is still a male dominant world though there are now more programs, such as the Taki Concordia Fellowship and Women Conductors Grants, to help and encourage women condctors to get more exposure.       
By the way, Mei-Ann Chen was recently named Music Director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.  Let's hope more women conductors become artistic leaders in many communities in the near future because they deserve such opportunities. 

Posted by: Allegro100 | May 3, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

William Eddins, the music director of the Edmonton Symphony, is African-American. He's a terrific conductor - he was one of the candidates for the Berkeley Symphony job, and I loved his audition program.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | May 3, 2010 6:48 PM | Report abuse

Here's an interesting link from the Kapralova Society: a whole list with women conductors.

Part 1:
Part 2:

To say nothing of the fact that Vitezslava Kapralova needs to be "re-discovered" as more than Martinu's lover. Conductor Jonathan Sternberg is one of the few who chapmioned her music.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | May 4, 2010 8:48 AM | Report abuse

Here's one more link. There's a book dedicated to women conductors. In German only, as far as I know, but at least we can browse through the list of the conductors discussed:

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | May 4, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

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