Male-dominated world gradually opening to women

Life as a young conductor is never easy. There are too few jobs for too many talented newcomers. Orchestras’ governing boards tend to be a conservative lot, unwilling to step out onto too many limbs artistically or operationally. And in 2009, there is always the steady undercurrent of anxiety, real or imagined, about the financial viability of classical music and opera.

But for some emerging artists, their foothold might still be even more tenuous simply because of their gender.

Historically, few female conductors have made much headway either in the U.S. or internationally. They include the late opera conductor Sarah Caldwell — the first woman to ever lead the Metropolitan Opera and who appeared on a 1975 Time cover hailed as “Music’s Wonder Woman.”

Two decades ago, a small cadre of vibrant young artists were beginning to breach the gender gap. Foremost among them was Marin Alsop, a fantastically vibrant protegee of Leonard Bernstein who in 2007 became artistic director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and who the same year was the first conductor to win a MacArthur “genius” grant.

Alsop’s contemporaries include JoAnn Falletta, who has been music director at the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra since 1999, and the Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, whose summer just included appearances at Munich’s hallowed Bavarian State Opera.

Aside from her own example, Alsop has carved out other tremendous inroads for women wanting to follow her career path. She founded the influential Taki Concordia Fellowship for young female conductors in 2003. A year earlier, the League of American Orchestras began its own fellowship program for emerging conductors; nearly half of the recipients have been women.

The evolution is slowgoing, however. Even with the success of Alsop and her fellow pioneers, there are no female conductors who have been named artistic director for any of the very top-tier American orchestras, like the traditional “Big Five” of Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland or at such other prominent podiums as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra or the San Francisco Symphony.

The number of young women studying to become conductors still lags far behind female instrumentalists, singers or even composers, which is another traditionally male-dominated area. These days, still less than 20% of conductor doctoral degrees go to women. According to the League of American Orchestras, not even 12% of American orchestras of any size are headed by women.

Ever so slowly, though, it seems as if the tide finally might be starting to turn. This past March, Chinese-born conductor Xian Zhang was named as music director of Milan’s Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra — the first time a woman achieved such a post in Italy. A former associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic, she also has appeared as a guest conductor with many other high-ranking American groups, such as the L.A. Philharmonic.

Within the U.S., three women have recently won artistic director spots at smaller regional ensembles: Laura Jackson at the Reno Philharmonic; Lisbon, Portugal, native Joana Carneiro at the Berkeley Symphony; and Elizabeth Schulze at the Flagstaff Symphony.

“There’s still a lot of sexism in this field, though it seems to be changing, albeit slowly,” observes the music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, who has mentored several of the current crop, including Jackson and Bridget-Michaele Reischl, music director of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music’s orchestras and the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra. “Apparently, we can have female prime ministers abroad and female secretaries of State, but not female music directors. It’s been quite discouraging.”

“By this point, we pretty much all know each other,” says Taiwan-born Mei-Ann Chen — just joining Alsop’s Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this season as an assistant conductor — of her female contemporaries. “My colleagues are doing some wonderful work that I have no doubt will be recognized at some point. One of the funny things about this profession is that classical music organizations and venues book their schedules three to four years ahead of performances, so shifts don’t happen overnight. But I believe very strongly that those of us who have been paying our dues recently will see things start to happen in the next few years.”

Ironically, American orchestral players are now much more diverse than their artistic leadership. Decades ago, all-male (and all-white) orchestras were the norm in America, but particularly in the wake of the civil rights struggles of the1960s U.S. ensembles gradually changed their auditioning norm to so-called “blind” tryouts: having the players perform from behind screens, and giving them carpeted surfaces to disguise the clicking of heels against hard floors.

The result has been a demographic shift that is staggering in the glacially paced classical music universe. A 1997 report concluded that blind auditions resulted in a 50% increase in the probability that women would make it through multiple audition rounds at the Big Five. More than 10 years hence, the gender division at major American symphonies is much closer to equal, though it’s still exceedingly rare to see female brass players or percussionists anywhere.

In that setting, however, orchestral players have one major advantage: They can still be heard from behind a screen. By contrast, conductors must be seen in order to be “heard”; their medium is completely visual.

When the very accomplished Alsop was first named to her Baltimore job in 2005, there was some quite ugly and public dissent from within the players’ ranks, though no one openly objected to Alsop’s gender. (Since then, the relationship has improved quite a bit.) “Sometimes I don’t know if not getting a job is about being a woman, being young, or about my actual work as a conductor,” Chen admits.

So where does this leave the post-Alsop generation of striving young talents? They say that the hardest part of trailblazing has already been done for them.

“I don’t feel like my path has ever been defined because of my gender,” says Jackson. “I have the privilege of waking up in the morning and saying, ‘How can I make the best music today I can?’ And when I say privilege, I mean it — that’s something that has been earned by the generation before me.

“Still, there are certain levels that haven’t yet been attained. But the higher one person goes, the more room there is for the rest of us.”

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