Are orchestras “hostile” to women conductors?

The attitude of professional orchestras to conductors of a certain gender is a perennial favorite of arts journalists, if not yet an actual Internet meme:


Example of Internet Meme: not intended as a reflection of the author’s real feelings

The latest example of such journalistic favoritism is an article on the BBC website a few days ago:

Prejudice and hostile attitudes keep the upper echelons of classical music off-limits to many women, arts chief Jude Kelly has said.The top of the profession is still “a place of too great an absence for women”, she said.”

Women still tell me they find orchestras can be hostile, can undermine them deliberately, that executive directors can be sceptical. “Ms Kelly said deliberate decisions to promote female talent had to be taken. “This is not about women doing it for themselves,” she said. “It’s about chaps who run orchestras and people who run music colleges getting behind women.”

“People tend to appoint in their own image. It’s a tendency of men to support other, younger men and feel paternalistic towards them.”We have to encourage them to support women. Ms Kelly is the artistic director of the Southbank Centre, and was speaking at the launch of the institution’s 2014-15 season….

Alsop was singled out in Ms Kelly’s speech, after several prominent men queried her appointment as the first female conductor of the Last Night of the Proms last year. Bruno Mantavani, head of the Paris Conservatoire, said most women would find conducting too “physically demanding”. “Sometimes women are disheartened by the physical aspect,” he told France Musique.

“Conducting, flying, conducting again is quite demanding.”Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko also claimed orchestral musicians could be distracted by a female lead, saying that “a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things.” Petrenko, who leads the National Youth Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, added that “when women have families, it becomes difficult to be as dedicated as is demanded in the business”

.My colleague Frank Almond posted a very cogent response  (yes, time travel is possible on the Internet) a couple of months ago:

Here’s a little secret, at least in my experience: nobody cares. That is to say, truly gifted conductors are in such short supply these days that most orchestras wouldn’t care if you are male, female, or some combination as long as you possess that intangible and complex set of skills that both inspires and challenges a large group of musicians to play their best on a regular basis without growing to despise you in the process. And even if that happens, they’ll still be happy about some great concerts…

I am not at all dismissing the unique obstacles for any woman attempting to develop a conducting career. As some recent articles have noted, extra scrutiny, ingrained stereotyping, the relative “maleness” of the conducting profession, etc. are all factors to one degree or another. And these are obviously more pronounced in certain cultures and orchestras…But what about the numbers themselves? Countless young males imagine they can slog through a conducting program and instantly be taken very seriously, no matter what their abilities (and sometimes they do sustain an over-hyped career for a few seasons). Far less women embark on this path (except maybe in Finland), so proportionally alone the odds are against them. In other words, there are huge numbers of mediocre male conductors, so why would the talent level be automatically higher with a much smaller talent pool of women?…

One of the great joys of playing in an orchestra is having either a guest conductor or Music Director that truly leads, inspires, shows professional respect, knows the scores in detail, doesn’t waste time, and allows you to both play your best and push the boundaries artistically. Admittedly a tall order, and such a rare event that when it does take place, matters of gender, race, or anything else just don’t matter to me. I could be mistaken, but based my own totally unscientific surveys of some colleagues, I don’t think my attitude is unique.

Frank nails it, in my view. The problem these days is not discrimination, or even disparate treatment by musicians or managers of talented women conductors. The problem is that there have been, until fairly recently, too few women conductors in the pipeline. Given the proportion of truly first-class male conductors to the total number of male conductors, and how long it takes a gifted conductor to become really accomplished, it’s not surprising that the number of truly first-class women conductors is, at this point in time, approximately zero. That is going to change, and likely sooner than later.

That does leave two interesting questions unaddressed, however. The first is whether to the desire to stand in front of 100 professional musicians and tell them, in great detail, how to play their instruments, is related to traits more typically found in men than women. A related question is whether the self-selection process (ie young conductors corralling all their friends into being unpaid guinea pigs for them to practice on) favors men over women.

I don’t know the answer to this question. Men and women are not indistinguishable psychologically, but all personality traits exist on a spectrum. To say that men might be more likely statistically than women to want to lead in the particularly dominating way that conductors do, even if true (and I don’t know that it is), is a long way from saying that all men have that trait or that all women don’t. Men may be, on average, stronger than women. But there are literally millions of women who could demolish me in a weight-lifting contest. Statistics are not destiny, any more than genetics are.

The second question is what happens when a conductor who is female shows up in front of an orchestra and doesn’t, in Frank’s words,  “truly lead, inspire, show professional respect, know the scores in detail, doesn’t waste time, and allow you to both play your best and push the boundaries artistically.” I think it is possible that women get treated differently in that situation. But so do male conductors not of a certain type. And, as most conductors don’t rise the level Frank describes, it’s a situation worth analyzing.

Musicians as a group still have a stereotyped view of the ideal conductor, I think. That stereotype is a male of a certain age (generally older than the average musician in the orchestra) who speaks with an accent (Italian is best, followed by English and German), is elegantly dressed and has great hair. The farther a given conductor is from that stereotype, the higher is the chance of resistance from the orchestra if the conductor is not Frank’s paragon – as, to be honest, most aren’t. Thus, American conductors will see more resistance than Italian conductors, all else being equal. Young conductors will see more resistance than old conductors. Young, bald, badly dressed American conductors will see even more resistance; perhaps they would better be called “insulators.”

Obviously women conductors differ from the stereotype (although I suspect that a good accent will still help, and baldness will be uncommon). That doesn’t mean that they will be treated badly by an orchestra; certainly they won’t be treated badly by mine. But it does mean that the orchestra might start out more skeptical of them than they would be of the tall, handsome Italian conductor in his 50s. Where they end up is going to be more a result of the conductor’s ability. But where they start can matter too, and it’s possible that women conductors do get a raw deal in this respect.

Having said that, I’m inclined to agree with Frank that real talent and ability will prevail in the end. And it’s not clear to me that being a woman is a net disadvantage to a young conductor anymore. The music business is one where image and public perception matter a great deal; it’s why soloists get themselves booked on Sesame Street and, at least in the old days, on late-night television.  Women conductors have real advantages in terms of institutional promotion and selling tickets. I have no doubt we’ll see many more of them as time goes on.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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