Women storm the podium

In classical music nothing happens overnight, but the rise of female conductors marks a massive change

Norman Lebrecht

Change is coming — gender change. Half of England’s orchestras and opera houses are looking for a music director. Vladimir Jurowski and Esa-Pekka Salonen are leaving the London Philharmonic and the Philharmonia. Antonio Pappano has served notice on Covent Garden. Opera North is headless. Vasily Petrenko is stepping down at the Royal Liverpool Phil and Mark Elder has supposedly renewed for the last time at the Hallé.

This kind of mass transition is rare, so much so you’d have to go back to 1990 when Bernstein and Karajan died. Then, it was about generational shift. Now, it’s about gender politics.

The mechanics of hiring a music director remain much the same. A manager stacks the next two seasons with new faces to see if any of them impress sceptical musicians sufficiently to get a callback. The candidates will be overwhelmingly white and male. But that’s where thing have shifted. Every music organisation has an equal-opportunity obligation. None has yet shortlisted an ethnic-minority conductor (and you might well ask why), but all are now looking at women as a priority, not least because the talent pool has finally exploded with candidates of outstanding communicative power.

Before I scan the runners and riders, step back with me for a paragraph or so to 1990 when the only woman conductor you ever saw was collecting fares on the buses on comedy TV. Women never got far up the orchestral ladder. Jane Glover, highly intelligent and a future Governor of the BBC, became music conductor of a chamber ensemble, the London Mozart Players. Symphony orchestras simply ignored her. Iona Brown, Neville Marriner’s chosen successor at the Academy of St Martin-in the Fields, suffered a similar blight. Sian Edwards, a graduate of the Leningrad Conservatoire, was made principal conductor at English National Opera in 1993, a high tide mark for women in British music. Edwards lasted just two years, undermined by intolerant players and a floundering administration. She now teaches conducting at the Guildhall.

The breach came in 2002 when Marin Alsop was appointed by the Bournemouth Symphony, rising five years later to the Baltimore Symphony. “My name Marin is not that common,” she said recently, “so people sometimes didn’t know that I was a woman. I could tell that by the surprised look they had when I arrived on stage.” Alsop, 62, has gone on to conduct the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms and many of last year’s Leonard Bernstein tributes. This year, she takes up a new post as chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in the most reactionary of musical cities. That is a sign of how drastically things are changing.

While Alsop was banging her head on the English glass ceiling, a cheery Australian, Simone Young, was tipping German scales. Daniel Barenboim’s assistant at Bayreuth, she conducted the Vienna State Opera in high heels while eight months pregnant. She recorded Wagner’s Ring cycle and the complete works of Bruckner. In 2005 she was named Generalmusikdirektor (GMD) in Hamburg, presiding there impressively for a decade. Now 58, she shuttles between Europe and Australia, balancing a guest conducting schedule with the family priorities of her 95-year-old mother and her first grandchild, something I could never have imagined of any of her male predecessors. In the history of musical suffrage, Young and Alsop go down as the breakthrough acts.

Still, nothing happens overnight in the stuffy world of classical music and it would take a second wave to open up the podium across a wide front. In 2012, a Lithuanian, 26 years old, landed the lowly post of second Kapellmeister at Salzburg’s town theatre. That summer, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla entered the Salzburg-Nestlé conducting competition and ran off with first prize. The trophy came with a foot in the door to major orchestras. Mirga — this is not male condescension, that’s how she likes to be called — joined Gustavo Dudamel’s staff at the Los Angeles Phil, where her ambitions were stoked by the orchestra’s feminist president, Deborah Borda. Hardcore LA players were soon telling me that she was something special. The Salzburg theatre promoted her to music director.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, seeking a successor to Andris Nelsons, tried her out in July 2015. “The orchestra were unanimous,” said its manager, Stephen Maddock. “They said she was the clearest conductor they had ever worked with.” What musicians saw — aside from fizzing energy and incontestable musicality — was that Mirga was entirely sui generis, an instinct-driven artist who would rather hold a post-concert singsong in her dressing room than attend a sponsor’s drinks party. Gender was never an issue: she was too different in too many other ways. Her appointment as CBSO music director commanded the BBC morning news and the front page of The Times.

Raised in post-Soviet confusion, Mirga lacks conventional inhibitions. You see her drive orchestras forward with shivering gestures of pleasure, climaxing a symphony with arms and legs akimbo, like Freddy Mercury on speed. Mirga holds nothing back at work, everything in personal space. In interviews, she gives nothing away. Turning up heavily pregnant in Birmingham, she refused to disclose the father’s name, or if she was even in a relationship with him. Three months after the baby was born she was back at work with her mother as minder. When the baby needed more of her time, Mirga cancelled the New York Philharmonic. She listens to a few music sages such as the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer but mostly keeps her own counsel. Everything about her is 21st-century — her reckless positivism, her daring, her lifestyle. She is a rainmaker who has made all things possible for women on the podium.

So who’s reaping the rewards? A short nose ahead of the rest is Karina Canellakis, 38, from a Greco-Russian New York family. Mentored by Simon Rattle, she is about to become chief conductor of the Dutch radio orchestra and is favoured to succeed Leonard Slatkin in Detroit. “I didn’t see anyone who looked like me on the podium,” she explains, by way of motivation. Like Mirga, she shrugs off questions about women in music. “Just go ahead and do it,” she says.

The fastest advances are being made in Belgium and Holland. Antwerp’s symphony orchestra has installed Elim Chan, 32, from Hong Kong, a winner of the London Symphony Orchestra’s conducting competition. Chan, who is also principal guest in Glasgow, lets slip injudicious comments about “girl power”. She is so focused on the music that afterwards “I remember thinking: did they even enjoy it?” Unusually at this early stage, she insists on working with youth orchestras.

The Liège opera house is now in the hands of Speranza Scappucci, 45, a former assistant to Riccardo Muti. Scappucci conducts every season at the Vienna State Opera. Effervescent and engaging, she is talked of as an outside candidate for the vacant Concertgebouw orchestra. In Finland, Susanna Mälkki had to wait until her late forties before becoming chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic but she also has a post in LA and there’s no holding her back. She is a specialist in new music: I once saw her conduct a concert in which she had commissioned every single work, an act of visionary imagination. Also rising is Dalia Stasevska, 35, newly named principal guest at the BBC Symphony Orchestra and soon to be a fixture at the summer Proms. Stasevska is married to a rock musician who happens to be the great-grandson of Jean Sibelius.

There are now so many women on the rise that I’m at risk of turning the rest of this article into a catalogue aria. Briefly, then, others to watch are Xian Zhang, 43, music director of the New Jersey Symphony and principal guest with BBC Wales; Han-na Chang, 33, ex-Qatar Phil, now Trondheim Symphony; the prodigious Joana Mallwitz in Nuremburg, at 32 the youngest GMD in Germany; the Estonian Kristiina Poska, 40, who’s been named GMD in Basle; Gemma New, a New Zealander with jobs in St Louis and Dallas; and Marta Gardolinska, 30, a Polish apprentice at the Bournemouth Symphony.

There is also the exotic phenomenon of Barbara Hannigan, a Canadian soprano who is conducting major orchestras around the world; and the jury’s-out case of the Mexican Alondra de la Parra, 35, music director of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Australia, who, while spectacularly televisual, has lately received appalling reviews in Berlin. Last month, the charismatic Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director in Philadelphia and at the Metropolitan Opera, announced an unprecedented six women guest conductors for his next concert season — Alsop, Canellakis, Glover, Mirga, Mälkki and the French mezzo-conductor Nathalie Stutzmann.

The causes of this ascendancy are twofold — public expectation and occupational evolution. Like general practice in medicine, playing in an orchestra has become more amenable for women than a freelance or solo career. The Vienna Philharmonic, last of the diehard all-male orchestras, now has a dozen women, some in principal positions. US orchestras are steadily approaching gender equality. The more women players, the more likely orchestras are in future to vote for a female conductor.

Orchestra managers earn brownie points with state and private sponsors by hiring women. Agents are trawling for female batons. Dallas Opera has a programme designed to train women conductors. The Philharmonie de Paris has launched a conducting competition next year, open only to women. Covent Garden has put on a course for “female musicians in the UK with an interest in conducting opera”. Its music director, Pappano, talks of bringing about “long overdue changes within a creative environment”. The LSO has four women conductors in its next season. What’s not to like?

Two reservations, as it happens. As an observer who has long kicked against the musical pricks in the interest of fair play, I am hearing complaints from men that they face an uneven playing field. Not at the top level. where selection is Darwinian, but in bread-and-butter jobs in university towns where political correctness and lazy thinking have tilted the balance against men.

My other concern is that, for all the pressure to promote women, where are the ethnic minority conductors? Agents are not interested and orchestras only see what is served up by the agencies. So far as I can tell, only two have been taken up by major agencies — the American Roderick Cox, winner of a Solti fellowship, and the British Salzburg-Nestlé 2017 winner Kerem Hasan. Unless there is equality of opportunity across the board, the positive discrimination of women will be tainted by other inequalities.

As for the future, I predict that, ten years from now, Mirga or Canellakis will be music director of the New York Philharmonic and Scappucci will be pushed (no one goes willingly) into the hot seat at La Scala. The battle for women in music is almost won. Ethnic minorities should not be made to wait.

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