Many have cheered the booking of Marin Alsop for the Last Night of the Proms – but not everyone approves of female conductors. What's it like to be a woman in a professional orchestra?Fiona Maddocks The Guardian, Friday 6 September 2013
‘Why so few women? I don’t know’ … Conductor Marin Alsop outside the Royal Albert Hall in London, where on Saturday she will become the first woman to conduct at the Last Night of the Proms.
Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
On a wall inside the Royal Albert Hall, Marin Alsop's face smiles out from a poster big enough to double as a roadside advertising hoarding. A touch of lipstick, short shiny hair – Alsop looks quizzical, warm and authoritative. If she is not yet a household name, from tonight she will be: aged 56, born in New York, she will be the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the BBC Proms in the festival's 118-year history, watched by upwards of 40 million people the world over.
She has already had a fanfare of publicity. Then just when the subject seemed exhausted, with that impeccable sense of timing expected of any conductor, in rushed her Russian colleague Vasily Petrenko with some ill-advised comments on female conductors. Petrenko's main, possibly ironic, opinion was that women are a distraction and that "a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things". As others may have noted, when it comes to cute on the podium, the handsome Petrenko – principal conductor of the National Youth Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic – is quite a distraction himself. As for the legions of female orchestral players who end up in liaisons with (male) conductors, one must conclude that their minds were not exclusively fixed on counting bar-lines.
Conductor Vasily Petrenko, who has said that women conductors could be a distraction for musicians. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou
At least this mix of prejudice, clumsy talk and drollery forces open the debate. As Alsop points out, calling a woman "first" at anything today is not a pretty boast. An only child of professional musicians, she is now at the helm of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Saõ Paulo State Symphony Orchestra. Of a total of 58 conductors at this year's Proms, five have been women.
Only two – Alsop and Chinese-American Xian Zhang – conducted on the main stage at early-evening Proms (the others being late-night and lunchtime). "Everyone asks me why so few women conductors, and why me? I can only theorise. I don't know. I try to use myself as a barometer and assess, and I don't get far," she says.
Even female composers do better, totalling eight, five of whom are alive. Tonight Alsop will conduct the premiere of Masquerade, by Anna Clyne. Given the number of women composers in their 30s and 40s now making headway – Anna Meredith (who had a Last Night commission in 2008), Charlotte Bray, Emily Howard – this quota is increasing naturally each year.
Soloists have always been well represented, led numerically by singers. US mega-star and self-styled "Yankee Diva", Joyce DiDonato, headlines the Last Night. Other instrumentalists this season include Lisa Batiashvili and Janine Jansen, violin, Mitsuko Uchida, piano, Alison Balsom and Tine Thing-Helseth, trumpet.
In June this year, Jenni Murray, host of BBC4's Woman's Hour, caused a furore in a Radio Times interview when she identified what she considered a problem for women in classical music. She said: "The women who seem to be most welcome are the ones who are prepared to go along with the old idea that sex sells."
Some people, including Woman's Hour host Jenni Murray, have questioned the way classical musicians such as Nicola Benedetti are marketed. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
She cited the way violinist Nicola Benedetti and trumpeter Alison Balsom, both independently minded, brilliant performers, are marketed. Several issues are in danger of being muddled here. Whether or not Benedetti wears a strapless dress is separate from why so few conductors appear at the Proms.
"I do see that being soloists, in the spotlight, there are different expectations about not just being successful but, if they're women, stunningly attractive, too," Alsop says. "There's a big societal pressure, but it's not as though these top soloists don't have the power of veto. We can all say no. So at some level they must feel OK about it, and why not, if you look fabulous like that?"
Female orchestral players, too, are ever more evident. Violinists and harpists, if only a scattering, were already playing in the pre-1920s Proms when their founder, Sir Henry Wood, was still at the helm. Now women are found in the former male bastions – brass, percussion, double basses, as well as being prominent, and sometimes dominant, in the woodwind and strings.
"The orchestral landscape changed almost overnight when auditions started being held behind screens," Alsop says. "We're progressing. But just at that moment when your career needs a push, you need to figure out, 'Am I going to have a family?' That's a huge issue for so many women of course, and I have many friends who left it until their 40s – too late."
Alsop agrees that in effect she side-stepped some of these hurdles because she is gay. Her partner, Kristin Jurkscheit, with whom she has a 10-year-old son, is an orchestral horn player. "Kirstin was the one who had the baby, so I didn't even take time out. [Australian-born conductor] Simone Young has kids. She was still on the podium when she was nine months' pregnant!"
Plus, Alsop adds, she never had that kind of glamour, "so it didn't arise. I looked OK – I hope! – which I guess in some ways made it easier." On the podium, she wears smart, tailored suits, loose enough to allow plenty of shoulder movement, usually with a flash of red at the cuffs for style. Her gestures are compact, nimble and persuasive, rather than imperious.
She encountered some prejudice, and still does, from male players. "One of my early conducting experiences was a step-in – the conductor didn't show up and someone said: 'Go on Marin, you want to be a conductor,' and I ran up on stage. As I stepped on to the podium one of the guys in the brass section said, 'Oh man, it's a girl.' At the end of the week he said to me: 'You're really good. I never really noticed you were a girl.'"
She has been told, mostly by older men, that women can conduct Mozart, supposedly suitably feminine in this context, but not Mahler or Bruckner. "But I guess that given the enormous orchestra needed for Mahler, most women don't even get the chance." Her extensive discography includes Mahler, Bartók, Brahms and other orchestral heavyweights, but no Mozart.
The first woman to conduct a Prom was the Cuban-born Odaline de la Martinez, in 1984. Martinez wrote to the then Proms director suggesting herself and her ensemble and he (there has not yet been a she) agreed. The British conductors Jane Glover and Sian Edwards followed suit in 1985, Glover appearing five years in succession and on several occasions since.
These examples should have opened the floodgates. Musicologists and critics today number women in their ranks. No one would dare make the kind of remarks found in Harold Schonberg's The Great Conductors (1967). This revered New York Times writer could not countenance the idea of women on the podium, so omitted them altogether. Summing up the requisites for a top conductor, he wrote: "He has been tempered in the crucible but he is still molten and he glows with a fierce inner light. He is many things: musician, administrator, executive, minister, psychologist, technician, philosopher and dispenser … Above all he is a leader of men … a father … The Teacher who knows all."
The quintessential maestro … Herbert von Karajan in 1968. Photograph: Cine Text/Allstar/Sportsphoto
The man who ticked all those boxes was Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989), appointed conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic "for life", driver of fast cars, still one of the best-selling classical artists with sales of an estimated 200m discs. Nearly a quarter of a century after his death, for many he remains the quintessential maestro: glamorous, alluring and always only a hair's breadth away from tyranny.
Marin Alsop's manner is forthright but kind. She gets up early and used to run 5km before breakfast daily. Now she prefers a cross-trainer, having found she can read and learn scores while pounding. If she once resisted tiresome gender questions, now she accepts her duty as spokesperson. Her Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, which she set up in 2002, is specifically for women.
"There is no logical reason to stop women from conducting. The baton isn't heavy. It weighs about an ounce. No superhuman strength is required. Good musicianship is all that counts. As a society we have a lack of comfort in seeing women in these ultimate authority roles. Still none of the "big five" orchestras has had a female music director."
Yet she does not always set the best example to herself. "Whenever I get on a plane, I check who's flying it. Once I saw there were three women in the cockpit. And I thought, in spite of myself: 'Oh oh, something wrong here.' If I reacted like that, what on earth does the person who doesn't have my super-high tolerance of these issues think?'"
There have always been the pioneering few, particularly in choral music, which requires the kind of collegiate powers at which women excel. Wikipedia lists around 60. Reading their stories, trends emerge: nearly all are born to professional musicians, most have set up their own ensembles, many are composers, a significant number have not married or had children. Some got going late. Blanche Honegger Moyse (1909-2011), an example to us all, made her debut in New York's Carnegie Hall aged 78, and went on conducting into her 90s.
The French guru-pedagogue Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979), who numbered many of the 20th century's great (male) musicians among her pupils, was the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra and gave the premiere of Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oakes. She had no problem asserting her authority and no doubt considered an orchestra full of men small fry. (Having, as a child, taken part in a master class given by her in old age, I can confirm that she was more frightening than any man I met before, or since.)
From early childhood, Alsop studied piano and violin. Her most formative childhood experience, aged nine, was being taken by her father to one of Leonard Bernstein's concerts for young people. "I fell totally in love with Lenny [and later worked with him]. Before the music was over, I leaned across to my father and said: 'That's what I'm going to do.' He said: 'Fine.'"
It took a while. In her mid-teens, she set up up her own small ensembles, either as violinist or conductor, or both. Soon after that she started her own swing band and made her first guest appearance with a professional orchestra – the Louisiana Symphony – after a judge spotted her in a conducting competition and helped give her the chance.
"You quickly realised they didn't care if it was a three-legged horse or a woman holding that baton – as long as you're well prepared." So would she conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which in 1997 became the last ensemble to appoint a woman full-time to its ranks (following, not at all hotly, on the heels of the Berlin Philharmonic, which did so in 1982)? "They haven't called."
An ineluctable factor seems to be that which for so long dogged women clergy: no one objects in principle. They would just, by gut instinct, prefer a man. Discussing the matter, a female concertgoer who had heard one of Alsop's concerts said: "A conductor needs to be more of a megalomaniac, which maybe doesn't come naturally to women. Perhaps they need to sweat more … "
A famous international virtuoso – I will protect his identity – said: "Women can't throw balls and they can't conduct." Attempting to extricate himself from a politically hazardous hole while digging himself in deeper, he added: "It's their bottoms. They're the wrong shape." This deep-seated resistance may take years of evolution to sort out. But a step has been made.
Fiona Maddocks is the Observer's classical music critic. Her book Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of her Age is published by Faber