Marin Alsop directs the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, 10 September 2010. Photo by Astrid Riecken/Washington Post/Getty


Enter the conductrice

Will a new generation of women on the podium perpetuate the tyrannical charisma of their male predecessors or overturn it?

by Xenia Hanusiak + BIO

Marin Alsop directs the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, 10 September 2010. Photo by Astrid Riecken/Washington Post/Getty

By now, audiences are accustomed to female superheroes on the big screen: Captain Marvel, Harley Quinn, Wonder Woman – all cast as protagonists to advance egalitarian attitudes about gender roles in society and, ostensibly, to empower the next generation of women to new heights of achievement. But filmgoers have rarely encountered the female conductor on the screen. So when Cate Blanchett was cast in a major movie as the fictional conductor Lydia Tár, my expectation was that this female expression of musical supremacy might offer audiences an admirable and inspiring lead.

It wasn’t to be. Todd Field’s critically acclaimed film Tár (2022) on the theme of power sets off a chain reaction of collateral damage for women in classical music so egregious it should come with a warning: this film is not based on any female conductor, living or dead. A work of facto-fiction about the demise of a conductor at the pinnacle of her career, Tár is instead based more closely on the real-life misconducts and misappropriations of power perpetrated by male conductors, such as Herbert von Karajan in the 1960s, and more recently by James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera in New York (who is hauntingly mentioned in the film).

Suited like a man, Tár’s egomaniacal behaviour is more covert than the self-indulgent tyrannical mannerisms of her known male counterparts. Nevertheless, the same inebriation with power overshadows her talent. In the opening scene, she declares: ‘You cannot start without me. I start the clock.’

Field’s movie comes at a time when female conductors are just beginning to make inroads into a centuries-old male profession. So any film – however fantastical – that presents a female version of a power-obsessed and self-serving male conductor is difficult to defend. Especially when there are no female conductors on whom to base such a credible portrayal. Beyond the screen, the passageway for female conductors has been thwarted. Beyond the screen, female conductors are still waiting in the wings.

Only in the first decade of this century has a small cohort of female conductors – including Marin Alsop, Odaline de la Martínez, Simone Young and Barbara Hannigan – come to occupy influential positions in major orchestras. Until this point, and only if we excavate deep enough, is it possible to identify a few women who defied the status quo. There are fewer than 10. In the 1930s, the French composer Nadia Boulanger became the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, and the London Philharmonic. The English composer and conductor Ethel Smyth directed her first public concert in 1911. More than a century later, the narrative has barely altered. When the Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv was appointed musical director of the Teatro Comunale in Bologna this year, she became the first female musical director of an opera house in Italian history. To put this achievement in context, the Teatro di San Cassiano in Venice, Italy’s first opera house, opened in 1637.

In Field’s film, the rise to success for a female conductor appears effortless and therefore apocryphal. No such fairy tales exist in the real world.

I began my life in music as a percussionist. Like most classical musicians, my professional life was a step up from playing in a youth orchestra. On graduating to a professional symphony orchestra, I was directed by a pageant of conductors: some affable and empathetic, some authoritarian, and some downright terrorising. The names were sometimes marquee-worthy, and sometimes not. Their abilities were sometimes extraordinary, sometimes not. Besides the commonality of music and my experience that one conductor lit up the score more brightly than the other, one mutual trait linked them all. They were men. It was always up to this cohort to decide how I should accentuate a triangle in a Mahler symphony or beat a bass drum in a Berlioz requiem. During my musical upbringing, I was trained to treat the conductor as all-knowing. Most musicians accepted the hierarchy.

What struck me less then and more now is that men were given the opportunity to succeed or to fail. No woman need apply for the job of conductor; more accurately, no woman could apply. Without my own role model, without a Lydia Tár movie, the notion of becoming a female conductor was beyond the realm of my realisable hope.

An analogous story: but of a male kind. At the age of 10, a boy called Simon Rattle begins his musical career as a percussionist in the Merseyside Youth Orchestra (now the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Orchestra). He goes on to become Sir Simon Rattle, principal conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic, and later music director of the London Symphony Orchestra. The process of becoming a conductor is purposeful and sequential. Most apprenticeships begin at the conservatoria and more often than not the pathway builds on having prior experience as a composer or instrumentalist. But the real training comes in front of an orchestra. Conducting can’t be practised at home or in a studio. A conductor needs an orchestra. The difference between men and women is that the trajectory for men has not been riddled with battles, whereas women’s ambitions have been thwarted by male decision-makers and patriarchal stereotyping.

Rattle’s pathway was exceptionally swift and smooth. He studied conducting as soon as he dreamed it and, by the age of 19, he’d won the John Player International Conductors’ Competition. The accolade sealed his first milestone – his appointment in 1974 as assistant conductor with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. By age 25, he was chief conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony.

Men have been conducting orchestras and training to be conductors since the first decades of the 19th century, when the figure of the conductor as we know it today developed in parallel with the rise of the Romantic symphony. The role and the increasing power of the conductor’s status evolved because orchestras grew in size: 100 musicians needed to be controlled.

Boulanger’s path to the podium was circuitous. She had to fight at every stage and for every opportunity

Women were accepted into conservatoria in the 19th century but only as performers. By the end of the century, they could enrol in theory and composition, which offered them some of the necessary tools of the conducting trade. But these entitlements and this skill-building do not necessarily forecast a rite of passage to the career of conducting: even when women were graduating as conductors almost a century later, they could not find agents to represent them.

Before becoming the first woman to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936 (at the age of 49), Nadia Boulanger’s career achievements qualified as the envy of any musician. She was 21 when she won second prize at the coveted Prix de Rome for composition in 1908, and was a prize-winning organist, pianist, composer and theorist. She was also a music critic and the first female professor to teach at the École normale de musique in Paris. But Boulanger’s path to the podium was circuitous. She had to fight at every stage and for every opportunity.

Despite Boulanger’s ground-breaking antecedence, decades later the career paths of female conductors still remained obstructed. The French conductor Claire Gibault – the founding director of La Maestra, a conducting competition for women, the founding director of the Paris Mozart Orchestra, and the first woman to conduct the Filarmonica della Scala in Milan – arrived at the Paris Conservatory in 1966. Although initially dissuaded from taking conducting classes by her class teacher Manuel Rosenthal, a one-time conductor for the Orchestre national de France, she eventually completed her studies through dogged determination. In 1969, when she won a prize for her graduating achievement, the daily France Soir splashed the news on its front page: ‘A woman has conducted an orchestra.’

The Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, the present principal guest conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony, is accustomed to defying boundaries but concedes that the path for female conductors remains challenging. She told me:

I was a soprano my whole life, and around age 40 I started conducting. I went from a field which was almost exclusively women, to a field which was almost exclusively men. My path has not been perhaps the most difficult one, compared to those women who wanted to be conductors at a young age and had to go through the existing system.

The notable absence of female conductors is part of a continuum in the gendering of music, and the sexual stereotyping and sexualisation of instruments that began during the Renaissance with the rise of instrumental music, when straddling one’s legs around a cello was considered immoral for women. During the Victorian era, sitting at a piano was acceptable because the silhouette of a woman’s back in the polite confines of the parlour or salon was considered titillating for the male audience.

The American musicologist Susan McClary, whose conversation-igniting book Feminine Endings (1991) ushered in the first era of feminist musicological scholarship, recalls the advice given to her in the 1960s about why women could not become conductors: ‘Both involved breasts – breasts limited mobility, making effective gesturing impossible, and male musicians would be too distracted by the breasts on the conductor to pay attention.’

In her article ‘Female Conductors: Eternal Pioneers’ (2016) for the French journal Travail, genre and société, the musicologist and sociologist Hyacinthe Ravet, vice-dean of equality at the Paris-Sorbonne, writes:

Female musicians have therefore faced and are still facing a whole series of representations traditionally linked to masculinity. A study of the reception of Hedy Salquin’s conducting (Salquin was, as we have seen, the first graduate of [the Conservatoire de Paris]) by the press … as well as of archival material and of a collection of newspaper articles reveals the power of negative representations of female musicians, clustering around various themes: an incapacity to establish authority over a group of men; a lack of physical and moral strength, compounded by weakness and softness; a lack of creativity; the inappropriateness or even indecency of a situation that shows a woman directing men (ie, displaying power), together with a body that is the focus of everyone’s gaze.

Drawing on interviews with female conductors and various orchestra management personnel, Ravet surmised that managers were reluctant to hire female conductors ‘suspecting that they lack “natural” authority’ but also the management and the public have difficulties with displays of authoritarianism by female conductors, which is interpreted as a form of overcompensation.

But the question is nonetheless an interesting one: what is authority as it pertains to conducting? If music itself cannot be gendered, why has the conductor’s role been gendered?

It’s about a willingness to guide, not goad: to serve the composer’s score and invite musicians along

In Crowds and Power (1960), Elias Canetti wrote that: ‘There is no more obvious expression of power than the performance of a conductor. Every detail of his public behaviour throws light on the nature of power.’ Canetti’s comments were made at a time when conductors were viewed as superstars: when maestri wielded their musical authority and physical wills with a commanding and sometimes autocratic rod, and the audience’s attention shifted from the music to the conductor. People spoke about George Szell’s Beethoven or Karajan’s Beethoven.

Canetti went on:

The immobility of the audience is as much a part of the conductor’s design as the obedience of the orchestra. They are under a compulsion to keep still. Until he appears they move about and talk freely among themselves. The presence of the players disturbs no one; indeed they are scarcely noticed … Then the conductor appears and everyone becomes still. He mounts the rostrum, clears his throat, and raises his baton, silence falls. While he is conducting no one may move, and as soon as he finishes, they must applaud. All their desire for movement, stimulated and heightened by the music, must be banked up until the end of the work and must then break loose … Presence of mind is among his essential attributes; law-breakers must be curbed instantly. The code of laws, in the form of the score, is in his hands. There are others who have it too and can check the way it is carried out, but the conductor alone decides what the law is and summarily punishes any breach of it … He is the living embodiment of the law, both positive and negative. His hands decree and prohibit. His ears search out profanation.

Canetti is correct. The classical music conductor hovers above us. He She is raised on a rostrum high above the orchestra, and above the audience behind him her. In this guise, he she assumes his her authoritative stance in the disposition of an omnipotent god-like or mythical figure, mustering all his her agencies of power, charisma and physical presence to support his her knowledge.

As the audience, we sit. We are quiet. We obey. We allow ourselves to be powerless. We offer our power to the conductor because we have paid our tickets to hear the conductor’s interpretation of the music and to commit to the powerbase of this relationship. And then the granular question arises as to why any musician seeks to conduct? It’s the same for both genders. A conductor seeks to imprint their interpretation on the music. She wants to communicate her artistry. And yes, presiding over an orchestra allows her to flex a type of power­­­­ that the sociologist Max Weber referred to in Economy and Society (1922) as an ability to exercise one’s will over others.

Yet successful conducting does not impose will for power’s sake alone. Conducting constructs an interpretation with musicians, fostering consensus on tuning, melodies and rhythms. It’s about a willingness to guide, not goad: to serve the composer’s score and invite musicians along on that discovery of interpretation. As Nadia Boulanger once wrote:

I have always preferred the word ‘transmit’ to ‘interpret’. It seems to take better account of the attitude necessary to those whose job it is to shed light on a work … A sublime interpretation is essentially one which makes me forget the composer, forget the interpreter, forget myself, forget everything except the masterpiece … I think the highest praise is to say that the supreme interpreter becomes invisible.

As we ponder the kinds of authority a woman conductor may wish to exert, it’s important to remember that we are still in an era when the appointment of a woman as conductor is a historic event – headline material for editors to herald her as the ‘first woman to …’ and for commentators to pronounce the dreaded compound noun ‘female conductor’. It’s important, because while women conductors are gaining prestigious positions, they’re also breaking this new ground, fostering a new style of authority and trying to rewrite a centuries-old playbook ­­­­– one that focuses less on physical prowess, domination and imposing one’s will. In other words, as Boulanger suggests, one whose focus is on becoming an invisible interpreter.

Even now, every female conductor who ascends the podium is forging a new frontier. In 2005, when the Australian conductor Simone Young became the first woman to conduct the all-male Vienna Philharmonic since its founding in 1842, she achieved a milestone. When the Chinese American conductor Xian Zhang next conducts the New York Philharmonic, she will raise her arms to an orchestra where women outnumber men by a margin of one (45 to 44) for the first time in its 180-year history.

What we may hope for going forward is that a woman will never have to negotiate what she is wearing, or consider having to exert an authority modelled on patriarchal authority. We may hope that the music will prevail. With her ascent, she will become a superhero for good for the next generation of women, so that any female musician sitting in her orchestra – even a percussionist at the back, just like I was – is able to think I would like to do that.

12 January 2023