Every few months or so there seems to be yet another article discussing various perspectives regarding women on the podium. I noticed a distinct uptick after the finale of the Proms, at which the eminent Marin Alsop appeared (finally). From the ridiculous to the well-reasoned, female conductors are a hot topic these days.
You may wonder what angle could possibly be missing from the avalanche of words spilled (and sometimes wasted) on what is rapidly becoming a tiresome dialogue (to me, anyway). 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.
The thing is, you can’t teach this stuff, kind of like having a great business vision, mastering creative bike tricks, or becoming a great quarterback. There’s a certain alchemy to conducting, along with the aforementioned exceptional artistic qualities, and you don’t get that in “school”. Further, conductors’ engagements and early career development are often determined by word of mouth between artistic administrators and managers, many of whom (not all) have less than comprehensive knowledge with regard to conducting ability and potential. I couldn’t possibly count the number of times I’ve seen a 20 or 30-something “rising star” (male or female) who was clearly in over their head within the first 30 minutes, sometimes embarrassingly so. In my experience with very rare exceptions, from the musicians’ standpoint gender is almost an afterthought, given the current scarcity of conducting talent with real promise and durability. Perhaps every orchestra has its share of traditionalists and/or bigots, and orchestral musicians are notorious for having wildly diverging evaluations of the same conductor or concert. But it does seem as if general attitudes are more inclusive these days.
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 (say, the Vienna Philharmonic, for example. Or the entire country of Russia, if you believe some of what you read). 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? Beyond the hype and sometimes counterproductive marketing of conductors (which often perpetuate negative stereotypes), it seems to me that a truly gifted conductor who happens to be a women may enjoy a huge advantage simply by virtue of those two elements alone.
The relative scarcity of women conductors is a complex topic, and this is obviously a singular perspective after 25 years of sitting very close to the podium (and more recently, occasionally standing on it). 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. Still, I’ll consider it real progress when the issues of quality dominate the narrative and evaluation of any conductor, and gender truly becomes irrelevant on a broader scale. I look forward to that.