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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 1

A Maestro Need Not be a Mister

by Norman Lebrecht / September 1, 2000

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The treatment of female conductors is unfair, counterproductive and must stop

There was a woman conducting at English National Opera last June. Nothing unusual about that. There are now 64 orchestras in the United States with female music directors. The Berlin Philharmonic, which 17 years ago vehemently resisted Herbert von Karajan's attempt to introduce a female clarinettist, has quietly accepted Graziella Contratto as assistant conductor. Both of London's opera houses engaged women as music directors during the past decade and Simone Young has lately taken charge of Opera Australia.

On paper, it all looks admirably equitable. Prejudice is a thing of the past and any girl with a steady beat and a head for musical heights stands just as much chance of succeeding as the next likely lad.

But at the summit of this sensitive occupation little has changed. No world-class symphony orchestra has yielded its top spot to a woman. Of America's 64 equal-opportunity ensembles, one-third are amateur or college bands and the rest are remote or Midwestern.

Both women who were thrust into London's opera pits rapidly came to grief. Sian Edwards endured such distress at English National Opera that now, five years later, she cannot bring herself to discuss it in public. When Edwards took up the post in 1993, she was a 34-year-old with old-school Russian training and glowing testimonials from Bernard Haitink and Michael Tippett. Her St Petersburg teacher, Ilya Musin, told me that she was one of the brightest prospects he had seen.

She had, however, the misfortune of joining a weak new management, callow and choleric, which gave her little support, and more blame than she deserved for productions gone wrong. In November 1995, she abruptly resigned, citing "internal ENO reasons" rather than the usual "personal" grounds.

It has taken five years of freelance grind to rebuild her European career to the point where she is a contender. Last month she returned to ENO for the first time to conduct a penitent orchestra, eager to bury old scores.

Andrea Quinn escaped faster and fitter from Covent Garden. Quinn, 35, became music director of the Royal Ballet two years ago, after an impressive spell with the London Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. She promised to inject new music into dance repertoire and make the ROH orchestra play better on ballet nights.

The first sign of trouble came at the opening gala of the new house last December, which she delegated to a member of her musical staff. The reasons given were that Quinn was saving herself for the full-length ballets, but her relations with the orchestra had been cruelly impaired.

Weeks earlier, a rehearsal of the Ashley Page ballet "Hidden Variables" had broken down amid accusations that she had not mastered Colin Matthews' score. Quinn admitted that she was not fully prepared; she apologised to the musicians, reduced her schedule and returned to give admired performances of Manon and a Diaghilev tribute.

That would have been the end of the matter had she been a man. There is no shortage of male conductors who turn up with a half-read score and get away with a self-deprecating grin and a round of drinks. But with a female conductor, orchestras are less tolerant.

Persistent anti-Quinn poison seeped from the ROH ranks, filling the pens of some hostile critics. The Royal Ballet bosses and dancers backed her to the hilt, but the ROH management, which runs the orchestra refused to get involved. In February Quinn decided to quit. She was begged to keep it quiet for fear of de-stabilizing the broken rocking-horse that is the English national opera house.

New York City Ballet promptly reoffered her its baton, which she had previously declined. Quinn, who has refrained from airing her ROH miseries, persuaded her physician husband and two daughters that life might be sweeter in Manhattan. When news of her transfer was released to the New York Times, the ROH spun her departure as a smart career move, covering up its own failure to combat sex discrimination. Quinn made her debut at ENO June 28, conducting the choreographer Mark Morris's staging of operas by Purcell and Virgil Thomson.

The unequal treatment of women on the podium is a running scandal. The American conductor Anne Manson, sometime assistant to Claudio Abbado, formed the Mecklenburgh Opera in London a decade ago to perform modern and esoteric chamber works. Her agent tried for eight years to get her a date with one of the big opera houses. The response was: "We've already got a woman doing something, thank you." Manson has since returned home, to conduct the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra.

The most visible of the ascendant Americans is former Leonard Bernstein pupil Marin Alsop, who directs the Colorado Symphony and a chamber orchestra in New York. She has also been appointed principal guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and is reaping credit for its excellent recordings on Naxos.

Whether Alsop can break through the glass ceiling to a command post with a metropolitan orchestra or opera house is barely worthy of conjecture. In present conditions, the odds are stacked against any woman reaching the top.

Musicians and managers argue, with some validity, that none of the female aspirants possesses the technique of a Chailly, the charisma of a Rattle, the energy of a Gergiev, the brain of a Barenboim or the passion of a Jansons. Several of the women are quick to talk themselves down declaring, without being asked that they are slow learners and poor sight-readers.

But conducting is not just a matter of musical talent. The conductor's job is a cross between traffic cop, philosopher, cabaret act, social worker and company chairman. To draw these strands together requires confidence - and that is where women are being undermined.

Every orchestral musician and manager sees a cavalcade of would-be maestros who might go one way or the other. If they are men, they tend to be given the benefit of the doubt. Women seldom get a second chance. Men are allowed to bluff their way out of a tight spot; women never. A man can sleep with half the woodwind section; a woman conductor cannot even have dinner with the concert-master without setting tongues wagging. Conducting is an uneven playing field for women, and it won't be levelled overnight.

But podium talent has become so scarce that we cannot afford to ignore the gifts of half the human race. Positive discrimination is no solution, nor is more legislation. What is needed is increased awareness. When the next Edwards or Quinn comes under pressure, music lovers must rally against antediluvian prejudices and insist that women conductors are accorded the confidence they deserve. They may be the best hope we've got.

Norman Lebrecht writes a regular column on music in The Daily Telegraph and La Scena Musicale Online, and beginning Sept. 13, will host Lebrecht Live on BBC's Radio 3 accessible on the internet.

La dernière note est une chronique consacrée à l'actualité musicale. / The Final Note is a regular column of commentary.

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