Pathetique for a woman conductor

Pathetique for a woman conductor


norman lebrecht

August 07, 2019

Dalia Stasevska, the BBC Symphony’s new principal guest conductor, made a nervous debut last night at the BBC Proms.

She was not helped by wearing a kimono-type garment with a peacock design and flapping sleeves. It deflected attention from what should have been the musician’s main focus – her hands. Stasevska, 34, uses a long baton with textbook motions. Her left hand, so far as I could see past the sleeve, was curiously unexpressive, the fingers static and together.

A Finn of Ukrainian origin, she gave a fidgety account of the Sibelius Karelia suite, not much light and shade and very little to draw the ear off the beaten path. The London premiere of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 1956 cello concerto (and Weinberg’s first hearing at the Proms) went much better, thanks to the soloist Sol Gabetta, who has toured the work across Germany to great acclaim. Rippled with Jewish themes and klezmer evocations, embedded with ideas that the composer’s friend Shostakovich borrowed for his own concerto four years later, the half-hour work has so much going on between the lines that I kept wanting to press the pause button for instant replay.

Gabetta, in a show-stealing backless dress, kept the eye off Stasevska, who seemed less laboured by now, more comfortable with the idiom and evidently more connected to the players, though the concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich looked lost in a world all his own.

Which left, after the interval, Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, a challenge for any young conductor bearing in mind the interpretative legacy that listeners bring to any new performance – Mravinsky, Furtwängler, Karajan, Kubelik, Solti, Abbado, Muti, Tennstedt, Masur, to mention just my own milestones.

The symphony started well, the tempi taut and credible, and it got to be so confident that Stasevska was able to stand back in the second movement and lower the baton, letting the orchestra play on auto-pilot, always a good sign in a new conductor. The allegro third movement was almost joyous – if such as word is not out of place in the Pathétique – and, if the finale lacked ultimate pathos, the narrative direction was never less than lucid. It was a good performance, redeeming in many ways. This conductor will have better nights.

UPDATE: Should we just ignore what an artist wears?


photo: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Player of the night: The BBC’s principal bassoon Amy Harman.

And here’s an earlier performance of the Weinberg, conducted by Stasevska’s teachedr, Mikko Franck:


  • Patrick says:

    (Stasevska)“….wearing a kimono-type garment with a peacock design…”

    “Gabetta, in show-stealing a backless dress…”

    I protest that the fashion of male conductors is not also mentioned in reviews. Unfair!

    • Novagerio says:

      Males wear mostly either the penguin-suite or a long Mao-shirt…seldom a backless dress…

    • John Rook says:

      Anne Manson always wore (don’t know whether she still does), white tie and tails. I understood she felt this was the correct uniform for a conductor.

    • Musician says:

      There’s no fashion in male conducting, it’s boring. Men and women are the not the same. Norman spoke of the music. The stage is a visual art and that which creates interest is worth talking about. Tell me about a Yuja Where no-one discusses the clothes…

    • Anna says:

      A conductor is in full view of absolutely everyone, and it’s vital that 1) the orchestra be able to fully concentrate upon the conductor’s hands, arms, and eyes (clearly the jacket didn’t cover Stasevska’s eyes, but patterns draw attention to the garment and away from the face) and 2) that the audience is shown respect by a conductor’s willingness to dress in a fashion that doesn’t draw attention to himself. Human senses are funny things and it can somehow divert part of us away, even if only subconsciously, from the the music when a conductor is wearing anything that pulls the eye. The garment to which Mr. Lebrecht refers was indeed, in my opinion, quite obtrusive and inappropriate. Wear what you like at any other time, but for those few hours stick to the basics for the sake of both music and audience. It’s not about you. (By ‘you’ I mean the conductor and not you, Patrick!) The backlessness of a backless dress worn by a guest soloist (unless the instrument in question is a piano!) will only be seen by the audience when the performer is arriving on stage, bowing, and exiting, giving brief glimpses of elegance or beauty. It doesn’t stare one in the face throughout the work. Television viewers will see more, but the level of focus isn’t the same as in a live performance. The attire/appearance of male conductors isn’t discussed quite as much as women because men generally keep things simple, but I’ve heard and read many a debate about clean-shaven and short-haired v. ‘Bohemian,’ if tunics either floaty or trim are appropriate, and, of course, colour. If a male conductor showed up in something as (imho) silly as the patterned kimono, people would talk about it. If a male soloist happened to wear something unusually elegant, that would probably get a mention or two as well. Sir Malcolm Sargent was known as ‘Flash Harry’ for a reason! Mr. Lebrecht doesn’t ignore the musicality of either of these women. He makes an excellent point about the kimono and a passing reference to a dress. Sorry I’m coming in on this a year late, by the way. I was looking round the internet for information on a truly disturbing thing apparently worn by Staveska’s boyfriend: a swastika. Wider still and wider grows the strangeness of the world.

  • Respect says:

    The name of the conductor written correctly only once.

  • Gustavo says:

    There we go again.

    Witchcraft or wizardry?

  • 8VA says:

    After Ben Gernon’s visceral reading of Swan Lake two nights before with the BBC Phil, this anaemic and uninvolved Pathetique with the BBC SO was a let-down. They played the right notes – but nothing more. Where do the Beeb find these conductors? But of course – she ticks all the Political Correctness buttons. I turned off after the Tchaik, and went to put on a CD of a good performance instead.

    • Ludwig says:

      I found the performance of Swan Lake incredibly disappointing. I can’t comment on Stasevska’s performance as I didn’t see or hear it but I was in the arena for Prom 23 it struck me that Ben Gernon’s basic technique was shoddy, his arms flailing, his beat and indication of entries unclear. The musicians were both visibly and audibly disinterested, and there were several hiccoughs that were no doubt caused by Gernon’s poor technique. I enjoyed the Act I Waltz and the final scene but several of the other pieces were patently a mess. This was anything but a visceral reading – I would say ‘flabby’.

      Again, I can’t comment on Stasevska but (as Ellie suggests in this thread) it does strike me that female conductors are burdened with much greater scrutiny (especially it seems, on this blog) when there are so many more mediocre/poor male conductors about, both new and experienced. I think this latter fact disproves the assertion that ‘political correctness’ is the issue (whatever that really means).

      • Sir Kitt says:

        You are entirely correct. Gernon is a dreadfully lazy conductor. Perfectly nice man, but a waste of space on the podium who doesn’t rehearse anything properly. In terms of mediocre/poor conductors, I think that the percentage of mediocre/poor female conductors within the overall pool of female conductors is the same percentage of mediocre/poor male conductors within the overall pool of male conductors, but, as you say, there are far fewer female conductors working at the top level of the profession (although there are more now than there were a few years ago) and so they still stand out from the crowd, both the good ones (of which there are plenty) and the bad ones.

    • Graham Rickson says:

      I heard her debut in Leeds with the Orchestra of Opera North. Superb, and the players reported that she was totally on top of things.

  • Sam says:

    This does not surprise me. I was told by a reliable source that the BBCSO had to offer their Principal Guest position to a female.
    I’m sure this lady is very gifted and will develop well. But it’s far too early for her to have such a position in London and to be conducting Tchaik 6 at the Proms. The BBC and Proms management are to blame. Not the conductor.

    • Ionut says:

      It’s the case with many orchestras. This is when gender equality goes wrong. Equality means to chose the best possible candidate regardless of sex. What many orchestras are doing, is to push female conductors no matter if they are worthy or not.

      • Corno di Bassetto says:

        I could not agree more.

      • Ellie says:

        It takes a while to get there though – we are FAR from equal on the conductor gender stakes so it takes a concerted effort to enable us to get there.

        Sometimes a push is needed to open the pathway properly. Gender bias works so, so, far in men’s favour. So much so that this conductor is called a ‘woman conductor’ in this headline. We never hear of ‘man conductors’, they’re just conductors. This kind of language is automatically exclusionary. Until gender is not the first distinguishing attribute conductors are labelled by we have a long way to go. Given the barriers women face in conducting, potential rather than merit is a better recruiting tool. Merit only allows for the status quo, potential opens doors to all kinds of people whose voices should be heard.

        To call it political correctness is so disappointing and shortsighted. There’s a reason conductors who are women are coming to the fore only in the last few years – the despicable sexism innate in the industry for several hundred years that only men seem unable to see.

        • Maria M. says:

          – Visitor to NY: “How to get to Carnegie Hall?”
          – Cabbie: “Practice, practice.”

          No “enabling”, no “creating special environment for women conductors”, just talent, hard work, and perseverance.

          Personally, I don’t care whether a conductor is male or female, as long as a conductor is good. I am totally against promoting and pushing forward someone to fulfil a gender quota and get PC points.

          Arguing with history of last few hundreds years is as silly as hanging a special cover to obscure legs of a grand piano, which Victorian ladies would do to preserve “propriety”. It wasn’t the “industry” which was sexist. The cultural norms of the society as a whole were. But that is in the past. We can’t go back and fix history. We can work hard in a here and now and yes, get ahead on merit.
          Good luck!

        • Yes, affirmative action makes a lot of sense, bringing extremely-overdue balance, from which we are still very far.

      • Sara E. says:

        It’s us empire identity politics. A bad joke.

      • FrauGeigerin says:

        Exactly. Permanent changes happen in an organic way with time. What we are experiencing now will last only as long as last the current positive discrimination measures. As a woman in music, I don’t want to think that I am where I am because of my genitalia and because of not my talent.

      • Stereo says:

        Well said. But often it’s the critics who do the pushing. Marin Alsop is a prime example of political correctness gone mad.

        • Heather Bird says:

          I have played under Marin twice and she’s one of the best conductors I’ve ever worked with. I’d check your motives for this statement. She’s a gay woman and I suspect this is the reason. Everyone I have worked with who has worked on the same gigs has been of the same opinion- she is a superb conductor and doing so much to enable women to become conductors.

          • Couperin says:

            Not what I heard from friends in Chicago Symphony.. at least about her performance of Bernstein’s Mass at Ravinia this summer.

          • Stereo says:

            Well said. If she were a straight male she wouldn’t get half the work she does.

          • Stereo says:

            I played for her in Bournemouth for 6 years. Vastly overrated.

          • Stereo says:

            Spent 6 years with her. Vastly overrated

          • Saxon Broken says:

            Alsop is “a very good conductor” rather than a “superb conductor”. Just below the very top level, but this still a very high standard.

          • Stereo says:

            I have played under her many times and believe me she is not as great as some critics would have us believe.

    • RodFlair says:

      It was not a very good concert.

      And I am not surprised that the big bosses of the BBC pushed for a female for the position. Having a woman as a conductor is now fashionable… doesn’t matter if there aren’t yet enough [young] women to cover the demand!

    • Una says:

      Lovely performance I heard on the radio.

  • Rob says:

    Anyone obsessed with Tchaik 6 should have both Fricsay’s recordings.

    Maybe she will tackle Messiaen’s tarantula symphony in a komono.

  • Wurtfangler says:

    I can only agree with the comments above. Having heard the BBCSO recently in absolutely outstanding form under Bychkov and Ryan Wigglesworth last night was the perfect example of exactly how a conductor can affect an orchestra. Ensemble, balance and intonation in the Sibelius were all affected by what the conductor was doing – which was little more than flapping. There was no preparation for solo lines, very little nuance in expression and upbeats uniformly misplaced owing to lack of clear direction.

    The Weinberg was redeemed by the superb soloist who inhabited the piece totally. But such lacklustre and nervous accompaniment! Again, entries and ensemble were poor owing to the conducting-by-numbers up front. This is an orchestra that can play far more complex music with ease.

    For the first time in a very long time I left a concert in the interval. I had heard nothing in the first half to suggest the Tchaikovksy was going to be worth staying for.

    And before the shouts of ‘sexism’ come my way – I listen with my ears, not my eyes. My ears were telling me this was a very poor performance, and as far as I could see, the only difference between what I was hearing last night and what I had heard under Bychkov and Wigglesworth was the person up front. I couldn’t care less what sex the conductor is, as long as they are good. This conductor is not and unless she was having a seriously off night she should not be up there leading an orchestra such as the BBC SO. I therefore have to question why this conductor was there when they clearly (on the evidence of last night) had neither the technical ability nor musical intelligence to deserve it.

    • FrauGeigerin says:

      Because it is “cool”, and “fresh”, and “new”. Because some people think it is possible to substitute what really matters for political correctness.

  • lori says:

    I wonder why people never
    say “This was a bad performance, he was hired only because he is a man.”

  • Doug says:

    Curious that this article was accompanied by an ad for “cute bras.”

  • Tribonial says:

    I’m surprised and disappointed to hear this. I don’t doubt the fairness and accuracy of the reviews and I’m sceptical about some of the over-hyped female conductors in the classical world generally and one in particular on this site. I heard Stasevska conduct Opera North’s orchestra a few months ago in Lutoslawski, the Four Last Songs and Bruckner’s 7th. She was excellent in all of them, particularly the Bruckner. I hope that this was an off day, which we can all have.

    • Celine says:

      I doubt the fairness and accuracy of the review, NL appears to have something of a problem with women in the music industry.

    • Al says:

      She has given two excellent concerts with the Orchestra Of Opera North. I was not surprised when I heard of her appointment with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
      I do note that other reviewers were more enthusiastic about her Proms concert.

  • Wimsey says:

    I’m so happy the Weinberg cello concerto is becoming more widely known! It’s a terrific piece.

  • Timothy Raub says:

    Woman Conductor?

    The year is 2019. Why must the conductor’s gender be in the review’s title (or even mentioned at all)?

    Do we say Woman Driver, Woman Voter, Woman Landowner, Woman Pilot, Woman Soldier, Woman Professor, Woman Physician, Woman Police Officer, Woman Violinist, Woman Editor, and Woman Concert Reviewer?

    It appears that we have so much more work to do.

    • Quiet One says:

      How many male conductors have you reviewed where you mention the conductor’s baton or fingers? Such a double standard. If the Concertmaster wasn’t male, I bet your description of the look on his face would have been more insulting.

    • Bruce says:

      We used to say all those things. When I told people my mother was a doctor (starting back in the late 1960s-early70s), they would say “oh, you mean a nurse.” I had to explain that no, she was a Woman Doctor. Nobody has to explain that now. (BTW it used to be the same with “male nurse.”)

      At the moment, “conductor” still means male conductor to most people. They may or may not be chauvinistic or bigoted about it, it’s just the automatic association. The need to emphasize that not all conductors are male will fade as people start to realize that for themselves (just like with female doctors).

  • BOF says:

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. I was in the hall last night and greatly enjoyed the performances by Dalia Stasevska and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In my opinion, I was treated to excellent performances of all three works. I don’t get picky about what the conductor or the soloist wear, I focus on the music and the wonderful musicianship. It is also my experience that lady conductors are often more insightful to the composer’s intentions than their male counterparts. Yes, I do know what I am talking about as a retired teacher of music with forty years experience.

  • Music lover says:

    Too many overrated women conductors pouring out these days…

  • kundry says:

    Talk about fashion and brush over what was, apparently, indifferent and immature conducting. Talk about how the future will make her conduct much , much better…. sure….Trumpet with excitement the arrival and the take over of the conducting world by women, but for Pete’s sake , DO NOT compare Mirga, Dalia, Kristiina, Marin and the other lightweights with the likes of Furtwangler, von Karajan, Solti , Kleiber , Mravinsky, Tennstedt !! Not only we are talking about another profession altogether and another planet, but it is downright insulting to common sense.

    • Novagerio says:

      Kundry: What we once used to call “Common sense” has been abolished and swept from the map by “political correctness”…(sigh!)

    • Bruce says:

      Keep in mind that (a) nobody is comparing today’s crop of young female conductors with those titans of the past — not even Norman — and (b) none of those titans were especially well regarded before they were 50.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Actually Furtwangler, von Karajan, and C.Kleiber had all very much established their reputations well before they were 50. Furtwangler, for instance, got the Berlin Philharmonic job in his mid-thirties.

  • Arameo says:

    That’s good news for women and men conductors equality. It will never be equal until there will be the same amount of mediocre women conductor as there are mediocre men. The good ones will be always and exception

    • Bruce says:

      As Beecham once said about the lack of British conductors in England: “I don’t see why we have to hire so many third-rate Europeans when we have so many second-rate Englishmen here at home.” (Or something like that)

  • Anon says:

    Once again, political correctness triumphs over quality/

    • Heather Bird says:

      Good job you’re not a conductor- you can’t find the full stop key on your ZX Spectrum flower.

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    In the Land of the Blind, the One Eyed Man shall be King.

    • Heather Bird says:

      In the land of the blind, a labrador has more intelligence than writers of quasi-cryptic metaphors.

  • CounterTenor says:

    I too found the Weinberg a revelation, and want to hear it again. (I know, I know, just “go to BBC Sounds”…)
    The radio highlighted some dodgy ensemble in the Sibelius and the opening of the Tchaik 6. Too tired to focus beyond then.

  • miles away says:

    “I had heard nothing in the first half to suggest the Tchaikovksy was going to be worth staying for.

    My ears were telling me this was a very poor performance, ..This conductor is not and unless she was having a seriously off night she should not be up there leading an orchestra such as the BBC SO.

    I therefore have to question why this conductor was there when they clearly (on the evidence of last night) had neither the technical ability nor musical intelligence to deserve it.”

    I pretty much agree with this verdict, listening to this outside the UK, the 5/4 movement was almost a piece ballet music – it was so superficial.

    This great masterpiece should not be approached lightly.

    Having done it years ago with Roddy Brydon, (totally unforgettable!), the 6th is on the same level as a great Shakespeare tragedy.

    Watch a Lear in the hands of Sinden or another great artist, – you will remember it all your life.

  • emily says:

    You are a prick, Lebrecht.

  • Heather Bird says:

    What are you wearing when writing this Norman? We’re all dying to know.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Huh? If the sleeves covered the hands then that is something worth mentioning, since it would make the conductors gestures difficult to follow.

  • Heather Bird says:

    Maybe the discussion should be more about why orchestras don’t respond to female conductors, no matter what they wear. The answer lies very clearly in the misogyny so clearly portrayed in this article and in the frankly shocking comments.
    The basic lack of understanding of comparing contemporary female conductors to the admittedly great conductors of the past is laughable. How many women had any chance at all of realistically pursuing a career as a conductor? None. Even as recently as this decade, prominent conductors of the best UK orchestras have publicly stated that women conductors are “distracting”. Are male musicians really so fragile and at the mercy of their delicate male hormones?
    I think a prominent writer on all things classical has a responsibility to take his mind off the base attractions of a backless dress and more on the issues that affect female musicians of all ages and of all stages in their career. This article sadly shows that we have a long, long way to go. It’s utterly disheartening and saddening. I suggest you all move a century forward and take your minds out of their respective gutters.

  • Peter Schünemann says:

    I was surprised to read in Slipped Disc such a bad review of Dalia Stasevska’s recent concert at the Proms. Reading SD I came to the conclusion, that ususally Valery Gergiev’s enemies are Mr Lebrecht’s friends….

    In April 2014 this Finnish-Ukrainian conductor wrote an open letter “to the artists who support Putin’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine” (Gergiev, Bashmet, Matsuev etc.).

    I thought, because of this protest against Gergiev she would at least in SD shine in a better light.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      What a preposterous misreading. Her politics have nothing to do with me going to her concert with an open mind, prepared to observe, report and judge her on results. I won’t go to see Gergiev any more because (a) he may not have rehearsed (b) he will probably turn up late and (c) he is Putin’s propagandist. In that order.

      • miles away says:

        I won’t go to see Gergiev any more because (a) he may not have rehearsed (b) he will probably turn up late and (c) he is Putin’s propagandist. In that order.

        ALL Completely TRUE.
        I have watched the shambles which he called a last minute rehearsal with his own orchestra.
        Watched the train wreck which was supposed to be a concert, recorded it for posterity, and shown it to musician friends.
        (They were in shock!).

        Point a) is wrong “MAY” is incorrect.
        He 100% WON’T have rehearsed anything, will conduct with his characteristic “shake”, and basically not give a damn whether the orchestra follow his stupid Musin learned shit.

        b) Is also wrong. like Putin he ALWAYS turns up late then pretends to give an interview to the press.

        c) Is partially correct, like an iceberg you only see the visible bit.

        I realised there were excellent musicians in Mariinski, just Gergiev is not one of them.

        Look at his idea of musical “interpretation” it always follows the same basic game plan.
        Once you get wise to it, you can see it’s all just a load of hyped up old crap.

  • Bratschegirl says:

    What a daft thing to say about Igor Yuzefovich, Norman. I’ve worked with him in a number of orchestras—he’s a first rate CM who prepares impeccably.

  • Emma says:

    Wow, I’m looking forward to you describing the attire of the male conductors and soloists next time you write a review, or perhaps you’ll just concentrate on their expertise and mastery of their art forms

  • Jost Miehlbradt says:

    Not completely true. Think of Mischa Maisky.

  • Karen says:

    What can I say? The reviewer was definitely into what certain women were wearing…AND INSTEAD…could have given a more precise & accurate “portrait/interpretation of the pieces performed.

  • Karajon says:

    This is what you get with quota conductors.