Exclusive: Don’t lump us together as women conductors

Exclusive: Don’t lump us together as women conductors


norman lebrecht

March 08, 2020

Here’s an exclusive clip from a new film by ex-BBC producer Henrietta Foster on the present state of women in the conductor’s podium.

Filmed over five years, it involves Mirga, Marin, Xian Zhang and others, and will go out daytime today on Sky Arts, a marginal UK channel.

Here’s the gist, exclusive to Slipped Disc.


  • A.L. says:

    Yes it is sexist and derogatory. Male or female matters not one whit. What matters is the end result. Most drop like flies or are inconsequential, male or female. Ever heard of or read anything like “one of the fast-rising male conductors of any generation”? Of course not.

    • Mike Schachter says:

      Precisely, why not treat individuals as such?

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Actually, we often hear about “fast-rising male conductors”. Karajan was one of those “fast rising” conductors once (“the boy wonder”). And so was Rattle.

  • Kna says:


    Is it about conducting?

    Did Mirga say “Toscanini”?

    In the bottom line, it sounds pathetic because you are less than mediocre, not because you are women.

  • NOrbert says:

    What is the final piece from 3:30 ’till the end please?

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    But surely the way you refer to “Mirga, Marin” is a bit of stereotyping ? I don’t see SD refer to “Daniel” and “Simon”

    Women have surnames too !

    • Kna says:

      Give us a break…

    • Eric says:

      It’s what fans do, implying a close relationship which they probably do not have, such as referring to Callas as “Maria”.

    • Couperin says:

      In all fairness, it’s just that nobody can spell Mirga’s surname. But people say Alsop, Malkki, Glover, etc all the time.. so, silence your trigger!

      • Una says:

        A bit male over 60s army-like and British public school to call anyone just by their surname in this day and age – unless it’s in jest or said in a way when you dislike them.

    • Derek says:

      There is less formality with some.

      e.g. Yannick, The Dude.

      • Derek says:

        I mean there is less formality by SD in how it refers to certain conductors. (as a form of shorthand).

  • mary says:

    it is false that men and women conductors are the same, woman conductors had/have to overcome one extra-obstacle: being female.

    Sure, certain male conductors may also have to overcome an extraneous obstacle, like being Jewish (in another era), being Hispanic (in a more recent era), being black (in the current era), but the same female Jewish conductor, or latina or black conductor still has to overcome one additional obstacle: that of being female.

    That overcoming-ness of female-ness makes for a different kind of person, which in turn makes for a different kind of interpreter.

    And I can hear the difference.

    • TheBatonCynic says:

      The other major obstacle.. the inability to set and keep a tempo…although in fairness that hasn’t been a major obstacle for the current crop of time beaters of either gender. They wobble along, slaves to the tempo vagaries of whichever orchestra they are following that week…sigh….I miss real conductors.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    1:57: Marin Also criticizes people’s perception that “women can only conduct Mozart”. The latter such a pathetically uninformed comment: a good performance of Mozart is very hard to pull off, much harder than a superficially impressive performance of a fast and loud romantic or modern showpiece.

    • Bruce says:

      Whatever. IMO Jane Glover is possibly the best living Mozart conductor. (I’m sure I’m forgetting, or unaware of, many great ones. At the same time, I feel sure there aren’t that many great ones…)

    • Kyle A Wiedmeyer says:

      A lot of men in the classical music world, such as Vasily Petrenko, who have criticized women conductors have done so because they believe women cannot conduct “heavy” music; Mahler, Bruckner, Wagner, etc. So she’s not “pathetically” uninformed in that regard.

    • Stereo says:

      She can’t even conduct Mozart and her Mahler is so so boring.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Mozart: easy to conduct, hard to conduct really well.

  • D** says:

    There’s something else to consider, and I’ll call it “the look,” but perhaps others have a better name for it.

    Joanne Falletta, Leonard Slatkin, and Gustavo Dudamel (there are countless others) all have it. When one watches them, there’s the sense that they’re excellent conductors, conductors to be taken seriously. Perhaps its their facial gestures, hand gestures, or physical appearance (yes, that’s a touchy one) that helps to make them successful.

    Many spend years learning from the best, but never achieve great success. I’m convinced that part of the reason is that they lack “the look.” It isn’t fair, but it’s reality.

    Do our eyes determine the quality of a performance or the talent level of a performer? A great deal of research has indicated that the answer is yes. Here’s the link to a study: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749597813000861

    I don’t know if it has ever been done, but it would be interesting to have a professional orchestra record a Beethoven symphony under the direction of a famous guest conductor. At another time, when the group was well-rested, they would record the same work with a talented, but relatively unknown leader. Listeners would then have to decide, without knowing who conducted the performance, which performance was superior.

    • kundry says:

      It is called charisma – the term is as old as the world and it applies in all walks of life. It is also talent , sometimes genius – that is obvious to even the most uneducated public – they can sense it.

    • Talking the talk says:

      Dying of laughter – not corona virus yet- after reading the three names of the conductors who you judge to be excellent & serious.

    • Mathias Broucek says:

      I once saw a VERY frail Wand do Bruckner 9. His arms did very little and I couldn’t see his version of “the look” but it must have been impressive because my heart nearly stopped in the coda to the first movement….

      • Petros Linardos says:

        I had a similar experience with Wand conducting Bruckner’s 8th Symphony, in 2000. Back in the early 80s, with Karl Böhm and Yevgeny Mravinsky. I feel very lucky.

        I wish orchestral musicians could weigh in on great conductors’ ability to delivering towering performances, despite age and frailty.

      • Trebles All Round says:

        How interesting that Broucek cites Wand and the presence (I prefer that to ‘the look’) which he displayed once he was on the podium. I agree that his performances of Bruckner were of the highest order. But was he charismatic? He had a reputation as the rudest conductor on the scene, although I suspect that there were many other contenders for the position. Wand believed in many and rigorously intensive rehearsals, and the story goes that he was invited by the Chicago SO to conduct Bruckner 8 (other numbers exist and may be more appropriate) and replied that he would do it if he had ten three hour rehearsals. ‘But, Meister,’ came the reply from Illinois, ‘our orchestra is in the highest league and only last season they performed this symphony to great critical acclaim.’ ‘Ah,’ said Wand, ‘and who was the conductor?’ ‘It was Maestro Solti,’ was the reply. ‘In that case,’ said Wand, ‘I will need fifteen rehearsals.’

        The point of the story, whether true or apocryphal, is that Wand was one of the last of a musical generation to whom was accorded the then gender specific adjective magisterial, not least because such conductors had learnt their craft over many years in the pit of a provincial opera house or as Kapellmeister somewhere or other in order one day to be held to profess mastery of that craft. There was also a tendency to accord unquestioning respect to an assumed gravitas in the elderly, of whom it was imagined that they were steeped in acquired wisdom and humanity, even when it was clearly deficient in many of them when it came to rehearsal.

        Autres temps, autres moeurs, and while evidence of how the wisdom of years lives on to great advantage in a Blomstedt or, until his much regretted retirement, Haitink in their very special performances, both are conductors who display the wisdom of their years yet have no reputation for patriarchal tyranny. And so in this new context of collaborative music making there will, hopefully, follow in their footsteps a new generation whom time’s tender mercies and the years will separate into those who have achieved the getting of wisdom and those who have not; that there will be older conductors both female and male whose lifetime’s experience will give them their uniquely precious standing in concert hall and opera house. And so, finally to draw this overlong comment back to its intended thread, time will with luck, and after many a year, be gender blind and for every magister on the podium there will be a magistra.

        As the Book of Proverbs has it, ‘Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.’ It applies to both women and men, but, whether on or off the podium, it will take time to nurture and fulfil.

        • Struart says:

          From a 1989 interview with Wand:

          Bruce Duffie: I want to ask perhaps an impertinent question. A lot has been made about your desire for many rehearsals, and I don’t wish to go into that so much, but I’d like to ask if the first performance of a concert is perhaps an additional rehearsal for the second performance?

          Günter Wand: No one musician, I think, said we had too much rehearsal. No one musician. When I had five rehearsals and I’m satisfied, then it’s good. But I’m absolutely convinced when I had seven rehearsals it’s better than five rehearsals. With the BBC Orchestra in London — which is a very good orchestra — I had twenty-five or twenty-six hours of rehearsal, and not one musician came to me and said it was too much. They all say, “We had a fantastic week with you. Thank you, thank you.” So, that’s my answer. A conductor has to say some practical things to the music professional, not philosophical ideas. It’s only in Chicago that I am always asked why I had five rehearsals. I think it is better to look what happens after the rehearsals. In the newspaper was written that I had a double rehearsal, like Georg Solti. That’s not true. He had four, I have five. That’s all. I see the orchestra the first time in my life, and it was very exciting. It’s not so easy to come in a country that you have never seen. It’s my first time in America. Nobody speaks German and I don’t know what’s happens, but I am so happy to feel that the musicians agree with me. That is the most important thing for a conductor — to have the feeling the musicians are also happy.

  • RW2013 says:

    Pure Fremdschämen.

  • kundry says:

    Mirga does not “feel” to be like Toscanini. That was the problem. We are grateful that it is resolved. All is good now with the present world of conductresses and we shall also differentiate – ergo – one worse than the other. This is not to say that things are better with their male colleagues. Lots of new people beating time. They are so lucky with the excellent level of today’s orchestra musicians. Just don’t get too much in the way and smile regardless of context.

  • Rachael Young says:

    “Sky Arts, a marginal UK channel.” Any more marginal than BBC 4?
    (I understand Sky Arts plan to go ‘free to air’ later this year)

  • Cubs Fan says:

    “The growing increase of women…in music…I consider as one of the signs of the downfall of our art.” – Anton Rubinstein (1891)

    • Bruce says:

      It’s interesting that Anton Rubinstein is remembered today almost exclusively for his short-sightedness (Tchaikovsky’s music being terrible, etc).

    • M2N2K says:

      Yes and no – depending on how we look at it. 
      Increasingly larger percentage of young people going into classical music as their lifetime job are female, not only because now they can, but also because in many ways, including financial terms, most societies value our art – in relation to other endeavors – less now than they used to do in 1891, and in majority of cases for various reasons men are still widely considered and often expected to be the main breadwinners, which naturally makes them interested primarily in more lucrative professions.
      On the other hand, if our art has been in such lamented “downfall” for at least 130 years now, it is hard to explain how and why the average skill level of its practitioners has actually risen considerably during that same time period.

  • M McAlpine says:

    I shall not be watching this outpouring of self-justifying nonsense. If women want to conduct then just let them prove themselves on the podium with great performances and without this stuff.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Mirga, Jane and Marin are all proven performers. No question about that. But I grow concerned that many women are pushed ahead because of some quota system or other. That’s my only beef.

    In Australia, Sydney University is dropping the entry quotas for women into STEM degrees by up to 10 points.

    • Karl says:

      That’s the reason Clarence Thomas opposes affirmative action. He argues that affirmative action amounts to racial discrimination and said the stigmatizing effect put him at a huge disadvantage when he was trying to find work as a lawyer. It will be the same if women are given opportunities based on their gender and not their abilities.

      • Hmus says:

        It was affirmative action of the most cynical kind when Clarence Thomas was appointed to undo the work of Thurgood Marshall. One can only hear echoes of the scene in “I Claudius” when Caligula says to his Uncle Tiberius “I always say, find a dog who’ll eat a dog.” And in this case we got a lapdog for the odious Antonin Scalia whose destructive handiwork in the “Citizens United” decision is now being felt world-wide.

  • Nightowl says:

    I like Mirga, a Karate chop in the interview, a Karate chop in NL’s blog posted photo as well. (Cheeky comment…sorry)
    I am sure she is good, through hearing her interview bit.
    I think a conductor I could somewhat respect.

    Mirga, we’d like to have you out in Japan, so many bad conductors here….

  • John Wills says:

    Hasn’t anyone in the USofA heard of Simone Young?

    • charlie says:

      Only recently here, though I understand she conducts mostly in Europe and Australia. She is impressive with Wagner’s music, at least.