Where are the Berlin Philharmonic’s women conductors?

Where are the Berlin Philharmonic’s women conductors?


norman lebrecht

June 26, 2020

Emmanuelle Haim was the only woman in the Berlin podium this season, Susanna Mälkki the only one next year. Why so few?

Intendant Andrea Zietzschmann tells VAN magazine:

I am actually in conversation with all the conductors who are already guests with major orchestras. Take Joana Mallwitz, who makes her debut with the Vienna Philharmonic this summer. I was speaking to her agent just before we spoke, we are carefully considering when the time is right. There is now a whole generation of female conductors who are just starting out and are incredibly talented, but they also want to wait a bit … including Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. I have known her for years and have had several conversations with her. Last time I asked her: ‘When are you going to make your debut with us? We want you to come.’ She said, ‘Yes, give me a little time.’ (More here.)

The point is, surely, that the Berlin Phil have been so slow off the mark in engaging women – slower even than Vienna – that the rising generation of female conductors are not rushing to take up its offers.



  • Martin Carpenter says:

    No, who (of whatever gender) is going to turn down the BPO ? A bit of a skewed argument here

  • KH says:

    Nathalie Stutzmann, my favorite living lieder singer, just made a stunning debut with LA Phil, playing an all-Beethoven concert: https://media.kusc.org/audio/2020/06/2020-06-14-lapo.mp3

    The Beethoven fifth, in particular, is one of the best in recent years (IMO, of course).

    I find it interesting that broadly speaking, LA Phil concerts led by female conductors have comparable quality to those led by their male counterparts. This is by no means true for every orchestra. They are smart to wait before they conduct those orchestras that clearly aren’t going to play their best for them.

    • Roger says:

      I don’t buy your final sentence entirely. The orchestra players are being paid to play their best for whomever is on the podium. Women conductors and orchestra managers shouldn’t hold back just because there are sexists in the ranks of an ensemble who want to “send a message” about having to play for a woman.

  • Tyler says:

    There are many young conductors that are aware that it can be a trap to go to major orchestras too young, try out new repertoire too young, and also…god forbid…not WANT to go to the Berlin Philharmonic. It’s not the pinnacle for everyone, and why should it be? I’m not discounting the gender discrepancy that is so glaringly obvious, but it’s also not a dream from everyone to go there.

  • Manu says:

    The thing is more that Berlin or Amsterdam are big words. And top female conductors are plainly not ready yet for that level. And everybody involved in this is aware of that.

  • PHF says:

    Jesus, it’s all coming back to normal, even the b*** rhetoric of inclusion.

  • MacroV says:

    Conducting the Berlin Phil is a big deal. You want to be sure you’re ready, because you may not get a second chance if you don’t do well. If I’m not mistaken, even Sir Simon resisted their initial overtures.

    Are other big orchestras doing any better? Chicago? Cleveland? Concertgebouw? BRSO?

  • Heini says:

    She also says

    “Was wir natürlich nicht wollen, ist, dass jemand zu früh kommt, vor dem Orchester nicht reüssiert und eine schwierige Zeit bei uns hat. In der Regel macht man danach eine längere Pause, und das hilft eigentlich niemandem. Wir wollen ja mit den Dirigentinnen eine gute Zusammenarbeit und weitere Kooperation. Es ist nicht so, dass wir sagen, wir wollen keine Dirigentin am Pult, das wäre kompletter Quatsch”

    And then

    “Das Problem ist, glaube ich, heutzutage, und das sieht man an allen Ecken und Enden, dass viele Aussagen verkürzt dargestellt werden, nur um Aufmerksamkeit zu erzielen. Man gibt ein Radiointerview, es werden zwei Sätze rausgezogen, mit denen dann eine Debatte losgetreten wird, außerhalb von jeglichem kausalen Zusammenhang, und auch dem journalistischen Anspruch, den Sie sicherlich haben.”


    • Bruce says:

      (via Google Translate, for those of us who)

      She also says

      “What we don’t want of course is that someone comes early, doesn’t succeed in front of the orchestra and has a difficult time with us. As a rule, you take a longer break afterwards, and that doesn’t really help anyone. We want good cooperation and further cooperation with the conductors. It’s not like we say we don’t want a conductor on the podium, that would be complete nonsense ”

      And then

      “The problem is, I think, nowadays, and you can see that at every nook and corner, that many statements are presented in abbreviated form just to attract attention. You give a radio interview, two sentences are pulled out, with which a debate is started, outside of any causal context, and also the journalistic claim that you certainly have. ”


  • sam says:

    Men conductors don’t have the luxury of waiting until they’re ready if they ever get that call from Vienna and Berlin, because they know there is a younger man right behind them ready to pounce.

    (Muti likes telling the story of when Karajan woke him one morning by telephone and offered him his debut at Salzburg, and when Muti protested he needed time to wake up and think, Karajan’s response was “si o no?”. Muti accepted on the spot.)

    Women can afford to wait because there is less competition.

  • Schoenberglover says:

    I thought Mirga wasn’t guest-conducting for a few years anyways.

  • Kenneth says:

    I hardly think it is important. They are conductors; nobody should care about the gender one way or another. And nobody should receive special praise or attention based upon that fact.

    • Kolb Slaw says:

      Except when it makes a difference. Maybe it’s the inability to conquer self-consciousness more than gender, but any fine musician has to rise above who they are and how they were made to play the music and give it what it needs.

  • RW2013 says:

    Sehr brave Frauenbeauftragtenarbeit, Frau Z!

  • Fliszt says:

    Yet the Berlin Philharmonic engaged Antonia Brico to conduct in 1930!

  • Player says:

    I admire a person who doesn’t want to jump in prematurely. Humility is a valuable trait. Perhaps female conductors are naturally predisposed to possess a bit more of it than their male counterparts.

  • Fiddlist says:

    Good question. Mirga is smart to wait. She’s definitely ready now, but the longer she waits, the better she’ll be. Hopefully MD of Berlin Phil in 10 years or less.

    • RW2013 says:

      I don’t believe I’ve just read that Fiddlist.

      • Fiddlist says:

        Why not RW? Please explain.

        • RW2013 says:

          1. Not ready now. They would eat her for breakfast.
          2. Her conducting will always be the same, no matter how long she waits.
          3. You may hope all you like, it won’t happen.
          (Have you ever been to a BPO concert btw?)

          • Fiddlist says:

            On what are you basing these statements? Have you worked with her? I’ve worked with her. I’ve also been to BPO concerts, yes. She has three things which are crucial to being a top MD:

            1) Originality and spontaneity of musicianship, to keep the musicians interested.

            2) Ability to let musicians shine and take creative license, which strokes their egos (the modern MD must always do this).

            3) Ability to galvanize audiences and donors, both through public speaking and her physical conducting style.

            Additionally, her ambition is massive.

            If the BPO musicians “eat her for breakfast” when she works with them (she will, many many times), then unfortunately their egos will have dwarfed even their formidable talents. An orchestra which eats a top world conductor for breakfast should probably convert to the Vienna Phil model.

  • Ken says:

    This view of this subject is beneath all possible contempt. Shouldn’t it be black (sorry, Black) cisgendered conductresses at this point?

    • Kolb Slaw says:

      Why is no one concerned over gay conductors? How many are there, how many that are out and open, how many as successful as straight counterparts? Not many.

  • HugoPreuss says:

    I’m willing to bet the farm that there are *many, many* more male conductors *not* conducting the Berlin Philharmonic this year than there are female conductors not conducting that orchestra…

  • Tamino says:

    Why so few? Because there are so few.
    Good for Mirga that she is waiting.
    That orchestra is known for having no mercy on conductors who are not ready for the top (yet).
    Anyone who is a top talent will eventually make it.
    Gender is – and should be – irrelevant.
    But that reverse discrimination that this blog supports, is not the solution.
    It is artistically counterproductive and could actually damage careers of aspiring young women, before they are actually ready for the thin air of the high altitude.

    • Fiddlist says:

      She’s definitely ready for the top! Why do people think she’s not?

      • RW2013 says:

        cos Brummingem aint Berlin luv.

        • Anon says:

          Very eager to disavow Sir Simon, aren’t you? I had no idea Berlin Philharmonic would like to pretend that their 16 years with Rattle had never happened. Let’s hope the same fate does not befall their present incumbent.

          • Fiddlist says:

            Indeed, that argument didn’t work for Rattle, and it won’t for Mirga. Just wait and watch.

  • Bone says:

    How many Black?
    How many LatinX?
    How many gay?
    How many trans?
    How many gender non-conforming?
    I’m concerned that there are too few of every category. Best to make prospective conducting candidates tick off a checklist.
    Being white and male should automatically exclude a candidate from further consideration…unless they check off the other three boxes, in which case they should still be considered less desirable than female Black or LatinX.

  • Harry Collier says:

    Not many black conductors, either. Orchestras should choose conductors according to ability, suitability, and availability. Not worry about sex or colour.

  • Save the MET says:

    I may not be PC, but why does a gender, sexual orientation, color, wealth, upbringing, teacher, or anything of that nature matter? Seriously. Should they not just be exceptional in their field? Trying to fit specific groups of people of to fill quotas ends up bringing quality down in every respect. It always works that way and in this case performances will suffer. If they earn the right through their abilities, fantastic.

  • Giancarlo Rossi says:

    The Berlin Philharmonic is a SERIOUS institution. Either you’re good enough, or you’re not. Period.

    • MacroV says:

      Indeed. And while they come across very decent and normal in DCH interviews, Live Lounge, etc., I’m sure they’re pretty merciless to someone who’s not up to snuff. Go through their programs of the last 5-6 years and see what conductors didn’t come back for a second appearance.

      The converse: Look who they keep inviting back – Dudamel, Mehta, Gilbert, and others the SD crowd loves to disparage.

  • Feminist thinker says:

    This is truly a curious issue. When Berliner Philharmoniker decides on their next conductor, everybody discusses whether he is good enougth to take the post. But when women conductors are at stake everybody discusses why so few women conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker. Why don’t they discuss whether they are good enough for the task?