It’s hard to sell a young male conductorComment Of The Day
An anonymous comment, inspired by the summer festival course that is shutting out men:
This is a hard post to write: there is self-evidently an imbalance in the profession, and we need to address it. I’m invariably on the progressive end of almost all identity discussions and generally disapprove of most of what is posted on here, but I think it is necessary to have this important conversation about how. I think in the future, people will write PhDs about gender balance in conducting as a microcosm of post-millennial social realignment, but for now I’m deliberately keeping details as vague as possible…
I must declare my interest and probably therefore bias: I’m a youngish male conductor – young enough to be considered a ‘young artist’, but in the real world, I’m not that young. I’ve worked a little in the US, quite a lot in Europe, but mostly in the UK, almost all with reputable orchestras and opera companies, either as conductor or assistant conductor. Maybe I’m no Dudamel, but I’ve always been busy, and mostly rehired by the people that I work with. Orchestras like me, and I think, objectively, I am quite good at my job, if not a high-flyer… but I still have ambitions for the future. The last few years have been a real struggle, not just because of covid, but also because of the politics that now governs the selection of conductors, especially in the UK and US – that is unless you are a famous old man, and therefore somehow entirely immune to any of this. Having been told many times by agents and employers that I am not ‘viable’ for them because of the ‘political climate’ and that it’s ‘hard to sell young male conductors’, I’m finding it hard to move forward with my career. I’ve even been told by the artistic director of one of the most important orchestras in the world that I would do much better if I were a woman… and they were only half joking. This issue is an open secret. I did probably the best performance of my life with an orchestra I had such chemistry with, but whose management have completely ignored me since; their comms are almost all now about diversity and inclusion, and they have a now role exclusively for female conductors. I could list dozens of personal anecdotes about this, but personally I’m now starting to struggle to fill my planner and considering whether there are other jobs I’m able to make a living from.
The reverse of this coin is that many female colleagues have been told ‘it’s a great time to be a woman’ by directors and agents – I know that many of them find this pretty hard to hear because I’ve had countless conversations about it. For those women who emphatically do deserve the opportunities they are getting, it’s really insulting.
However, it has become quite difficult to watching those less able and less experienced female colleagues vaulting over me and far more talented male conductors than I, making big debut after big debut. For generations, I’m sure there have been many women who have felt the same about their male counterparts, and I think for the more conservative upper echelons of our profession, this male advantage largely remains. For young conductors though, I am fairly certain that being female is the most valuable characteristic you can possess to start gaining professional momentum. Some of these young women will turn out to be exceptional musicians, but my feeling is that disproportionately many could not yet be classed as competent (I know this observation will upset some). A few years on, I’ve seen the careers of many of them start to stall after they are put in situations for which they are not yet ready. Not many of us mere mortals can progress at the speed of a Simon Rattle or Klaus Mäkelä, nor should we, no matter the pressures of the industry. Even sadder, it’s reinforcing bad stereotypes about female conductors: orchestral musicians are learning that young women conductors often don’t have the level of competence it now takes for a male conductor to get an equivalent engagement. As a result, to put it frankly, they give them a really hard time. This is based on anecdotal evidence, and I’d be keen to hear from any orchestral players if they have differing experiences.
I know a certain portion of folk reading this will think me rather bitter and probably not a very good conductor. I can’t be the judge of that, but I believe that what I’ve described above is not the way to fix classical music. So actually I’m really pleased to see that Dartington is doing this. Courses like this are where positive discrimination should be happening, and not in the profession. We understand this readily with other elite jobs: if you want great elite athletes or scientists from less represented groups, you have to get to people young and train them (LOTS of them), not wait until the educational output and then push them into senior positions. To do so in the arts is to diminish the importance of what we do. Courses like this are a great way for young female musicians to start. And ultimately, reserving some of these opportunities for young women, especially pre-conservatoire level, might actually start solving the representation problem in the profession – the pool of applicants to conservatoires will broaden, and then, in turn, the pool of competent conductors available to orchestras. It’s a shame for the young men that might miss out, but there are plenty of other chances out there at this stage in their conducting careers. It’s certainly a lot better than training, gaining experience, making huge sacrifices to become good at what you do, only to be discounted at the final stage entirely based on your gender. Just as in any other job, if you have an experienced and capable team (as most orchestras are) you need an experienced and capable manager, because otherwise the team can’t do its job. Once you’re out there in the real world, gender shouldn’t come into it. If we’re educating people properly, gender equality will be merely a byproduct.