Shrinking the Gender Barrier on the Podium
A recent inquiry from a British reporter on the subject of woman conductors started me thinking about that issue. There is no question that in the 43 years I've been involved with classical music I have seen a sea change in that area - perhaps as dramatic or more dramatic a change than I have seen in any other facet of the music business...
It is safe to say that until the past fifteen or so years, there simply was no woman with an important international conducting career. Sarah Caldwell oversaw her adventurous opera productions in Boston, and did establish a modest guest conducting career, but it wasn't as a conductor that she made her major contribution to music. Before her was Antonia Brico, and what we know most about her we know from Joan Collins's film that was made to demonstrate the difficulties, if not impossibility, of a female establishing herself as a conductor.
To deny that this was the result of prejudice in the business at that time would be to deny a clear reality. Let's be candid - women were not even accepted as orchestra members in many major symphony orchestras until recently. It is very sobering that the first woman to become a member of the New York Philharmonic is still in it!
The first woman that actually had a chance at establishing such a career was Judith Somogi - an American who conducted at the New York City Opera with much success. I remember a concert in the 1970s when Syracuse Symphony Music Director Christopher Keene brought Somogi to Syracuse as a guest - she conducted a terrific Tchaikovsky Fifth. She went on to become Chief Conductor at the Frankfurt Opera in Germany in 1982 - a remarkable achievement at that time for an American and a woman, let alone someone who was both! Tragically, she died far too early of cancer at 47, in 1988.
Only within the last two decades has the tide turned - probably the two major pioneers in this are JoAnn Falletta and Marin Alsop, at least in America. When I'm asked about the scarcity of women in the position of music directors of the world's most famous orchestras, I point out that when there is the kind of wall of difficulty that existed in this field, it creates its own shortage for many years after the wall comes down. Since it looked like a career that wasn't possible, women didn't pursue it; they didn't study it, and they didn't attempt to enter it. When the barriers started to come down (and there is no question in my mind that they are, for the most part, down now), the pipeline lacked the numbers. Only in the past decade or two has that changed - and for me it has been one of the most gratifying (not to mention overdue) changes I have seen in my lifetime.
To illustrate the degree of the change, let me divide my concert-going life in half: 1957-1982, and then 1982-2007. In the first of those periods, I saw performances conducted by Sarah Caldwell and Judith Somogi. That's it. Period! In the second 25-year period, I have seen performances conducted by (in no particular order except as they pop into my brain): Catherine Comet, Marin Alsop, JoAnn Falletta, Xian Zhang, Ya-Hui Wang, Simone Young, Margaret Hillis, Joana Carneiro, Laura Jackson, Rachel Miller, Keri- Lynn Wilson, Jane Glover, Giselle Ben-Dor, Elizabeth Schulze, Janna Hymes Bianchi, Carolyn Kuan, Sarah Ioannides, Sarah Hicks, Kate Tamarkin, Sian Edwards, Anne Manson, Mary Woodsmansee Green, Diane Wittry, Emily Freeman Brown, Mei-Ann Chen, Victoria Bond, Rachel Worby, Miriam Burns, Kayoko Dan, Cindy Egolf, Laurine Fox, Susan Haig, Jeri Johnson, Karen Lynne Deal, Andrea Quinn, and Karen Nixon-Lane. That's a ratio of 36-2! (Some of these were seen at League Previews and Conducting Fellows auditions - and please understand, I did that from memory, not a prepared list - so I may well have left some out).
It is in the coming generation of conductors that we will see the real change - because women have been encouraged that this is a profession that holds promise for them. 3 of the total of 5 conductors in the American Symphony Orchestra League's American Conducting Fellows Program are women - a ratio that would have been unheard of two or three decades ago. The National Women Conductors Initiative run for many years by the Bay Area Women's Philharmonic was a major factor in the shift (that program is now overseen by the American Symphony Orchestra League). Clearly, a barrier based on anything other than talent is indefensible - and it is a wonderful, if long overdue, development that the gender barrier surrounding the podium has, if not completely disappeared, been very significantly shrunk.