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.

April 30, 2007 12:47 PM | | Comments (6)



I am a transplanted New Yorker living most of my adult life in Montreal. There was a time in Montreal, not so long ago when women could not perform in the Symphony. THis lead to the formation of the Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra and Conductor Ethel Stark. Although I never heard the Orchestra, I did invite Ethel Stark to speak at a conference on Women and the Arts which I organized at McGill University about 30 years ago.
Ms Stark told of the founding of the orchestra by women who wanted to play and who then drafted her, an accomplished University Music Professor, to be their conductor. THe Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra was the first Montreal Orchestra to perform at Carnegie HAll, long before Dutoit came on the scene.
The Orchestra disbanded when women were admitted into the Montreal Symphony.
One of the stars of the Women's Symphony was flutist Jeanne Baxstresser who went on to be principal in Montreal, Toronto and Boston. Ethel continued her University teaching. In the ensuing years, women have been visible as leaders of several orchestras and chamber orchestras in Montreal.
Among the other women prominent in conducting in Canada are Tania Miller, artistic director of the Victoria Symphony, Agnes Grossmann, formerly director of several orchestras, Lorraine Vaillancourt, founder and conductor of the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne for over 16 years and Jeanne Lamon, artistic director for over 25 years of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra.

I wanted to add that what made Antonia Brico so unusual as a female conductor, particularly when she was most frequently conducting in Denver in the 1960s, at least in my mind, was that she was so brilliant at conducting Mahler and similar composers. Her choices were demanding for anyone, but it seemed to me at the time that her choices were quite unusual as compared to other women conductors. ...but I may just be unaware...

My entire family studied piano with Antonia Brico--Dr. Brico to everyone who associated with her. My mother was one of her "do-over" teachers, who retrained incoming students before Dr. Brico took them on. Teaching piano had some gratifications for Dr. Brico--Cameron Grant, who plays for NYCB, was one of her students, and there are several others who have had modest careers. Judy Collins took voice lessons and some piano from her when she was attending high school there in Denver.

Dr. Brico had an HUGELY strong and dominant personality, but I remember her in tears many times. She was perpetually desperate to conduct. Every summer, she spent three months traveling Europe (to make and keep contacts, and possibly conduct) and frequently Africa (to visit Albert Schweitzer). I believe she'd sometimes do some guest teaching at Bayreuth, but I may be incorrect.

Dr. Brico maintained her own volunteer orchestra for at least two decades, the Brico Symphony. Her interpretations were remarkable. She talked to me many times about who she felt were her most influential teachers, Leopold Stokowski usually mentioned as the most influential. I would agree that he was a giant influence. Beyond that, she was a truly gifted and remarkable teacher of music. Technique was mandatory, but interpretation was everything, even with her volunteer orchestra. She yelled and wheedled and stomped around. She was a terror. But she pulled magic out of her orchestra, and they loved her for it. They couldn't always play the right notes in the right way, but everyone developed a deep understanding of the music they played and how it should sound. I remember the Denver Symphony as being quite unsupportive of Dr. Brico during the 60s and 70s, and apparently the late 50s as well when she first moved there (for her asthma). My family's close relationship with her didn't begin until about 1962. At any rate, she bugged them constantly the first few years, but was seen as an irritant, and they'd toy with her, suggesting that she might conduct for them one season, and then changing their minds. She was frequently crushed, especially because the Symphony had somewhat mediocre conductors for years and years during the 60s and 70s. One of the Rocky Mountain News music critics was quite close to Dr. Brico and tried to intercede for her, but I believe he was unsuccessful.

I was happy for her when she finally began receiving more frequent opportunities to conduct in the 80s and 90s, but her health was poor, and her back had been bad for years, so it was quite sad to me that she couldn't conduct more when she was in her prime. Many people found her terrifying even then, but those of us who knew her knew how sweet she was. From the time I was young, I heard people saying she was her own worst enemy. She felt her problems with being able to conduct, at least in Denver, were that she was "just a piano teacher," even though she felt hadn't trained to be a piano teacher. I think it was a combination of her overbearing personality, and the deep and broad knowledge, training, experience, and connections she had (that intimidated the Denver Symphony's musicians and conductors. I studied bassoon for several years with the Symphony's bassoonist and those were his feelings.

I'm sad and angry all over again, just thinking about all this, but grateful for the opportunity to remember her again.

Thank you for sharing your memories -- many of us never had the opportunity to experience Antonia Brico, and it is wonderful to have someone fill in some details for us.

Henry Fogel

Remarkable that the two pioneer conductors you mention, Falletta and Alsop, both had distinguished careers in Denver, CO. Falletta conducted the Denver Chamber Orchestra for some years in the late 80's, and Alsop was the music director of the Colorado Symphony for over a decade, leaving just a few years ago recently to assume that position in Baltimore. Both orchestras had plenty of female musicians, too. Bravo Colorado!
Jeanne Fuchs
p.s. I think Antonia Brico conducted the Chamber orchestra even earlier, maybe someone else can verify.

Hi Henry,

Just one (pendantic) correction - the documentary on Antonia Brico was made by Judy Collins, not Joan (Dynasty flashback?)

Another pioneering female conductor - now forgotten - came to mind as I read Henry's blog: Frederique Petrides (1904-1983.) Among her many credits, she was the founder of the Orchestrette Classique, an all-female ensemble. I only know her name because I'm an ex-percussionist and Petrides conducted the premiere of Paul Creston's "Concertino for Marimba." She championed the music of many living American composers.

BTW, I believe it was folksinger Judy Collins who made the documentary film about Antonio Brico. I think she studied with Brico but I may be wrong about that.

I apologize - indeed it was Judy Collins, not Joan, who made the Brico film. And I must admit that Frederique Petrides is a new name to me, and I'm glad to learn about her.

Henry Fogel


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