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What has gender got to do with conducting?

Here’s Marin Alsop’s take, as Baltimore’s chief conductor lets rip at the dinosaurs:

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  1. José Bergher says:

    Bravo for Marin Alsop! She’s absolutely right.

    • another orchestra musician says:

      I agree with you. I think she speaks with admirable lucidity on this issue.

      Not less relevant to the present discussion, she seems to be doing a very nice job leading the Baltimore Symphony. In matters of artistic administration and public relations, she is sensible, unpretentious, and forward-thinking; as conductor, she is straightforward and reliable. She and the entire Baltimore Symphony appear to have found a sweet spot of intelligent adaptation to the shifting economic and societal realities facing professional symphony orchestras in America – a sweet spot that, thus far, not all of America’s orchestras seem able to find.

      • Musician,

        She is also the principal conductor of Sao Paulo Symphony (OSESP). If my memory doesn’t fail with more or less 15 weeks per years, 3 concert of each concert program in every week (More than 45 concerts). She is fully approved by all, including musicians and audience (1.800 seats fully booked each concert). We can reinforce your adjectives to her.

  2. There are great conductors, there are good conductors, there are competent conductors, there are boring conductors, there are inherently unmusical conductors, there a bad conductors, none of it has to do with gender. Each has to find their own way, there is no road map to follow, he /she who dares, wins ! :):)

  3. She is right, but at the same time I cannot help wondering if nowadays being a woman has not been helped on some occasions, when in competition with an equally prepared and talented male conductor.
    It may not make the news like hiring a baby conductor or a South American dude, but surely the media will more likely notice a woman conductor being appointed a position than an unknown talented male maestro.
    Dark ages? pretty much, but I think sometimes there is an advantage for this, and Mrs Alsop has surely benefited from it from time to time (my sympathy, of course, for all those occasion in which she has been discriminated, but it is not that much different for openly gay male conductors). Re: La Scala, from what I can recall of my visits in Milan, the chief conductor of the only resident Symphonic Orchestra in Milan (La Scala Philharmonic excluded) has been now for some years a Chinese woman (I guess this has double checked boxes, woman AND Asian). So a woman conductor is hardly news even in Middle-Age Italy.
    Unfortunately, the orchestra sounded better with its co-founder Riccardo Chailly.
    Misogyny? Racism? no, good ears, and being fed-up in seeing applied to music making and artistic choices non-musical criteria.

    • christophe says:

      Zhang Xian is Music Director of Orchestra Sinfonia di Milano “Giuseppe Verdi”. ( The Principal Conductor is the American Jew John Axelrod. The Guest Conductors are the Octogenarian (this year) German Helmuth Rilling and the Black British Wayne Marshall. All they need is a Muslim guest conductor, and they will have not only broken down gender barriers but also all the cultural, historical and religious barriers. And all are excellent musicians. Chailly remains their Conductor Laureate. And last I heard laVerdi with Axelrod conducting Mahler 9, they never sounded better to me. The critics seemed to have agreed. Boezio, maybe you should listen to them again. LaVerdi deserves to be recognized for their diversity of conductors, not only their good musical choices.

      • Indeed Christophe,

        I’ve been at Laverdi 3 weeks ago on January 4th, the orchestra conducted by Gaetano D’Espinosa (Ex-Concertmaster of Staatskapelle Dresden) and soprano Susanne Bernhard. R. Strauss and Bruckner. My assessment rely on this concert comparing with the older last one with the same orchestra, on 2003 conducted by Oleg Caetani playing Briten, Beethoven, Chopin. Maybe the sample is too short, but sound to me If there aren’t any progress, at least It still on the same level. Perhaps the example was not the best, however, Boezio got a point. Let’s not lost his subject with the example.

        Someone that belongs to one of the social discriminated groups can be on advantage? I think so. It is just necessary that things besides musical issues can be considerate. Appearance is a strong brand for market purposes, or other that belongs to the same group can protect your similar (Or not) etc. No news and all part of the human behavior.

        Are there any real blind assessment of talent anywhere? Empathy is not a musical issue. Should we eliminate it, before any assessment like this?

    • “surely the media will more likely notice a woman conductor being appointed a position than an unknown talented male maestro.”

      If there were women to notice, perhaps, depending on the city. We would need actual serious examples to test that hypothesis, though.

  4. Gender has a lot to do with it, actually. In another part of this same interview Ms. Alsop notes that a conductor’s gestures are interpreted differently if she is a woman. If, for example, a woman conducts a passage to reflect sensitivity it can be interpreted as “girly” but not for a male conductor who makes the same gestures.

    I have noticed that the music industry has developed various images for conductors which are used as marketing strategies. Star conductors are usually presented in one or more of the following loosely defined categories:

    + Recording industry sex symbol (Abbado, Muti, Mehta)
    + Cultured European/ European civil servant (Sawallisch, Masur, Dohnányi)
    + Image of the corporate executive (or arts patron darling) (Slatkin, Levine, Thomas, Conlon, Bernstein, Maazel)
    + Kindly musical wise man (Günter Wand, Bernstein, W. Steinberg, Giuilini)
    + Authoritarian artist-prophet (Richter, Fürtwängler, Mahler, Toscanini, Stokowski, Reiner, Solti, Karajan, Celibidache)
    + Wunderkinder (Esa-Pekka Salonen, Simon Rattle)

    Since there has never been a world famous woman conductor, they have no established marketing images. The problem is compounded because all of the established images are distinctly patriarchal. Some feel that the nature and traditions of the orchestra give it an almost unavoidably patriarchal character. This problem will need to be solved as women enter the profession. Perhaps new images for the conductor need to be invented — if they can be. There seems to be at least some movement in that direction.

    One could elaborate in detail on each type, how they are created, how they function, how the types overlap, the exceptions, and the stylistic tendencies of their work. Most conductors are a combination of these patriarchal images. I have a PowerPoint presentation will lots of photos illustrating and discussing these categories, but I haven’t yet put it on the web. (Yet another big project.) I write a little more about this idea here:

    • So you think that Abbado, Muti, or Mehta are just “recording industry sex symbols” rather than “cultured Europeans” (or, in the latter case, a non-European who has acquired European culture by study and immersion)?

      I think that says more about the stereotypes you hold dear than about the abilities and qualities of these gentlemen.

      BTW, it’s Furtwängler, not “Fürtwängler”. Not every u has to have an umlaut for a name to be “Germanic”! That reminds me of a review of the first performance of Bruckner 8 in France, given by the WP and Karajan in 1965 (yes, you read correctly, 1965!) which talks about “la gigantesque, la cyclopéenne, l’interminable Symphonie de Brückner” heard for the first time in Paris on that fateful night…

      • No, William Osborne himself doesn’t think actually are – were – merely “recording industry sex symbols”. He’s describing broadly how they were marketed to the general public during their heydays. Yes, the categories are broad and stereotypical, but I do think he’s right that those are the basic ways in which conductors were marketed to the average buyer of concert tickets or recordings.

        I’d disagree with him on one detail, though: I think Michael Tilson Thomas started out as a combination of wunderkind and sex symbol, even though he was too old for those roles by the time he got really famous at the San Francisco Symphony.

        • I don’t remember, for instance, Abbado or Muti being marketed as “sex symbols”. I just remember them being marketed as – Abbado or Muti. There wasn’t much marketing beyond advertising concerts and recordings other than nice pictures of the artists. Those weren’t particularly “sexy” though. Just nice portrait pictures, basically the same glossy style for all of them.
          I don’t remember any advertisements with Abbado lying on a beach or Muti shirtless on a motor cycle. Do you?

    • Lord Montague says:

      These stereotypes are silly, and also funny. Says more about you than about them. Playing your game, Abbado “sex symbol”? Masur “civil servant”? Seems far off even for stereotyping. And nothing prophetic about Toscanini. He was as prophetic as an army general. Solti was also no prophet. For him you could add the category “slick Car sales man”. :)

    • How long can a conductor remain a wunderkind? Your examples are pushing sixty.

      • They were marketed as Wunderkinder at the time their reputations were made. Remember, this isn’t about what kind of artists these conductors actually are; it’s about the archetypes/stereotypes used to market them. Unfortunately, for a conductor’s career advancement, marketing matters a great deal.

        • I don’t think it really did nor does it matter all that much. There were/are plenty of maybe not so very flashy or attractive artists in the conventional, “marketable” sense, people like Harnoncourt, Boulez, Levine, Haitink, Wand, etc who still made very nice careers. Not because they were marketed in this or that way. The marketing usually just follows and slightly enhances how they come across in the first place. E.g. pictures of Harnoncourt often showed him very plainly dressed and profiles mentioned that he doesn’t like glitzy hotels, he prefers to stay with friends when on tour, but all that is really pretty irrelevant. If they are good, they make a career, not in all, but in most cases. Because there aren’t all that many really good conductors around to begin with.
          Abbado wasn’t nearly as hyped as many others when he was elected by the BP. He was well known, had held nice posts at La Scala, the LSO, the Vienna opera, made plenty of recordings (like almost everyone else), there were some nice pictures of him on some of the covers, but his quiet, modest personality didn’t make him a prime candidate from the marketing perspective. When he was suddenly catapulted into the stratosphere as Karajan’s successor, marketing simply followed that image and presented him as that kind, quiet, “call me Claudio” guy, but marketing hadn’t really gotten him to where he was.

  5. PS: The question she refers to, may sometimes have to do with obsession with food, a subject media relate better than conducting.
    I recall an interview to Fabio Luisi on the New York Times in which there was a lengthy description of his prosciutto-cutter and little about his music making, but I don’t recall him complaining of being patronized or feeling discriminated as an Italian.

  6. William, I agree with your observations, but they relate to marketing/perception etc, not to the actual conducting, and the perception of the person who may perceive a gesture as “girly” says more about the perceiver than it does about the conductor. :)

  7. But we see the “dinosaur attitude” towards women in EVERY profession, not just conducting.

    Working mothers in every profession are asked, “how do you manage to combine work and family?”


    • Lord Montague says:

      I agree, isn’t that a shame how men’s emotional needs are ignored by the society – including women – for most of human’s history? A survey among women would show, that the overwhelming majority of them want that guy they wake up next to in the morning to leave the house and go *hunting* pronto!!! Only recently did men start to actually have a choice.

  8. “Do you cook?” is a question I can easily picture Italian journalists ask a man, too. What Alsop probably doesn’t understand is that “Dark Age” Italy has a vastly more sophisticated food culture than where she is from (she probably thinks that “chicken parmigiana” and meatballs with tons of red sauce is real Italian food). Many Italian men cook enthusiastically and proudly.
    Good thing for her they have McDonald’s in Milano, too, and at walking distance from La Scala (I actually googled that LOL)!

    If gender isn’t such a big deal, why is she making it a big deal? I think it has served her very well. The best female conductor I have come across is a lady named Sharon Lavery, but she doesn’t make a big deal out of the fact that she is a woman, she just conducts, and very well. Maybe that’s why she is not as well known as Alsop.

    • The first question a journalist would ask of a debuting male conductor is whether he cooks? Please do assist me by pointing me in the direction of such a case.

      I will not endeavor to respond to the rest of your post, as it speaks loudly for itself, and for Maestra Alsop.

      • I am not sure I follow you – how does it speak loudly for Alsop if I say I know a female conductor who I think is a better conductor than she is but who is much less well known because she doesn’t make such a big deal out of it? I guess it does speak loudly for Alsop’s self-promoting qualities, is that what you meant?

        As for the cooking thing, I didn’t say male conductors are generally asked if they can cook. I said it’s something which I easily picture a man be asked, too, because I don’t think it has much to do with gender discrimination but the very intense interest in food in countries like Italy which have a highly developed food culture.
        However, Boezio already pointed to an example above, the NY Times reporting on Luisi’s prosciutto cutter, and nobody thought that was playing on Italian stereotypes.

        But let’s start with Alsop and what we talked about here. Do you have a link to a transcript or video of that press conference? I googled it, in Italian, too, and couldn’t find anything of the nature other than the mention that she was indeed the first female conductor at La Scala.
        So how do you know what she said is even true? How do you know that question was even really asked, let alone that it was the very first question that was asked? How do you know Alsop isn’t just playing to the gallery here, playing to stereotypes and prejudices? You seem to have bought that unquestioningly. And even if one reporter asked such a question – reporters ask a lot of stupid questions -, is that enough to slander a whole country as “dark age”? You seem to think it is. Talk about stereotypes and prejudices!!!

  9. David Boxwell says:

    It will be interesting to see how she fares in Sao Paolo, where they ran an authoritarian (Neschling) out of town.

  10. Marin Alsop is talented and speaks well in this video. But it’s her own doing that people bring up the gender card when interviewing her. She never shuts up about it. It has been a continual career thread, even down to some of her programming. You never hear Simone Young going on about it time and time again. If you want equality, shut up and wave the stick and be judged for that alone.

    • I am happy to see that a few people can see behind the facade.
      It is just my opinion, but Simone Young, Claire Gibault and Sian Edwards are equally good (if not better, depending on the repertoire) than Alsop and keep doing their job without bringing up the gender issue. It’s like Margaret Thatcher, when she was the first (and so far only) female British Prime Minister. She considered herself a Prime Minister and not a Female Prime Minister, and invited others to do the same (her merits are of course another matter, surely not to be discussed here).
      Considering food and music, it’s a tradition of Italian culture (Rossini docet) and a particular frequently asked questions to performers who travel around the world. I wonder if she would have been equally crossed by questions like “do you think conductors should reveal their sexual orientation?”, or “what do you think of conductors whose recording career is helped by family or partners’ money’”? or better yet “what have you done to help fellow conductors belonging to minorities”?. She got off easy with the cooking.

  11. I don’t know what she expects. News reporters are always looking for some novelty to report whether the first woman conductor or the first woman astronaut. I remember many years ago when a pop group had a girl as a drummer that was a novelty too at the time and everyone reported on it. And wasn’t it the same when we had our first woman Prime Minister? So I don’t think this Allsop should get too worked up about it.

  12. thekingontheviolin says:

    Why are all these comments evading the issue?
    Which issue?
    The fact that this person, whether man or woman, is unpleasant. There is manifest agression much latent agression , hostility, smugness, and superiority.
    All these qualities are not conducive to leadership or music making.

    Watch the video again and see for yourselves the shoulder hunches, smirks and eye blinking…….

  13. I think Marin Alsop has hit a nerve with some here. I wonder why? (I am cognoscente that we may be looking at the same individual under several names.)

    Please, Ms. Alsop, do not “shut up,” and do not pretend women have the same chance as the men in the field. If there was ever any clearer evidence that they do not, read above.

    The bigots and apologists win only when the minorities “shut up” and take it.

    • Lord Montague says:

      If all you have is a hammer…

    • I too have noticed that one or more people are using “Sock Puppets” to post bigoted messages under several anonymous names. They have considerably damaged the level of discourse here on Slipped Disk, but I doubt there is anything that can be done other than ignore them. The ignorance of their comments generally speaks for itself.

      • I think what really damages the level of discourse here is when you resort to ad hominem attacks and slander people as “sock puppets” whenever they criticize or challenge you. Your very regular calls to have whoever disagrees with you censored or at least ignored are duly noted, too. You spend a lot of time digging up dirt on people and organizations to fuel your self-righteous moral apostle machine, but when your positions are challenged, you usually resort to this behavior or simply bow out of the discussion.
        This is not your blog, so you are in no position to censor people or tell them what they can or can not say, or whose posts they should or should not read and respond to.
        This is Norman’s blog and you should take note of the fact that he redacts posts very rarely, even if they disagree with him strongly.

        • “…when you resort to ad hominem attacks…”

          Speak for yourself.

        • Actually, what I meant to say is that this is the pot calling the kettle black.

          • I know what you meant. But I have never resorted to ad hominem attacks in this forum nor have I ever called anyone names or “sock puppets”. I find it telling that you don’t take issue with William calling some people (including myself) “sock puppets” but with me taking him to task for that.
            I have never called you names either, but since you are one of those here who are always ready to cast the first stone and point your finger, in one of the Karajan discussions I did invite you to come down from your high horse for a moment and reflect a little on how heroically you have lived your own life, and the results of that weren’t all too heroic at all, remember? You going off to Switzerland to study music at the same time as your country killed off millions of people in South East Asia and bombed their countries back into the Stone Age, remember? I never blamed you for that either because I am not into casting my stone first either, but I had hoped that it would make you think a little and get you off your self-righteousness for a while.

          • You seem to think that Mr. Osborne is including you in the group of “sock puppets”. I didn’t see that in his message at all. However, you then proceeded to accuse him specifically of “ad hominem” attacks, although no names were mentioned.

            That in itself looks like an “ad hominem” attack to me, and that is precisely why I said the pot is calling the kettle black.

            As to the rest of [redacted], I decline to comment. But maybe others will? (There, now you can accuse me, too, of making an “ad hominem attack”…)

          • Hey, cool it everyone or this thread shuts down. No more one on one. Address the issues. Cut the fisticuffs.

  14. Geoff Radnor says:

    “Food of Love” ed. Adrian Ball 1971, is another cookbook with 60 recipes by people like Antal Dorati, Neville Marriner and Charles Mackerras. The latter choosing spaghetti Carbonora. Selections add the choice of wines and music to accompany the food..

  15. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    I think Norman should compile a “Slipped Disc” cookbook with recipes submitted by faithful bloggers. Most orchestras in the USA have one with recipes submitted by the cooks among the musicians and staff (many are of the male persuasion and declare their culinary passion loudly). Marin Alsop is a good sport and will probably provide a few of her own.

    • I would love it. I wholeheartedly second your suggestion!

      Thank you for your comment, which made me smile. Reading this thread’s comments had removed it for a bit.

  16. JBBaldwin says:

    “What has gender got to do with conducting?”

    You mean sex, I think; gender doesn’t mean what you think it means.

  17. Geoff Radnor says:

    Simon,do you cook?

  18. G. J. Radnor says:

    Simon, do you cook?

  19. Stephen Carpenter says:

    Just catching up from being away. What a place to start. Maybe I’m just too naive or too different but I just want to say that orchestras are supposedly an organic community that is focused on making music (which is different from decoding marks on the page). I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of that community as a chorister when a chorus was needed. I’ve prepared the same piece for different conductors who put their own particular vision into the mix.
    This is a strange age we live in where issues of difference have had to take center stage because of long term neglect, abuse, suppression, oppression. We are all to some degree sensitive to it. it’s like the day or two after a wound has been dressed. It’s there to see and to feel and it dominates life. But it eventually subsides.
    So, at the end of the day, it’s about producing music that others will get. How do you make that happen? I happened to have caught the recent NYPhil with Maazel and Bronfman (Brahms #1 and Sibelius #2). the critics commented on the tempi (apparently because I didn’t read them). My wife said, “Compared to what? They are his tempi.” He’s my point at last.
    It’s about making “music” and the need to make music is in our souls. For musicians, i submit, it’s as deep and automatic as breathing with the added burden of a skill and talent that needs continual honing. When all the various components come together the experience is transformational. It’s about the music and soul. This is lessened and diminished when we feel we have to first examine how those visions are clothed. Close your eyes if the visual shell is not to your liking would be my advice.Of course , if you are one of those making the which point, you make your contribution to the vision as if your life depended on it. But then you already knew that.

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