Top Orchestras Have No Female Conductors. Is Change Coming?
At the largest American ensembles, one of music’s most stubbornly homogeneous spheres, a shift might be on the horizon.
By Javier C. Hernández
For years, they have worked their way to the top of the classical music industry. They have confronted stereotypes that they are too weak to lead. They have shared advice about how to deal with sexist comments and even how to dress.
Now a group of women could be on the cusp of breaking barriers in one of music’s most stubbornly homogeneous spheres: the male-dominated world of orchestral conducting.
In the history of American orchestras, only one woman has risen to lead a top-tier ensemble: Marin Alsop, whose tenure as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra ended last month. Her departure has ushered in an unsettling era for the country’s musical landscape. Among the 25 largest ensembles, there are now no women serving as music directors.
Alsop, 64, said in an interview that she was surprised the statistics remain “so shockingly brutal.” When she assumed the top spot in Baltimore in 2007, she expected more women would soon be appointed at other orchestras.
They never were. Instead, she said, she met resistance when she tried to bring in more women as guest conductors.
Alsop said she feels the current moment could be different, since the #MeToo movement and a broad reckoning over severe gender and racial disparities in classical music are putting pressure on arts leaders.
“I hope that we’re past the tipping point,” she said. “It feels that way. But I’ve been naïve in believing that before.”
The German conductor Ruth Reinhardt, 33, a former assistant conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, said, “My generation is maybe the first one who got equal opportunities to develop and grow.”
Still, she said she feels there is a perception that there is only space for a small number of women to rise. “We have thousands of male conductors, and there’s good male conductors and bad male conductors and everything in between,” she said. “There should be a right to have just as many women conductors.”
The talent pool has widened in recent years. Competitions, master classes and fellowships geared toward women have become more popular. Veteran conductors like Alsop and JoAnn Falletta, the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in New York since 1999, have started programs to mentor rising artists.
Falletta, 67, said she helps women navigate a variety of issues, including what to wear while conducting and how to build trust with boards of directors dominated by men.
“You have to find your own authority,” she said. “You don’t have to imitate anyone. You don’t have to be like a Toscanini. That actually doesn’t work anymore, to be a conductor with totalitarian power.”
Jeannette Sorrell started her own ensemble, Apollo’s Fire, a Baroque orchestra based in Cleveland, in part, she said, because she encountered bias while trying to navigate a traditional career. She said a lack of diversity on boards is a major obstacle.
“A lot of orchestras are still led by boards of directors who see their role as the guardians of tradition,” said Sorrell, 56. “That is a very important role for a board, but it’s not the only role.”