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Originally published April 14, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 14, 2005 at 10:57 AM

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Classical music

Conductor foresees more women taking podium

It's one of the last bastions of sex discrimination in the performing arts. And it's occurring in the most prominent place in all of classical...

Seattle Times music critic

It's one of the last bastions of sex discrimination in the performing arts.

And it's occurring in the most prominent place in all of classical music: the podium.

When you ask conductor Marin Alsop, who makes her Seattle debut with the Seattle Symphony and cellist Truls Mørk next Thursday, whether there's a glass ceiling in her profession, she chuckles.

"I don't know if it's a glass ceiling, or a concrete or a fabric one," she says in a phone conversation from her Colorado home, "but it's definitely a ceiling. I'm very proud that I'm to become the first woman conductor in history to lead the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (of Amsterdam), but I'm also appalled. It's sort of surprising that one can still be the first woman in so many areas — in the 21st century."

Not only in America (where sex discrimination is ostensibly illegal) but also abroad, symphony orchestra membership is tipping in the distaff direction — though some major European orchestras still have only a token woman or two. About one-third of the Seattle Symphony roster is female. Women soloists are far from scarce on the concert stage; last month, both Cecile Licad and violinist Akiko Suwanai made memorable music as soloists with the Seattle Symphony. Women also can be found at the top administrative positions, and also at the top of boards of directors, in the opera and orchestral worlds.

Considerable care is taken these days in American orchestra auditions to ensure that there is no gender bias. Players audition behind screens that shield their sex, age and ethnicity; floors usually are padded to conceal the sound of women's high-heeled shoes.

But no such process applies to conductors.


Marin Alsop thinks it's easier for women conductors in England, where she has a great deal of conducting experience, "because of Margaret Thatcher. It's a different kind of society. Once they have had a powerful woman prime minister, they have a different outlook on gender and leadership."

"We don't audition behind a screen," says Alsop, 48, who nonetheless has become one of the most prominent and successful women conductors of all time.

"I see this as a metaphorical issue. The conductor represents the ultimate authority. Until we live in a society where women have ultimate authority, the idea of a woman conductor will be resisted."

Alsop thinks it's actually easier in England, where she has a great deal of conducting experience, "because of Margaret Thatcher. It's a different kind of society. Once they have had a powerful woman prime minister, they have a different outlook on gender and leadership."

The music director laureate of the Colorado Symphony, Alsop has gotten the most attention for her work in the United Kingdom. She began working there in 1996 at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, where Alsop was enough of a hit that the Scots decided to create a position for her. She stepped in at the prestigious London Symphony Orchestra at the last minute, and "really hit it off" with the players; the same thing happened with the London Philharmonic, with which Alsop now is recording some highly successful Brahms symphonies on the Naxos label.

In 1997, she guest conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, where she proved so popular that Alsop became their principal conductor (this term is used more widely in the UK than is music director, the standard term for American orchestras' artistic leader).

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"I have a long and happy relationship with British orchestras," she explains.

"They're really easy for me to get along with. We share the same work ethic."

But the American style of podium leadership doesn't always go over very well in the UK, Alsop reports. Asked about the difficulties faced in Britain by other American conductors (including Seattle's Gerard Schwarz, who will leave the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 2006), she says, "There are several different elements. Gerard Schwarz and I are both hands-on music directors. That's not quite the style there. They have a lot more musician involvement and administrative involvement in running the orchestra. But I had a very slow and gradual introduction to this process."

Several American conductors have collided with the British orchestra system. Leonard Slatkin stepped down last fall from the BBC Symphony in frustration over "his inability to control hiring or overall programming or the choice of soloists, sometimes even at his own concerts," according to New York Times critic John Rockwell, who also pointed to "Kent Nagano's unhappy tenure with Manchester's Hallé Orchestra a few years back."

Alsop acknowledges that a good relationship with British orchestras is "not something that happens overnight. I think I was fortunate in that the Colorado Symphony functions more like the London orchestras: not a lot of bureaucracy or layers of corporate development, but more grass-roots. I love the Bournemouth musicians, and we're already talking about an extension of my contract there, which is up in 2006."

Among her coups are the coveted Artist of the Year prize from England's Gramophone Magazine and the Royal Philharmonic Society's Conductor of the Year.

Last year, Alsop conducted four all-Bernstein concerts at the New York Philharmonic; she was originally inspired to be a conductor after watching Bernstein at work in one of his fabled "Young People's Concerts." But like many women conductors, she had to found her own orchestra, Concordia, in order to be able to conduct it. In this, she followed in the footsteps of Sarah Caldwell,who founded the Opera Company of Boston, and Eve Queler, founder of Opera Orchestra of America.

Top American conducting jobs are still elusive, even for Alsop. She told Colorado writer Marc Shulgold that she had been in the running to head both the Ravinia Festival and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: "I've heard that (the rejections) were because I was a woman."

But she also knows that the male domination of the podium is unlikely to continue indefinitely.

"As society changes," she told The Seattle Times, "so will conducting. I prefer to dwell on the positive, and how fortunate I've been."

For her, the toughest thing isn't getting conducting gigs; it's leaving behind her 1 ½-year-old son. As we speak, she's answering the doorbell, turning on a CD for her son, and making final preparations for her conducting trip to Europe and the UK.

"It's always hard when you have a family," says Alsop, who is single.

"Leaving is just killing me. I hear it gets easier as your child gets older, and I certainly hope so!"

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

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