Women Conductors Are The Rule, Not The Exception, At A New Classical Event

Oct 2, 2020
Originally published on October 6, 2020 11:09 am

In the orchestra world, conducting and music directing are still male-dominated fields. In the United States, less than 10% of orchestras are directed by women. In Europe, the figure for major orchestras is less than 6%.

Founders of La Maestra, a Paris-based organization, set out to change that by promoting the talent of budding female conductors in their very first competition, held in mid-September. Out of more than 200 applicants, 12 female conductors from across four continents competed for three top prizes, including cash, mentoring and a series of concerts conducting orchestras in France and abroad.

"People say, 'Is it really necessary to have these opportunities for women? It seems discriminatory toward men,' " says Marin Alsop, a competition judge who leads both the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. "All I can say is that men have had hundreds of years to open the door to women and they chose not to. This isn't really about competing. It's about creating community and a support system for these women to grow and become great artists in their own right."

Gladysmarli Vadel, a 25-year-old conductor from Venezuela who has played the violin since age 4, advanced to the semi-finals. Traveling to the competition marked her first time leaving the country and her first time on a plane.

"I love the violin in the orchestra — I adore it," Vadel says. "But when I played, I felt an emptiness. Something was missing, until one day I was joking around with friends, telling them, 'I'm going to imitate the conductor, and you will be my orchestra.' I was just joking around back then, but who would have known that it would become my inspiration to become a conductor today?"

The six semi-finalists each got 50 minutes to conduct the Paris Mozart Orchestra in works by Beethoven, Schumann and a new piece written for the competition. That the competition was originally slated for March, but the pandemic caused a delay. The rescheduled event featured a reduced orchestra on stage and a spaced, masked audience. But Claire Gibault, one of the founders of La Maestra, says the conductors still faced challenges.

"Traveling was difficult and some of the contestants had not conducted for six months, because there were no events in the artistic world," Gibault says. "So some of the women were a little fragile."

To lead an orchestra, you have to exude a certain confidence, according to Vadel. "If the orchestra feels the conductor's confidence, they will trust in you," she says. "And they'll be able to do everything you want to convey. It's the most important thing."

Fellow semi-finalist Stephanie Childress displayed a knowledge and authority well beyond her 21 years. The Franco-British conductor reminded the musicians that Schumann made corrections to his score just before entering an asylum.

"This is a tempestuous piece that he revised during very turbulent times," Childress says. "And I think that's a big part of being a conductor — you've got to not only have the technical aspect of things sorted, you have to be kind of mildly charismatic and also passionate about the music [so] you can instill that in the people around you."

Childress, whose parents she describes as old rockers, grew up listening to Queen and Tina Turner. She attended her first classical concert at age 4, where she heard the genre-bending violinist Nigel Kennedy play Vivaldi's Four Seasons. "He was jumping around and having so much fun, having a whale of a time and, I thought, 'Wow this seems quite interesting, this classical music business.'"

There has been some progress in putting women on the conductor's podium. But Gibault, who was the first woman to lead Milan's La Scala orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic, says we can't afford to wait 50 more years for things to get better.

"We sent out a call to the whole world with very demanding criteria," she says. "We attracted 220 candidates from 51 nations. They were all excellent, and it was really hard to choose."

The jury awarded Stephanie Childress second place, and Gladysmarli Vadel got the orchestra prize. All entrants will continue to receive support and advice from La Maestra, in a push to give more visibility to talented female conductors.

Correction: 10/06/20

In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we state that less than 10% of major orchestras in the U.S. are directed by women. In fact, 9.2% of all orchestras in the U.S. are directed by women, according to the most recent figures published by the League of American Orchestras, based on information submitted by the orchestras that responded to the League's survey.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

The world of orchestra conducting is still dominated by men. Less than 10% of major U.S. orchestras are directed by women. In Europe, it's less than 6%. A recent competition in Paris is trying to change that by promoting the talent of budding female orchestra conductors. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley was there.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Inside Paris’ Cite de la Musique, 12 female conductors from four continents competed for three top prizes in the first La Maestra competition. Marin Alsop is the chief conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. She also created a fellowship for female conductors in 2002 and was one of the competition's judges.

MARIN ALSOP: People say, well, is it really necessary to have these opportunities for women? I mean, it seems discriminatory toward men. And, you know, all I can say is that men have had hundreds of years to open the door to women, and they chose not to. This isn't really about competing. It's about creating community and a support system for these women to grow and become great artists in their own right.

BEARDSLEY: In addition to cash, the winners will also get mentoring and a series of concerts conducting orchestras in France and abroad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GLADYSMARLI VADEL: Sorry, sorry. (Unintelligible).

BEARDSLEY: Twenty-five-year-old, Gladysmarli Vadel from Venezuela advanced to the semifinals. It was the young conductor's first time out of the country and her first time on a plane. But she's got 21 years of experience playing the violin. So what made her want to be a conductor?

VADEL: (Through interpreter) I love the violin and the orchestra. I adore it. But when I played it, I felt an emptiness. Something was missing - until one day, I was joking around with my friends telling them, I'm going to imitate the conductor, and you will be my orchestra. I was just joking around back then, but who would have known that it would become my inspiration to become a conductor today?

BEARDSLEY: The six semifinalists each got 50 minutes to conduct the Paris Mozart Orchestra in works by Beethoven, Robert Schumann and a new piece written for the competition.

CLAIRE GIBAULT: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Claire Gibault is one of the founders of La Maestra and the director of the Paris Mozart Orchestra. The competition was scheduled for March but postponed by the pandemic. The rescheduled event featured a reduced orchestra on stage and a spaced, masked audience. But Gibault says the conductors still faced challenges.

GIBAULT: (Through interpreter) Traveling was difficult, and some of the contestants had not conducted for six months because there were no events in the artistic world. So some of the women were a little fragile.

GIBAULT: To lead an orchestra, you have to exude a certain confidence, says Gladysmarli Vadel.

VADEL: (Through interpreter) Confidence - if the orchestra feels the conductor's confidence, they will trust in you, and they'll be able to do everything you want to convey. It's the most important thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BEARDSLEY: Franco-British semi-finalist Stephanie Childress displayed a knowledge and authority well beyond her 21 years.

STEPHANIE CHILDRESS: Very good. Just in that last moment, 204, one before (unintelligible).

BEARDSLEY: Childress reminded the musicians that Schumann made corrections to his score just before entering an asylum.

CHILDRESS: This is a tempestuous piece that he revised during very turbulent times. And I think that's a big part of being a conductor. You've got to not only have the technical aspect of things sorted, you have to be kind of mildly charismatic and also be so passionate about the music that you can instill that in the people around you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BEARDSLEY: Childress describes her parents as old rockers and says she grew up on the likes of Queen and Tina Turner. She was taken to her first classical concert at age 4, where she heard the genre-bending violinist Nigel Kennedy play Vivaldi's "Four Seasons."

CHILDRESS: He was jumping around and having so much fun, having a whale of a time. And I thought, wow, this is quite interesting, this classical music business.

BEARDSLEY: There has been some progress in putting women on the conductor's podium. But founder Gibault, who was the first woman to lead Milan’s La Scala orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic, says we can't afford to wait 50 more years for things to get better.

GIBAULT: (Through interpreter) We sent out a call to the whole world with very demanding criteria. We attracted 220 candidates from 51 nations. They were all excellent, and it was really hard to choose.

BEARDSLEY: The jury awarded Stephanie Childress second place, and Gladysmarli Vadel got the orchestra prize. But Gibault says all of the entrants will continue to receive support and advice from La Maestra in a push to give more visibility to talented female conductors.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.