Let’s talk about women conductors…

…because there aren’t very many of them. This gender imbalance isn’t limited to conducting — systemic sexism is alive and well in the field of classical music. According to research compiled by Classic FM radio station, in the 2018/19 season American orchestras will continue to devote “much more time to music written by men and performed by men” than by women. Highlighted in the article was the Philadelphia Orchestra, which will feature only one woman conductor this season (compared to forty-two men), as well as the Metropolitan and Houston Grand Operas, both of which will feature zero women conductors. The LA Philharmonic, meanwhile, has been lauded for featuring twelve women conductors (twenty per cent of the season’s conductors). Please excuse me while I roll my eyes. Of the 100 busiest conductors, only five are women. There is only one woman conducting a major American orchestra – Marin Alsop – she is the first ever, and was only appointed in 2007. Ninety-one per cent of America’s conductors and ninety-five per cent of its music directors are men. Clearly, we have a long way to go.

Mantovani, Prokofiev, CopelandABOVE: Marin Alsop leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an October 2018 subscription series featuring works by Prokofiev and Copeland. | Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Given the lack of women conductors in the field, it is unsurprising that in the eighteen years I’ve spent playing in orchestras – in youth orchestras, college orchestras, at summer festivals, gigging in southeast Texas and Chicago, and now in the Civic – I have played under a total of three women conductors. Of the three, only one was close to my age – CSO Sir Georg Solti Conducting Apprentice Erina Yashima.

Most recently, Yashima led the Civic in our first concert cycle of the season, performing “All These Lighted Things” by Elizabeth Ogonek and Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, but she has worked with us regularly since her appointment to the apprenticeship. I always enjoy playing under her – she radiates competence and composure, is musically exacting in the best way possible, and puts on one hell of a final performance. Over the past two seasons, I’ve many times been inspired by Yashima’s unique mixture of confidence and kindness. In October, I had the privilege to talk to her about her journey as a musician, experience as a conductor, and about sexism in our field.

Civic OrchestraABOVE: Erina Yashima leads the Civic Orchestra of Chicago in an April 2018 concert featuring symphonies by Beethoven and Rachmaninov. | Photo by Todd Rosenberg

About her musical journey, Yashima told me she began conducting at a pre-college for advanced musicians in her native Germany. “One minor was conducting – not with orchestra, of course – but just what the idea of conducting is… And that somehow resonated with me immediately. That was how it started, and I kept that in the back of my mind – I was maybe fourteen or fifteen – and came back to it when I decided to study music.” She also told me about her experience as a rehearsal pianist at an opera house (a traditional ‘first step’ to becoming a conductor in Germany) and being asked to conduct a performance “without ever having had a rehearsal with the orchestra.” When asked what she loves most about conducting, Yashima said she likes its challenges. “I wanted to conduct because I thought it was the most direct way for me to express music, through communicating with gestures. And of course, the repertoire is immense; it never ends. You have to really devote yourself to the music.”

On the topic of challenges, I also asked her what the hardest things about being a conductor are. “There are a lot of things you can’t know until you experience them. And that’s hard to accept because conductors are usually control freaks, and we try to know everything beforehand in order to know what to ask for and what to do. But at the same time, it’s also important to know and recognize there are things that you don’t know.” She also spoke to the importance adapting to different situations and about how things can go wrong “if you’re not aware of something and try to do what you were planning to do” anyway. She said “That’s not how it works and, actually, you learn more when you’re open to certain things.”

Keen to hear about Yashima’s experience as a woman conductor, we began a larger discussion about sexism in the classical music industry. As a violinist, I have seen the severe gender imbalance in the field of conducting, but I was curious to know how it affects women actually braving the baton. In October, I attended a CSO concert – conducted by Marin Alsop – where audience members booed the performance of Bruno Mantovani’s Threnos because of sexist remarks Mantovani made on French radio station France Musique. Discussing the lack of female conductors, he said “The profession of a conductor is a profession that is particularly physically testing, sometimes women are discouraged by the very physical aspect… It is quite challenging.” He also discussed “the problem of maternity.” After learning about Mantovani’s remarks, I wished I too had booed him, especially given that Threnos is dedicated to and was premiered by Alsop.

Mantovani, director of the Paris Conservatory, is far from the first prominent musician to speak openly against women conductors. In 2013 conductor Vasily Petrenko claimed that orchestras “react better when they have a man in front of them” adding that “a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things.” This remark is particularly ridiculous given that the gender and sexuality of orchestra members are increasingly varied. Petrenko further claimed that when conducted by a man, “musicians have often less sexual energy and can focus more on the music” and that “when women [conductors] have families, it becomes difficult to be as dedicated as is demanded in the business.”

Finnish conductor Jorma Panula, when asked in a 2014 interview published by Finnish news broadcaster MTV if he approved of women conductors entering the field, replied “I do not!” Arguing that there is no room for women in the field, he continued, “What the hell, we have men already [in this profession]. It is such a limited profession.” Women, he said, “can try, but it is a completely different deal…some of them are making faces, sweating and fussing, but it is not getting any better – only worse! They can come [to my masterclasses] and try. It’s not a problem – if they choose the right pieces, if they take more feminine music. Bruckner or Stravinsky will not do, but Debussy is okay. This is purely an issue of biology.”

In actuality, Yashima told me she has experienced more racism than sexism in her career. Fellow musicians, she said, are more likely to make assumptions about her because of her race (Yashima is ethnically Japanese) than because of her gender. She mentioned in particular her frustration when German speakers insist on communicating in English, disbelieving that Yashima, who is German, is fluent in the language. When asked what people expect from her as a conductor, compared to what they might expect from for example, an older white and/or male conductor, she replied, laughing, “what’s for sure is, they don’t expect much!” She also mentioned the comfort with which male colleagues and mentors share with her that they don’t like women conductors, often qualifying their statements by saying ‘but I like you!’

Yashima also spoke to musicians’ tendencies to put women conductors “in a box” by attributing musical failings to their gender. She has witnessed, for example, that if a woman conductor gives weak downbeats, it is common for orchestra members to attribute this ‘lack of strength’ to her gender, or to say she ‘conducts like a woman.’ Meanwhile, if a man conductor shouts and gives violent cues, he may be criticised for being ‘aggressive’ but definitely not for ‘being a man.’

The sexism and prejudice Yashima and other women conductors – indeed, other women musicians – face isn’t limited to this, or to the vitriol quoted above. It is as pervasive in classical music as it is in American society. Petrenko’s implication that a woman conductor would distract musicians from their music making, for example, smacks of the same culture that tells women to dress modestly to avoid sexual harassment and assault. Why is it a woman conductor’s fault if orchestra members are so unprofessional that they are unable to concentrate because of an attraction that is neither requested nor requited?

In my career as a violinist, I’ve heard more than one teacher call me a “good-looking girl” and too many off-colour jokes about my name to count. I have been told how to dress and, in a conducting lesson, that the only skin I should be showing was the skin on my hands (at least if I wanted anyone to pay attention to what I was doing). Last year, in an open rehearsal, I heard a conductor tell a nervous musician to “man up!” To my great regret, I have too often said nothing, done nothing. I have too often been a sheep in wolf’s clothing, perpetuating limiting gender norms, sexism, and gender inequalities in ways that are detrimental to the successes and happiness of not only my fellow musicians and me, but of women everywhere.

Bearing this in mind, in talking to Yashima and in my own research, I was struck by her and other women conductors’ hopes for the future. Yashima spoke to me about the average age of famous conductors – most are middle aged or older, many verging on ancient – and how long it takes to become successful in the field. Perhaps, as our generation of musicians and its host of women conductors grow older, we will begin to see the faces on the podium change. Across the world, orchestras are becoming more and more gender balanced. Although principal positions are still dominated by men – even in sections dominated by women (the ‘glass escalator’ effect, which describes increased upwards advancement for men in workplaces that are women-dominated) – we have come a long way even in the last twenty years. After all, it was only in 1997 that the Vienna Philharmonic finally offered a woman musician membership in its orchestra.

For conductors in particular, given the incredibly low number of famous women in the field, there is a lack of women role models. Women who have ‘made it’ – Mei-Ann Chen, music director of the Chicago Sinfionetta, and Marin Alsop, for example – are tasked with not only mentoring women conductors, but inspiring young women and girls as well. In a 2017 Guardian article by Imogen Tilden, Alsop said about ‘teaching confidence’ to women conductors: “Confidence is an issue for all young people today, but I do find that the challenges for women seem to be projecting strength unapologetically. Society interprets women’s gestures very differently, so that if women are exuding an aura of extreme confidence that can be deemed off-putting, whereas it’s desirous for men.” She said it was more about power, “taking it and feeling entitled to take it.” These quotes again draw parallels to the challenges women face, not only in music but everyday life. For Alsop, it’s about exposure and mind-set; the importance of representation and how it can shape people’s expectations. In Baltimore, where she is music director, she once overheard a boy at a children’s concert say he wanted to be a conductor, only to have the girl next to him tell him “boy’s can’t do that.”

Speaking of mind-set… Throughout our conversation, Yashima mentioned working hard many times, whether physical or mental practice, or studying musical scores. She told me her parents instilled a good work ethic in her when she was young. Her dedication to hard work, to musical integrity and excellence, is incredibly inspiring to me. So, too, is her mind-set – in a challenging and seemingly unwelcoming field – to “control what you can, let go of what you can’t.”

By Civic Fellow and violin Carmen Abelson


TOP: A young conductor tries her hand at the podium during a Chichester Festival Theatre Children’s Concert | Photo by Mike Eddowes