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Women Conductors Face Obstacles;
China: Classical Music's future?
It’s “This Week in Classical Music”; an update on what’s happening in the classical music world—I’m Randy Kinkel.
Women who aspire to the conductor’s podium face similar hurdles to those in any other profession. But classical music presents a unique, additional set of obstacles.
the industry remains stubbornly embedded in tradition. While visual arts, dance, and theater tend to be open to experimentation, classical music is generally less so; orchestras across the world recycle the works of composers long dead. In this environment, audiences tend to resist change, and big-budget orchestras are loathe to alienate their patrons.
Some orchestras have evolved, thanks, in part, to measures like gender-blind auditions.
According to Sheryl Staples of the New York Philharmonic, her orchestra is now about half women—and the violin section 90 percent female. But bright spots like this have not been duplicated on the conductor’s podium.
The Metropolitan Opera has twenty-three conductors on rotation this season, all of whom are men. Of the top twenty world orchestras as ranked by a panel of music critics—not one has a female conductor on staff.
Some, including the Vienna Philharmonic, do have female guest conductors in rotation.
In recent years, several fellowships and programs have emerged to support women conductors. But many women are forced to create their own opportunities.
Laura Jackson for example, now in her tenth season as the Reno Philharmonic’s music director, she has always made her own way—without help from a management agency that the better-known organizations often use for hiring.
“I have felt as if I’ve had… fewer slots for me because of my gender,” she said. “I’ve done my whole career without management.”
Jackson’s goal is to be judged as a conductor, not as a female conductor, but it’s uphill. “I’m constantly made aware of my gender,” she says. When she guest-conducts, press interviews consistently take special note of it. Only on the podium, it’s a different story. “Usually, I’m not thinking about it,” she says.
As Cayenna Ponchione puts it, “Conductors are meant to be these omnipotent maestros who can know everything and are perhaps a bit mad and eccentric. Those types of characteristics have not historically been responded to the same way in women.”
Inna Faliks is professor of piano and head of the piano department at UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. She says that Seventy-five percent of her students at UCLA are Chinese or Chinese American. Pianists from China, after graduating from the best music schools in Europe and the United States, return home to pass on classical music traditions in their own distinct ways.
Concert halls may remain empty in our nation’s cities, but in China, playing a Beethoven or Chopin program is not boring or unhip. Chinese audiences are hungry for more.
Technical freedom is a must for any performer who hopes to have a career in music. Music students in China, while living in a restricted society, are eager to embrace music from the West and make it their own. What other country can boast a classical music celeb like Lang Lang?
Where else can a classical musician advertise vodka and bathroom tiles? At first glance, the ads are tacky, but also give hope to the notion that Classical music is thriving even in a commercialized China. Classical music is not dying in China. Its audiences are young and eager; its performance halls are new, architecturally stunning and full. China’s current political landscape is complicated, but it now holds a priceless gift for posterity: A key to classical music’s future.
For more on these and other items and events, go to the website, Kbach dot org, be listening each week at this time for another update, Find us on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram; make sure you check out the Most wanted Hour with Linda Cassidy, playing your top 100 most Wanted classical works, every weekday at noon. I’m Randy Kinkel for “This week in Classical Music” on 89-five KBACH Phoenix and HD, a service of the Maricopa Community Colleges and Arizona State University.