The fight for gender equality in orchestras

A week ago a French online information website published an article entitled: « When will classical music cease to be a man’s job ?« . Personally, this article rattled me and convinced me to write a text on my blog to give my personal point of view, that of a female music lover and blogger, on the issue of the visibility and representation of women in classical music. It’s a subject that I’ve been thinking about for a while but I needed a trigger to start writing about sexism and discrimination in the classical music world.

Classical music is not « a job », but encompasses a large number of different occuptations, including artistic jobs, sound engeneering jobs, jobs related to cultural mediation, pedagogy and cultural administration. French sociologist Hyacinthe Ravet analysed in her book Musiciennes: Enquête sur les femmes et la musique (Female musicians: a survey on women and music) that the « learned » music world is not the least feminised one : if « women represent only 24% of musician-performers, as opposed to almost half of actors and two thirds of dancers », they « represent 44% of the performers of learned music, whereas they represent 17% of musicians in popular music. » What therefore seems to be the core of the problem is not the supposed scarcity of women in classical music, but the fact that they too rarely occupy positions of power, hence the welcome initiative of the Philharmonie de Paris and its director Laurent Bayle to create an international competition for conductors, La Maestra, with the collaboration of the French conductor Claire Gibault and the musicians of her ensemble, the Paris Mozart Orchestra.

Classical music, like other professional fields, has slowly evolved towards a greater representation of women within and at the top of orchestras, with a clear acceleration since the 1970s. However, this evolution cannot be analysed without recalling that gender equality is progressing at different rates in different countries and continents, and that the examples often mentioned when analysing the low feminisation of some major international orchestras must be treated with caution. For instance, world-famous orchestra such as the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Wiener Philharmoniker are known to have been slow to open their doors to female musicians or BAME musicians. But one must remember that Germany and Austria are European countries in which pay inequalities are among the highest in Europe. These are also orchestras, and this is not insignificant in terms of equality and diversity, which took decades to acknowledge their Nazi past and to turn the page on it once and for all. All these elements may therefore explain why in some orchestras the tradition weighs more heavily and prevents female musicians from taking up positions of power.

The Mediapart article also quoted a number of sexist remarks by famous male conductors or composers. It is important to condemn the sexist remarks of influential musicians, it would also be advisable not to pillory them for distorted remarks. For example, I’m quite tired with the controversy around Vasily Petrenko’s statement that an orchestra « reacts better when it has a man in front of it », since « a pretty woman on the podium would lead the musicians to think about something other than music ». Personally, this controversy annoys me deeply, because it is used by some music lovers to boycott this conductor, without even trying to listen to his explanations, which I find profoundly unfair (and quite hypocritical when it comes from men), especially since he’s one of the few conductors who works regularly with women concertmasters, including in the orchestras he runs as music director. The Russian conductor explained in an interview to the Moscow Philharmonic society that all he wanted to explain was that in spite of the feminisation of the conducting profession, in some countries like Russia, unfortunately, woman conductors are not respected because of their gender and physical appearance. He then told a rather sad story about his wife, who is a choir conductor and who, asking friends at the end of a concert she had conducted what they thought of it, heard them reply: « Who cares? ». It is a fact that in Russia, although there are many brilliant women musicians, there are very few women conductors. In recent years, the only Russian woman conductor I have seen emerge is Anna Rakitina, assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the Latvian Andris Nelsons. This low representation of women conductors in Russia is once again a reflection of a society that remains very patriarchal and in which power remains in the hands of men.

Furthermore, the issue of gender equality in the conducting world, important as it may be, distracts us from looking at the bigger picture, which is the issue of gender equality within the orchestras. An orchestra is a complex power structure, a « hierarchical microcosm », according to Hyacinthe Ravet, topped by the conductor, and then organized around a myriad of leaders. Yet « women are not only less often soloists than men, but they rarely occupy the highest positions, those of first soloists. » Indeed, as Christian Merlin explained, « at the top of the pyramid is the concertmaster. His/her prestige goes back to the pre-romantic era when, in the absence of a conductor, the orchestra essentially followed the indications of its primus inter pares. Since the advent of the conductor, he/she has become both the first of the musicians and the second man after the maestro. « (Merlin, Christian. Au coeur de l’orchestre, Fayard)

« The second man after the maestro »! How symptomatic this expression is of the existence of a male privilege within orchestras! In the English language, the words « leader » and « concertmaster » symbolize the primary role these musicians hold in the orchestra. However, these super soloists are too rarely women, just like conductors. France has a surprisingly good record in this matter, with several important orchestras where women are concertmasters, such as Jennifer Gilbert in the Orchestre National de Lyon or Charlotte Juillard in the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra. And in the Paris region, it is even more marked with Ann-Estelle Medouze at the Orchestre National d’Ile de France, Sarah Nemtanu at the Orchestre National de France, Deborah Nemtanu at the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, as well as Hélène Collerette and Ji-yoon Park at the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. In the UK, a few orchestras like the BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra (Laura Samuel), the BBC National orchestra of Wales (Lesley Hatfield), and the Royal Northern Sinfonia (Kyra Humphreys) also have women concertmasters. And yet, all these orchestras have male music directors.

Among the major international orchestras, orchestras which receive awards and/or go on international tours, I searched at length for orchestras with women concertmasters, but I must admit that I found three so far: the orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, with the mighty Lyudmila Tchaikovskaya and Olga Volkova, the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, with the great Elise Båtnes, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, where the leader Thelma Handy is assisted by two female associate leaders. Having heard these three orchestras live, I can testify that these violinists are remarkable musicians whose authority and musicianship is recognized by conductors as well as by all the musicians of these orchestras.

The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra or Oslo Filharmonien is for me one of the finest examples of a great international orchestra in which most of the leading positions, both in administration and among musicians, are held by women : the orchestra’s director Ingrid Røynesdal, the orchestra’s concertmaster Elise Båtnes, whose impressive skills and musical intelligence can be heard in the Oslo Philharmonic’s recent recordings of Strauss or Rimsky-Korsakov published by Lawo, principal viola Catherine Bullock-Bukkøy, principal horn Inger Besserudhagen, and the orchestra’s principal cellist Louisa Tuck, who is the star of the orchestra’s recent recording of Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote. And yet, despite all these strong women at the helm of the orchestra, relatively few women conductors are invited as guest conductors, and they have recently chosen as their new music director Klaus Mäkela, a young Finnish conductor, who was also appointed last June at the head of the Orchestre de Paris. So, not only are men omnipresent at the head of international orchestras, but they also combine several posts as music directors, even in the Scandinavian countries, which are more advanced in terms of gender equality.

What is interesting when one watches the Oslo Filharmonien in concert, as in the following video filmed during the concert performed to celebrate the orchestra’s centenary in September 2019, is that we can observe what Hyacinthe Ravet calls « the gendered division of the instruments », that is, « the distribution by gender according to instrumental family » which she summarizes as follows: « Female musicians are largely present among the strings, to a lesser extent among the woodwinds and percussion, and very little among the brass instruments. » In the Oslo Filharmonien, the feminisation of woodwinds and brass is underway, but it can be seen that percussion is still very much a male instrument. Why is there such a difference between instruments? Because « musical instruments convey images and social representations imbued with the values and norms associated with the respective spheres of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’, instigating conventions that frame the bodies. « There is therefore still a lot of groundwork to be done in the conservatories to allow equal access for boys and girls to all the instrument stands, especially since this « gendered sharing » is compounded by a distribution according to social classes of origin.

So, what’s the solution to give more space to women within and at the head of orchestras ? Claire Gibaut and Laurent Bayle have decided to fight against the lack of women at the head of orchestras by organising La Maestra, a competition reserved for women conductors whose aim is to « encourage vocations, federate the international music world around specific commitments in favour of women conductors and offer the youngest among them support which they often did not receive during their training course. « (Source: Booklet programme of the Philharmonie de Paris). This is a welcome initiative, as it highlights the talent of women conductors, makes visible the lack of opportunities they encounter during their careers, and provides much needed support to them in order to propel their careers under the best auspices.

Nonetheless, this competition is not without its problems, for in trying to show at all costs that women are like any conductor, it has designed a very male-oriented programme for the competition, since no work by women composers from the past is included in the programme, and the only woman composer whose work was performed during the competition was Alexandra Grimal, and her score Hummus wasn’t played during the finals, but in the semi-finals. This is a real problem, because as Margaux Chollet and Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu explain in their book Beyonce est-elle féministe? (Is Beyonce a feminist ?): « Women should be integrated at every stage of analysis and explanation, without focus or framing. Otherwise our history will continue to consider women as « special », as anomalies rather than as stakeholders systematically present and represented. » I thus had the impression when I attended La Maestra competition that it sought to reproduce all the codes of ordinary conducting competitions: same dress codes for the candidates, same musical programmes, and even the term « maestro », here feminised as « maestra ». But the term itself is the very symbol of an archaic practice of power that it is time to question, as conductor JoAnn Falletta explained in the New York Times two years ago: « The responsibility of a conductor is always going to be there: the decision-making responsibility, the creation of a positive environment, to get 100 individual artists to coalesce. That’s not going to change. But the style, the unlimited power? That should change. » The organisation of La Maestra competition, which is not intended to be permanent, but aims at creating a momentum in favour of gender parity in classical music, is just one step towards a profound change in the classical music world, from training in conservatories to the careers of musicians and the programming of concerts. And in order to enable classical music to be more diverse and more representative of the world we live in, we will need the help of men and women of good will. Women have to lead this fight, but in order to succeed we’ll need the cooperation of men, as the exemple of La Maestra.

2 commentaires

  1. There are other women leading UK orchestras, not just the RLPO. The BBC Scottish SO is led by Laura Samuel, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales is led by Lesley Hatfield, and until she stepped down from the job very recently, Lyn Fletcher was for many years leader of the Hallé.


  2. Thanks for your comment. I more or less limited the research to orchestras nominated for the Gramophone orchestra of the year award in 2019 and 2020. But I’ll into account your remark to add the exemples you mentioned.


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