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"SO SHOCKINGLY BRUTAL" SAYS MUSIC DIRECTOR MARIN ALSOP

Updated: Jun 23


She's talking about the extreme paucity of full-time women conductors and music directors in the United States and the fight to include more women in those important roles.*, **


Is there a difference between "music director" and "conductor"? Being relatively new to the musical world and focused mainly on the piano, that question occurred to me only today, and I went in search of a definition.


According to the Berklee Music College website, the music director is a senior position and an experienced conductor who "performs three overlapping roles—principal conductor, artistic director, and community arts leader—and has enormous influence over the orchestra's creative direction." Conductors typically have quite a bit fewer responsibilities, in that they "prepare orchestras, choral groups, and other music ensembles for performance and lead them on the concert stage." 


According to Wikipedia, the music director (earlier aka musical director) as a term came about in the 1920s and 30s, and he or she serves as the primary conductor and artistic leader. It says that Americans use the term "music director" while Europeans tend to use "principal conductor." In some cases, a conductor will also be the musical director of the symphony, choosing the program for the entire season, including concerts by guest conductors, concerto soloists, pop concerts, and so on.


Regarding orchestras led by women music directors, the following is of horrifying interest and principally comes from many hours of research today, including in a 2021 New York Time's article duplicated in part on the Opus3 artists' agency website. Wikipedia says that as of 2014 there were 1,224 symphony orchestras in the United States. I found another undated report that said there are almost 2,200 symphony orchestras in the US. However aside from an accurate count of the number of symphony orchestras today, I learned two devastating facts regarding women:


First - of the 25 largest orchestras in the US, until October 2021 not one was led by a woman musical director.


Second - setting aside size of orchestra or location (urban or rural) only six women presently in 2024 hold the prestigious and responsible position of full-time music director.*** This fact means that, assuming about 2200 symphony orchestras, only about 3% are led by women music directors.






I was proud and delighted recently to learn that in the Bay Area,  Jessica Bejarano is one of these six. She founded the San Francisco Philharmonic in 2019 and is its manager and conductor. Her orchestra at Herbst Hall is pictured above just before the concert that ny partner and I attended this spring, featuring a mixed romantic program. I discovered an exciting waltz by Khachaturian ("Masquerade") that on that occasion was performed twice through (more below), I also truly enjoyed hearing for the first time in person, Barber's incredible "Adagio for Strings" (and two other pieces).


The SF Philharmonic is an 80-piece symphony created to "reflect the glorious diversity of the Bay Area [and to be] accessible to all." Bejarano has been doing just that all her musical career. In 2018 when she was the music director, she invited San Francisco Symphony violinist Eliot Lev, the first openly transgender member of a major American orchestra, to perform Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major with the San Francisco Civic Symphony which she conducted at the time; it was an 85-member orchestra among the most diverse in the region.


Needless to say, that was not before this intrepid Mexican-American conductor experienced intersectional and image discrimination starting with her 13 face piercings. During her music education, an unnamed mentor commented on the piercings, wondering how she could go before high school children as part of her educational requirements. One early mentor told her to go back to Mexico to become a conductor "because it won't happen here."


Aside from being presented in the 900-seat gorgeous, historical Herbst theater in San Francisco (the orchestra is warming up in the picture above), I was astounded that before one piece, Bejarano walked center stage and actually spoke to the audience in an informal, friendly tone. She presented information about the coming composition. In the cavernous SF Symphony Hall I can never hear the name of a recital encore about to be played, and other than that, no one speaks.


Moreover, as a final piece, Bejarano said she had conducted a competition for an amateur conductor to participate, and out came a young women who conducted "Masquerade" once more - and admirably so!


It is this kind of egalitarian approach that makes music more accessible to the heart and soul, and an approach that I have elected to pursue and enjoy for the foreseeable future, namely live music performances in more intimate settings (such as in home venues as typical of Groupmuse.com concerts; we sponsor our second home concert on March 30) and more attendance at Bejarano's concerts.


Alsop is the former music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 2007 until 2021. The Opus3 Artists website says that Alsop is now the music director laureate of the same symphony. She has many, many other respected accolades.


JoAnne Faletta has had a long and distinguished career. Faletta was music director of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra for 20 years (1991-2021) and before that the music director of with the Denver Symphony. Now she is music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.


A July 2023 article reported that the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra appointed Nathalie Stutzman music director for the 23/24 season. Carolyn Kuan has been music director in Hartford New Jersey since 2011, and Valentina Peleggi has held that position with the symphony orchestra in Richmond, Virginia since 2020.


UPCOMING ASSISTANT CONDUCTORS IN AMERICA


Wikipedia has an undated international list of female "classical" conductors regardless of where they conducted. I found only Kalena Bovell (the only African-American and Hispanic conductor listed). She was appointed in 2019 to Assistant Conductor of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and another article reported that status as of March 23, 2023. I was delighted to discover in a June 2023 video, that Bovell is also a poet!.


Apparently the Memphis Symphony is one of the leaders in terms of fostering the equality of women. I found Mei-Ann Chen who from between 2010 and 2016 served as the conductor for that orchestra, however she is now in Taiwan.


ARE THINGS NOTABLY IMPROVING FOR FULL-TIME WOMEN MUSIC DIRECTORS IN AMERICA?


Not really, judging by the numbers.


Alsop is undoubtedly a feminist activist. After her main tenure as music director ended in 2021, Alsop says she tried (at least) to get more women guest conductors appointed, but met resistance and concluded that the fight to include more women is still "brutal."


It's still surprising when I hear such news.


But positive things are happening.


Women of note like like Alsop and Falletta are speaking up and out, as well as doing something to help more women find and take advantage of opportunities in the music world.


MESSAGING TO WOMEN


MENTORING: Opus3Art who represents Falletta, reports that Alsop and "JoAnn Falletta...have started programs to mentor rising artists...Falletta, 67, said she helps women navigate a variety of issues, including what to wear while conducting and how to build trust with boards of directors dominated by men. 'You have to find your own authority,' she said. 'You don’t have to imitate anyone. You don’t have to be like a Toscanini. That actually doesn’t work anymore, to be a conductor with totalitarian power.'" (I was sad to see recently that Faletta apparently passed up an important opportunity to speak up for women. A New York Times article*** on the typical hiring of Europeans as music directors by American orchestras, did not elicit a comment from her that more American women directors should be hired.)


SPEAKING OUT: In this thoughtful video interview at a major conference on women, "Leading with Purpose," Alsop says that we are all subject to archetypes that feature the male, and we care far too much about being liked rather than being respected. Like Alsop, if someone says "lawyer," to my mind leaps the vision of a male, and yet I am a lawyer and a feminist as well! Change doesn't happen fast or easily.


Alsop says to tell our stories, involve men, and try to create more opportunities for women, individually or as a group: "Turning up, still doing it, not giving up" -- those are the exhortations. "You don't have to run so fast because it's a long race. Give yourself time to explore different things."


"If you aren't getting what you need, just leave and be in charge" said by Jude Kelly, a British theater director who also participated in the conference. Of course that's easier said than done, and astute financing and management skills are required.


On a more personal level Kelly says, "Life is not about arriving but filling the space in a meaningful way. You don't have to be on the front foot all the time." Cultivate friendships, new and old. Many women are full of guilt about what they have done and not done, and get overly busy. She advises women to be kinder to ourselves as well as "explore your inner slug!"


"Don't have a career, have a life!" Kelly concludes.


From this side of "retirement" I can confirm her words of wisdom! Life-long pursuit of a range of interests and continuing to learn new things and find enjoyment and friendships along the way - all these stand one in good stead in later life.

_______

*Of possible important side note is that today's research was motivated by a comprehensive article in the Arts section of Sundays New York Times, on the paucity of American-born conductors and music directors of American orchestras, no matter the sex. Apparently it's ne plus ultra to hire Europeans here, while Americans go abroad to burnish their careers. But then, that's a possible matter of discrimination and/or differentiation of an entirely different character.


**If you would like a summary of the presence of women guest conducting one or a few specific concerts in the US for the 23/24 season, see this report which says that the percentage of total concerts conducted by women is down to 17% from 18% the prior year. If you want to know how the presentation of compositions by women are faring, stay in touch with a remarkable initiative of soprano Gabriella Laccio who established donne.com and a program to assist music directors find and choose more pieces by women. Laccio has a demonstrably great and enduring passion and commitment -to women composers.


***In my research I came upon 43-year old Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra who apparently has never conducted an American orchestra. While beyond the scope of this blog topic on music directors in America, she deserves a watchful eye. At the age of 23 while studying piano and conducting at the Manhattan School of Music in 2004, she founded the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas, an orchestra predominantly focused on promoting Latin American composers. In 2024, she was appointed Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of ORCAM, the Orquesta y Coro de la Comunidad de Madrid, a position she'll be assuming September 2024. But perhaps you will enjoy as much as I did, her informative video and astoundingly uplifting and lively 2022 interpretation and conducting of Czech composer Dvorak in his Symphony No. 9 in E minor with the Munich Symphony Orchestra. One famous melody may be found at 6-7 minutes in. Wow!



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