Wanted: Female Symphony Conductor

Something is happening in the world of concert music, and it is a very positive change. If only it took less time to happen!

A baby boomer generation of female conducting pioneers is being followed by a new group of women, many American trained, others American-born that should be stepping up onto podiums in the United States and abroad to carry the tradition of their predecessors.

Women conductors have for some time now been invited to appear as guests at symphony orchestras here and abroad, among them Portugal’s Joanna Carneiro, Mexico’s Alondra de la Parra, Taiwan’s Mei-Ann Chen, America`s Karina Canellakis, France’s Laurence Equilbey, Denmark’s Maria Balstude, Hong Kong’s Elim Chan, South Korea’s Han-na Chang and Eun Sun Kim, Lithuania’s Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Finland’s Susanna Mälkki and Dalia Stasevska, Germany’s Ruth Reinhardt, Italy’s Speranza Scappucci, New Zealand’s Gemma New, Austria’s Katharina Wincor, and Colombia’s Lina González-Granados.

Some of these women are in their thirties and early forties, old enough to have acquired substantial conducting experience and mature enough to lead their own ensembles. A few have been appointed to lead symphony orchestras here in America, though most of them have gotten the best assignments in Europe, where physical proximity between countries makes guest appearances away from their home turf viable and where compensation and benefits are far better than in the United States.

Finally positive signs are starting to show. Chinese-American Xian Zhang leads the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has just appointed Nathalie Stutzmann as its next Musical Director and Principal Conductor. But that is not nearly enough.

Some, like the Cuban-born, naturalized British Odaline de la Martinez have established themselves in diversified careers encompassing teaching and or composing and or playing diverse instruments and or leading mid-sized ensembles. Such is the case with Jeri Lynne Johnson, a Black female conductor – still a rarity these days – who leads her own Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, while in Cleveland Jeannette Sorrell helms Apollo’s Fire, both self-started initiatives to create conducting work for themselves when no other conducting work was forthcoming.

By and large changes have taken place at a snail’s pace. According to the League of American Orchestras, five years ago, out of 174 American orchestral ensembles of all sizes, less than 15 were led by women. Since then little change has taken place, at least up until now. As Baltimore’s Marin Alsop and Buffalo’s Jo Ann Falletta – both in their mid to late sixties – contemplate hanging their hats, the question lingers as to whom will replace them and the soon-to-retire Cincinnati’s Louis Langrée (60), Chicago’s Riccardo Muti (80), Minnesota’s Osmo Vanska (68), three leaders of large-sized ensembles who are stepping down from their posts.

The Indianapolis, Kansas City and Salt Lake City have recently hung conducting help wanted signs. Who, one wonders will fill those openings in the upcoming seasons. Will any number of experienced female conductors be considered for those jobs?

We will soon know the answers.

Rafael de Acha            ALL ABOUT THE ARTS