11. September 2013 · Comments Off on Still An Issue · Categories: Read Online

For the first time in the 118-year history of the Proms, a woman will be conducting the famous Last Night. For Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, such milestones are commonplace. The first woman to be appointed the music director of a major US orchestra, and the first woman to record a Mahler symphony and a complete cycle of Brahms symphonies, Alsop is a professional boundary-breaker – a quiet but determined musical provocateur.

“You have to keep a sense of humour about it all,” she says, “but although I’m proud, I’m also shocked there can still be so many firsts for women, and not just in my field. When I started, I assumed that in ten years’ time there’d be lots of women conductors. Thirty years on and nothing has really changed.”

Four decades after the then manager of the New York Philharmonic, Helen Thompson, proclaimed: “Women can’t conduct Brahms and Mahler is men’s music,” we saw what happened when a woman attempted to penetrate that bastion of tradition, the Opéra National de Paris. In 2010, the orchestra there staged an unprecedented protest, downing instruments and refusing to work for the conductor Emmanuelle Haïm. Just two days before opening night, she was replaced.

The reasons given were artistic – but it’s not that simple. By taking issue publicly with Haïm’s “authentic” period style (a male period specialist, Thomas Hengelbrock, faced no such rebellion when he conducted Mozart’s Idomeneo at the same venue in 2006), the orchestra was marginalising not just early music, but also the female directors who have historically found in it a less combative route to leadership.


I think I wouldn’t run out of fingers if I were to count the number of female conductors I’ve worked under in any professional groups. I know for sure I wouldn’t get to add a lot of toes should I manage to come up with ten. Let’s see, in no particular order: Barbara Day Turner, Marin Alsop, Carolyn Kuan, Jane Glover, Sebrina Maria Alfonso, Mallory Thompson, Nicole Paiement, Maya Barsacq, Sara Jobin. There may be a few others I can’t remember, so I guess it’s possible I could add a few toes along with my tenth finger, but still … I’ve been playing professionally since 1975.

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