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.

I doubt the conversation about concert etiquette will ever completely go away. I struggle with what I think, to be be honest. If we shush newbies, we quite possibly are letting them know they don’t belong. We need new audience members. We need younger audience members. Heck, we just need an audience and these days I’m seeing lots of empty seats. But if we “allow” crazy noise it sends some of the tried and true audience members away. If we allow talking, as they do at certain new venues, I feel as if we are saying listening is secondary to watching. I think it’s tricky. I think it will always be tricky.

Yet I hate being distracted from great music by careless noise. At worst, it can fundamentally change the fate of a performance, like when Mitsuko Uchida played Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in Edinburgh last month and was interrupted seconds before the opening chord by a loud clatter. She was visibly startled, had to reposition her hands over the keyboard, and never seemed to fully regain her focus.

Robin Ticciati, principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and future music director of Glyndebourne, takes a pragmatic view. “True silence is something special to be celebrated,” he says, “and yes, hearing a mobile phone is irritating. But I can’t let that kind of thing impact my performance. And we shouldn’t be too uptight here – what if that phone belongs to someone who has never been to a concert before and was so excited they forgot to turn it off?” When a phone rang between songs in Veronique Gens’s Edinburgh recital, she just joked: “Ceci n’est pas Duparc.”

Marc Minkowski held his left hand out behind him to shush up the loud coughers in Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony with Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble at the Usher Hall. It was a clever move, but surely meant that part of his attention was diverted to crowd control rather than to the score.

There’s a hefty list of conundrums when it comes to audience etiquette. Why is it OK to read a programme or a score, when doing so on a smart phone or tablet would be unacceptable? Is head-bopping and air-conducting an honest response to a compelling performance, or an uncouth distraction? Why is it permissible to shout “bravo” after an opera aria but not after a flash concerto cadenza? Perhaps there’s only really one rule: relax, enjoy the concert – but don’t distract those around you.


11. September 2013 · Comments Off on TQOD · Categories: TQOD

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