"Can women conduct?": World-famous conductor Marin Alsop is taking her battle to Vienna

Conducting has long been the province of powerful men. But as the #MeToo movement comes to classical music, can an industry steeped in its ways change?
January 29, 2020

Marin Alsop raised her hands above her head. “You can’t imagine the conversations that happen up there,” she said, referring to the upper echelons of classical music. “I have musicians who say things like: ‘you know I really think this diversity thing is going to blow over.’” She paused. “Are you kidding me?” She went on to describe how one orchestra she leads objected to her plans to add more women conductors to their concert programme. “One of the musicians said: ‘that’s going to be 13 weeks with women on the podium.’” She shook her head. “Ten of those weeks are with me!”

Alsop was speaking at a panel discussion on gender equality in music in the Joseph Haydn-Saal at Vienna’s University of Performing Arts (MDW). She is something of an expert on the issue. Born in New York in 1956, her parents were professional musicians. Trained by the great Leonard Bernstein, she is the world’s most famous woman conductor—leading institutions in America and Brazil and now Austria— and the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, in 2013. But her journey has been a long and rocky one. When she told her violin teacher at the age of nine that she wanted to be a conductor, her teacher replied “girls can’t do that”; later she was told by the judge of a conducting competition that women could only conduct light Mozart, not heavy-duty Mahler.

It might come as a surprise that the apparently serene world of symphonies and sonatas is a bastion of macho power play. But that’s exactly the picture that emerges as female musicians have begun to tell of their struggles against discrimination and harassment. The issue goes beyond an old dinosaur claiming that women players are “distracting” or that women conductors are not “my cup of tea.” It is an institutional problem—and one starting to hit the courts. Last year, principal flautist Elizabeth Rowe reached a settlement with the Boston Symphony Orchestra after she claimed she received substantially less pay than her closest male peer.

The #MeToo movement has also reached classical music. James Levine was sacked from his role as the Metropolitan Opera’s music director in 2018 after allegations of sexual misconduct. (He denies all wrongdoing.) Recent harassment allegations against opera star Plácido Domingo have led to his blacklisting from some US opera houses, though European ones still welcome him, including this summer the Royal Opera House. (Domingo issued denials, adding that “gallant gestures are viewed differently nowadays.”)

Conducting in particular has long been the province of powerful men often styled simply as Maestro. The music website Bachtrack found that among the busiest 100 conductors worldwide last year, only eight were women. Alsop has always been a pioneer, setting up a fellowship for women conductors “because I realised nobody else would do it.”

Now she is taking her battle to Vienna, the embodiment of the formal classical music tradition—the keeper of its soul, even. In October she took up tenure as chief conductor at the Vienna Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (ORF). She was chosen unanimously by the players after the other male candidates fell short. Her opening week included a series of events aimed at achieving gender equality for composers and conductors by 2030—it included lectures, seminars, workshops and women-only masterclasses.

Alsop’s first concert included the premiere of a work by the Soviet-born American woman composer Lera Auerbach. She also opened the Vienna Modern Festival with a programme featuring two female composers and an all-female opera by the 20th-century German composer Paul Hindemith. When we met a few days after the panel discussion, she told me that “at the curtain call, I joined the cast and director and realised ‘oh, we are all women.’ About 25 of us—that was a very empowering moment.”

Inevitably, our discussion turned to Vienna’s conservative image—all well-dressed ladies and gents going to the opera. It is hard to believe, perhaps, but the totemic Vienna Philharmonic only allowed women to become full members in 1997. And that was mainly because they were afraid of feminist protests on an imminent US tour. Things have taken a long time to change. “In 2013 the number of women in full-time positions was still about six (out of 150). I mean, come on!” Alsop exclaimed. “So there’s a long tradition of this.”

However, Alsop went on, Vienna isn’t as stuffy as she imagined—and it’s changing. “I’ve never felt so welcome anywhere in my life! The city is so galvanised. Everyone agrees on the need for diversity.”

Vienna’s traditionalism—its compact city centre dominated by classical buildings, including the imposing Musikverein—puts it in a good position to play a reforming role. It has a disproportionately large classical music audience. On her way from Vienna airport Alsop mentioned to her taxi driver that she was going to conduct Hindemith, whom she describes as “box office death” in the United States. The driver had not only heard of the composer, but had played a piece by him on the violin as a child. As well as a deep love of classical music, this city has a coterie of performers, academics and backers of the arts, who are acutely aware of past troublesome practices.

A musician who plays with the Vienna Philharmonic told me that change is coming. The orchestra, he said, “is quite aware of its reputation… It was a very stupid and unjust thing not to admit women until 20 years ago. But now it is trying very hard to improve,” he added. There is a very strong drive in the city for greater diversity in music, he continued, and certainly in academia, where the MDW has its first female rector, Ulrike Synch. “Sometimes change is more achievable in unexpected places because they’re more willing to own it,” said Alsop. “In Vienna everybody says, yes, we know it’s a problem. Everybody in the world knows it’s a problem. Let’s try to solve it.” Vienna is therefore a litmus test. The progress of the classical world at large could well be measured by what happens here.

*** To get an outsider’s view, I caught up with William Osborne, the Berlin-based campaigner who first started to highlight institutional sexism in the classical world. His outrage began back in 1980 when his wife, trombonist Abbie Conant, was chosen in a “blind” audition—where the musician is heard but not seen—by the Munich Philharmonic, but subsequently faced demotion and possible removal after the music director discovered to his horror that he had chosen a woman. Osborne, who then joined forces with an international group of women musicians to tear down the Vienna Philharmonic’s all-male policy, agrees that there has been progress, albeit from a very low base. “Austria and Germany are now definitely catching up—even the Vienna Philharmonic is hiring women at a rate close to international norms,” he told me from Germany. “About 15 of their 149 musicians are women and they’ve hired women for key positions that have been harder to get into—a woman concert master, a first bassoonist.”

Vienna also has a strong contemporary music scene where gender stereotypes are more easily challenged: the Klangforum, the celebrated contemporary ensemble, has 24 musicians and the gender balance is 50-50. Gender balance in programming is much easier to achieve in contemporary music, since there isn’t a disproportionate canon of old favourites such as Beethoven or Brahms.

But increasingly, it is not just the usual suspects who commission contemporary women composers. In December, the Vienna State Opera—which shares musicians with the Vienna Philharmonic—staged its first-ever work by a woman: Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth’s opera Orlando, based on Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending novel, which was directed by a British woman, Polly Graham.

Huge challenges still remain. Speak to young women conductors today, and the debate often seems stuck at the level of outdated discussions about women comedians. “Can women conduct?” is the new “are women funny?”

Budding Italian conductor Attilia Kiyoko Cernitori, although at 30 years old a generation younger than Alsop, met with a similar reaction to her childhood ambitions to take charge of an orchestra. “My mother told me ‘no’ because I’m a girl. There are not just career obstacles but mental obstacles in society.” Only after she saw Alsop conduct a few years ago did she realise that the path was open to her, and she signed up to study conducting in Vienna. When she heard about Alsop’s women-only masterclasses, she was pleasantly surprised. “I just didn’t think anything like this happened.”

But even in the progressive MDW, men were upset at being frozen out. Alsop is unrepentant: “Perhaps we need to share with our male colleagues why it is we need to have masterclasses for women.” Elaborately patient, she explained that women’s gestures are often interpreted differently from men’s—and since conducting is all about sending messages to the orchestra with gestures, this matters. A man seeking a big sound from the brass section might be called “strong,” while a woman would be “scary” and off-putting; a man with delicate gestures would be judged “sensitive,” a woman doing the same thing could be called “weak” and lacking authority. That’s why, Alsop said, women needed their own forum to discuss how to convey the music without being caught up in stereotypical gender associations.

Christoph Becher, director of the ORF and Alsop’s boss, has pointed out that as well as conducting, top management jobs in classical music are generally dominated by men. Citing the European Concert Hall Organisation, which comprises leading venues from the Barbican to Vienna’s Musikverein, he said: “Twenty-one concert halls and all run by men. We have the women to do these jobs. I’m not a fan of the word but there must be some kind of glass ceiling.” As far as opportunities for instrumentalists go, Osborne explained that in many cases the higher the orchestra’s reputation and the associated pay and status, the lower the number of women. The causes are complex, he argues, but discrimination plays a role.

*** So what more can be done?

The rise of blind auditions has certainly helped instrumentalists. Studies show that when the candidate can’t be seen, especially in the final rounds of an audition, the chances of a woman getting the job increase by 300 per cent. Role models are also vital. Becher spoke of an “Alsop bonus” for his orchestra, with sales demonstrating that there is an appetite for women conductors and composers. Andrea Ellmeier, head of gender and diversity at the MDW, reassured me that: “The Viennese music scene will become more gender sensitive through the physical presence of such a personality in town.”

Until women are allowed to be as “mediocre”—in Alsop’s own words—as some men tolerated on the podium, she doesn’t think things will change. This is why she is a strong believer in quotas—still a touchy subject. Sven Hartberger, general manager of the Klangforum, bristled when I brought up positive discrimination. “We want to have brilliant conductors, regardless of gender. We don’t care whether people are male or female—or of no gender.”

Whichever way it goes, it’s important these debates keep happening. “I feel that now is almost a more important time to be vigilant,” Alsop told me. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years and first there was a handful of us. There is a whole system of power—it’s a very, very hierarchical industry. Then, suddenly, everything changed,” she said. “I’m very suspicious.” It’s almost as if gender parity has become a fashion or a trend, she added, leaning back in her seat. “Trends end. Things go out of fashion. I don’t want to be fashionable.”