The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: We need more women conductors. And here is where some of them will come from | March 31, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear bets that most of you have heard of Marin Alsop (below), the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

And he bets that many of you have also heard of JoAnn Falletta (below, in a photo by Cheryl Gorski), who is the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

And then?

How many other women conductors can you name?

So the last day of Women’s History Month seems a good time to take a look at a program that may produce quite a few major women conductors.

Here it is:


  1. Here are some more facts and biographical information on women, being underrepresented in top conducting positions (they are not alone: also underrepresented are African-Americans, Asians, and native male Americans):

    1. Shi-Yeong Sung is a double minority, she’s a Korean female. She won the Sir George Solti conducting competition in 2006 (the first woman ever to do so) and took 2nd place in another prestigious conducting competition (the Gustave Mahler conducting competition) in 2007 (when there was no first prize awarded, so she effectively was the top conductor in the two top prize competitions!). Her “reward”? She is the associate conductor of the Seoul, Korea Philharmonic.

    2. Stamatia Karampini was born in Greece. At the age of 19 she won a prestigious first place conducting prize in Athens; and in 2011 she was a finalist in another major competition and won the ” Prix du Public” at the International Competition in Besançon (France). In 2012, she was a semi-finalist in the London Symphony Orchestras Flick conducting competition. Zubin Mehta said she is “one to watch”. But despite this impressive background, she is mostly a guest conductor.

    3. Gemma New was born in New Zealand. She holds a Masters in Conducting from the prestigious Peabody Music School in Baltimore. She was the other semi-finalist in the LSO conducting competition in 2012. Despite these achievements and despite being a Dudamel Conducting fellow with the L.A. Philharmonic, and holding a prestigious conducting fellowship at the Aspen Music Festival, she is the Associate Conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

    4. Han-Na Chang, is another double minority, a Korean female. She has studied cello with Mischa Meisky and Mstislav Rostopovich (she won first prize in the Rostopovich cello competition). She has studied conducting with James DePriest. She is a Gramophone winner (and several other prestigious prizes). She was conductor of the Qatar Symphony orchestra for about one and one half years but resigned because of various difficulties. She now is chief conductor of the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra (the first female to lead that group).

    5. Alondra de la Parra was born in New York City but is a Mexican heritage (and she lived for many years in Mexico City). She hold a M.A. in conducting from the prestigious Manhattan School of Music and studied wit Kurt Masur, Charles Dutoit, and Marin Alsop. She has won several high awards given to conductors. In 2004, she founded the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas. She is taking up a position this year as the first female conductor of the Queensland (Australia) Symphony Orchestra.

    Comment by FFlambeau — March 31, 2017 @ 9:13 pm

  2. Why do we need more women conductors?

    You might really mean to say that because of the high number of male conductors, that you SUSPECT that there may be some sexism/bias at play in the industry. Then the important part is to substantiate that with actual evidence of that.

    If I have ten people in a room, five male and five female, and I ask all to draw a sketch of a plant, and of the ten, the very best, that show talent, are six people. If Five of the six are male, and if the very best honestly rose to the top unaided, is this bad?

    If you suspect foul play then you must prove and then address the foul play. If you believe that women need more opportunity to study art, then strive to provide those opportunities.

    Don’t simply say ‘We need more, this, or need more that’. It’s an insult to societies intelligence, and it’s destructive because it ignores secondary and unintended consequences.

    Comment by Jerry Mungo — March 31, 2017 @ 10:28 am

    • Thank you for reading and replying.
      I think you are wrong on several counts, despite your superficially complex buy unpersuasive analysis and analogy.
      One: This is a blog of opinion, not a research study. I’m not insulting anyone’s intelligence, but stating my own view.
      Two: To me, sexism, intended or not, is apparent and clearly at work in our having so few women conductors.
      Three: Young girls with musical talent need role models, just as young girls do in math, science and technology.
      Let’s see what other readers have to say.
      In the mean time, enjoy music with whatever conductors you like.

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 31, 2017 @ 10:43 am

    • Jerry, I believe that there is only one female conductor in the first 21 ranked major orchestras of America. Marin Alsop at Baltimore. She was also the first woman in the 118 year old history of the British proms to conduct the last night of the proms. I do not recall a female conductor being the main conductor of any of the American Big 5 orchestras: ever. But if you look at the numbers of students studying conducting at the major music schools, there are a lot of women. And that is also true of women winning prizes in conducting competitions. And lots of qualified players who want to conduct too.

      What is more, most of the judges at the international conducting competitions are male. So, for instance, there is an all male panel for the Sir George Solti International Conductor competition. Here’s my source: Not surprising, then, that I could find only one female conductor among the “American Prize” for conducting awards, and that was in one of the minor categories (community conducting), Lois Ferrari of the Austin Civic Orchestra. In fact of the 24 medals awarded in 2014 for conducting at the American Prize competition, I found only 4 women recipients and they were all at lower levels (like community orchestra level or university orchestras).

      Now it would be nice to pretend (as you do) that the best qualified person gets into the best jobs; but that is not true elsewhere in the marketplace and it is especially not the case in music.

      But it’s not only women who have this problem. It is even more true of African-Americans (just a few % of those holding conducting positions) and Asians (now that S. Ozawa is gone, I do not believe there is an Asian conductor of a major symphony orchestra in the entire West, although Asians represent a huge part of the audience. It is also true for male American conductors (I think MTT at San Francisco might be the only American born conductor of a truly major symphony orchestra today along with Leonard Slatkin now at Detroit.) For some time, the symphony orchestras have been run by white males from Europe (mostly Germany and Italy).

      These are the unfortunate facts. Maybe you have some “alternative” ones?

      The maestro of the Madison Symphony Orchestra is in his mid 70’s now. Let’s hope that when he retires the MSO really does try to reach out for an outstanding conductor from one or more of these underrepresented groups.

      What is wrong with this, outside of the fact that is racially and sexually discriminatory? Well, it limits the audiences of classical music. Older white people tend to go to concert halls because they find there older white people playing and directing. Moreover, people who are outside the usual “group of suspects” tend to play a more adventurous program featuring composers outside the traditional Bach, Beethoven, Mozart group (as good as they may be). Marin Alsop, for instance, is noted for including contemporary composers in almost each of her programs. Hats off to the few white male conductors who do feature lots of music from different cultures: like Dennis Russell Davies and Gerard Schwarz.

      Look at the local maestro if you want to see timid programming.

      Comment by FFlambeau — March 31, 2017 @ 8:26 pm

  3. Not only do we need more women conductors, we need more people from our own country, both male and female. And I do not say this as a died in the wool “patriot”.

    I suspect lots of the hoity-toity types spinning records on classical music stations just prefer the foreigners because they get a chance to prove that they can speak German, French, Spanish or whatever. Scott whatever his last name is over at WPR is a prime example of a foreign name dropper.

    We have excellent music schools in our country, and some very fine orchestras: but look who is conducting? Almost all the conductors in major halls come from abroad: at the New York Philharmonic, the new maestro is Jaap van Zweden; in Chicago, Ricardo Muti; in Milwaukee, Edo de Waart; in Minneapolis, Osmo Vänskä and so on. All males of course and all foreign. This is not to say they are not fine conductors (especially Muti and Osmo Vänskä) but foreign conductors tend to play the music they are most familiar with: with Muti, it is Italian opera; with Vänskä it is the Scandinavians, especially Sibelius, and so on.

    Although we do produce some fine conductors, many are found either at very low levels, or abroad where their talents seem to be more in demand (David Zinman for instance). Why? Probably because lots of classical music insiders think that being foreign is “sexier” than being a domestic. The result is that lots of fine American composer’s music is neglected because very few people will conduct it. I mean composers from Philip Glass (vastly underplayed and underrated) to Amy Beach (virtually unknown, played mostly on women’s day) to Alan Hovhaness (how can he be an American with that last name?) and many, many more.

    I listened a few days ago to Scott whatever his last name is on the classical radio who made scathing comments about a poll which highlighted Beethoven’s least-liked symphony (his 4th, a real clinker). The attitude of the announcer was: how could a great man like Beethoven write anything bad, and now I’m going to play it for you so you children can take your medicine and realize it is good for you.

    It’s the same problem we have with our maestros. Foreign is better, males are superior to females, and real native-born treasures (like Zinman, like Gerard Schwarz; like Dennis Russell Davies are either given short shrift or given lesser jobs. It’s a problem.

    Comment by FFlambeau — March 31, 2017 @ 6:14 am

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