What To Do About Gender Inequity In Classical Music?

Marin Alsop to become this week the fourth woman ever to conduct the Cleveland Orchestra.(Photo: Ze Carlos Barretta (Flickr))
Marin Alsop to become this week the fourth woman ever to conduct the Cleveland Orchestra.(Photo: Ze Carlos Barretta (Flickr))

For the fourth time ever, a woman will conduct the Cleveland Orchestra this week, according to a story on the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s cleveland.com Web site.

Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the grande dame of orchestral conducting, will lead the Cleveland Orchestra this Thursday, Friday and Saturday in performances of music by Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and Camille Saint-Saëns at Cleveland’s Severance Hall.

As marvelous a milestone for women as Alsop’s Cleveland performances augur to be, they also point up an obvious problem: the world of classical music,  especially that of classical orchestral conducting, is still a man’s world. Actually, I prefer to think of the world of classical music as not a a man’s world, but rather as a man’s crystal cathedral, with as many twists and turns, à la M.C. Escher, and as many resulting glass ceilings as one can imagine.

To be sure, progress has been made. Over the last generation or so, amazing female instrumentalists have broken through the once notoriously male-dominated ranks of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic, and they thrive in other major ensembles around the world. The conducting world also is seeing more talented women orchestral conductors emerge in the professional ranks. But the number is still conspicuously small, and the gigs that rising women conductors get still don’t match the weight and stature of those garnered by their male peers. And opera conducting? Let’s not go there.

Even well-intentioned press about gender inequity in classical music sometimes falls victim to the same subtleties that contribute to the problem. In his story for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Michael Norman first calls out the Cleveland Orchestra for its, as he put it, “delinquent” guest conducting engagement of Alsop, then pardons the orchestra for adhering to a status quo long since outdated by the increasing availability of well trained, professional caliber female orchestral conducting talent:

… don’t blame the Cleveland Orchestra too much for being so slow to feature a female conductor. It’s just one member of a global musical culture in which men still occupy most of the top spots.

So the questions are: How can we pick up the pace of women’s progress in all areas of classical music? Are there still perceptions that women are less capable than men? Is it simply that the networks traditionally open to men still somehow also need to be opened for women? If so, how can those networks be opened?

What do you think?

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