When Women Take The Baton

New York Review of Books

New York, NY

Maya Chung

When Cayenna Ponchione, the associate conductor of the Orchestra of St. John’s and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Music, steps onto the podium and raises her baton, she wears a modest but fitted jacket, low-heeled, sensible shoes, and pants. “I have only ever once in my professional life conducted in a dress and I won’t ever do that again,” she told me. “There are times when I will put on an evening dress and a pair of impractically high heels and I won’t lie, that when I do, I hope it attracts a certain kind of attention. But that’s not my objective when I’m on the podium.”

Originally from Fairbanks, Alaska, Ponchione now lives in the UK, conducting professionally and pursuing research at Oxford. She is highly attuned to the pervasive lack of gender equality in classical music, the role of physicality in conducting, and how these two things may be linked. In her research, Ponchione has studied the roles of power and authorship in musical ensembles, which has given her sharp insights into the reasons for the stark absence of women in leadership positions.

Women who aspire to the conductor’s podium may face similar hurdles to those in any other profession, ranging from networking difficulties and salary discrimination to traditional gendered assumptions about the nature of leadership. But classical music presents a unique, additional set of obstacles.

For one, the industry remains staunchly embedded in tradition. While visual arts, dance, and theater tend to be open to experimentalism, classical music is generally less keen on innovation; orchestra repertoires across the world consistently recycle the works of composers who are long dead. In this environment, audiences tend to resist change, and big-budget orchestras are particularly averse to risk, hoping not to alienate their patrons.

Live music is especially threatened. In 2016, The New York Times reported that, from 2006 to 2014, orchestras had come to rely more and more on donations rather than ticket sales; the flagship Metropolitan Opera, for one, has struggled with dire financial circumstances for years. In a country that has become increasingly multicultural, classical ensembles venerate the music of dead white composers, and audiences often find new music baffling and incomprehensible.

A Baltimore Symphony Orchestra survey found that in the 2015–2016 season, only 1.7 percent of music performed by the eighty-nine ensembles studied was composed by women. The statistics were slightly better for music composed by living composers, of which 14 percent were women. Performing arts organizations have made valiant pushes over the years to program contemporary music, and world premières of new pieces do elicit more fanfare than they might have a decade ago. But living composers aren’t, by and large, what audiences want to hear.

Some orchestras have evolved—thanks, in part, to measures like gender-blind auditions (in which the identity of the player is concealed by a screen). According to Sheryl Staples, principal associate concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, her orchestra is now about half women—and the violin section 90 percent female. But bright spots like this are not replicated on the conductor’s podium.

The Metropolitan Opera, representing arguably the most traditionalist musical form in an already innovation-wary field, has twenty-three conductors on rotation this season, all of whom are men. And many women in opera who are credited as assistant conductors are often restricted to piano accompaniment, the recently appointed Chicago Opera Theater music director Lidiya Yankovskaya told me. Of the top twenty world orchestras as ranked by a panel of esteemed music critics—which Gramophone published in 2008 (and has not replicated since)—not one has a female conductor on staff. Some, including the Vienna Philharmonic (still widely considered a conservative bastion), do have female guest conductors in rotation.

In recent years, several fellowships and programs have emerged to support women conductors. But many women are forced to create their own opportunities. Laura Jackson discovered the violin in public school, then studied violin and conducting at Indiana University. But, now in her tenth season as the Reno Philharmonic’s music director, she has always made her own way—without help from a management agency that, she told me, the better-known organizations often use for hiring. When Jackson began connecting with potential managers around 2001 or 2002, she noticed that major agencies generally represented only one or two women in a roster of about twenty conductors.

“I have felt as if I’ve had… fewer slots for me because of my gender,” she said. “I’ve done my whole career without management.”

Higher tiers of conducting especially could remain out of reach, though, as they’re almost always staffed through management agencies. Since then, it’s clear not much has changed: of Columbia Artists’ forty-five conductors under management, only five are female. Of IMG Artists’ seventy-six, again, just half a dozen are women.

Jackson’s goal is to be judged as a conductor, not as a female conductor, but it’s uphill. “I’m constantly made aware of my gender,” she says. When she guest-conducts, press interviews consistently take special note of it. Only on the podium, it’s a different story. “Usually, I’m not thinking about it,” she says.

Even in second- and third-tier orchestras, the numbers of female conductors are low. And the barriers to entry come at every level. Young girls, lacking appropriate models, cannot conceive of becoming conductors; even women who have made it through master’s programs face bias when applying for jobs, or never learn of positions spread by word-of-mouth.

There’s more overt sexism, too. In 2013, according to The Guardian, the conductor Vasily Petrenko told a journalist that musicians “react better when they have a man in front of them,” whereas “a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things.” These comments came in the lead-up to the Last Night of the Proms, which was to see its first female conductor, Marin Alsop, that year.

Lidiya Yankovskaya, who was appointed music director of the Chicago Opera Theater in 2017, told me that in the earlier days of her career, interviews often began or ended with disquieting inquiries about her home and family life. Over the years, two questions have frequently come up in her interviews: “Are you married?” and “Do you have children?” Yankovskaya concedes that the questions aren’t meant maliciously—they are what men often ask a young woman to make polite conversation. “But I’m fairly certain,” she says, “if I were male, that would not be the first question.”

Now that she’s running a multimillion-dollar operation, Yankovskaya directs casting, chooses the repertoire, and oversees management of the orchestra; and, of course, she conducts most of the company’s productions. She identifies the risk aversion of institutions as the leading reason for women not gaining top positions. Since female conductors are much rarer than their male counterparts, Yankovskaya says, it only takes one to under-perform for the company to avoid ever hiring another.

And then there’s the added challenge for women of what Yankovskaya calls “extra-musical” duties. These include negotiating with boards, ingratiating oneself and the ensemble to donors, and talking with reporters. “If you’re a female conductor,” Yankovskaya says, “you can’t get away with being a great musician and being terrible at talking to people, being terrible at the extra-musical things.”

Riccardo Muti and the late Arturo Toscanini were notorious for their autocratic and sometimes outrageous behavior. A 2005 article in the Independent called Muti the “monster of Milan,” for his abusive behavior at La Scala. The director Franco Zeffirelli, who worked with him, called him an “absolute dictator” and “drunk with himself.” (Only a mutiny of the company’s staff and orchestra finally forced Muti out after nineteen years.)

In a world that expects hierarchy and venerates individual genius, some musicians prefer to see their conductor not as a collaborator, but as a dominant, almost dictatorial leader. Many male conductors have been not only famous for their musical prowess, but infamous for their unflinching ways and bad tempers. A sexist double standard makes such shows of “temperament” taboo for women.

As Cayenna Ponchione puts it, “Conductors are meant to be these omnipotent maestros who can know everything and are perhaps a bit mad and eccentric. Those types of characteristics have not historically been responded to the same way in women.”

Ponchione identifies another element of musical leadership that thwarts female conductors. Conducting is a public, creative expression performed by the body. A 2013 study by Clemens Wöllner and Frederik J.A. Deconinck in Acta Psychologica used point-light displays to examine the gestures of male and female conductors. A “motion capture system” recorded male and female conductors performing excerpts from a Mendelssohn string symphony, along with walking and static images of the conductors. Through these displays, viewers could perceive gestures and movement, but no other discerning physical characteristics.

Viewers were fairly accurate in determining the gender through a conductor’s gait, and they were able to easily determine the gender of novice conductors. But for more skilled conductors, point-light displays “did not afford gender-specific cues,” the study notes: viewers couldn’t tell the difference between male and female conductors—but only when the conductors were expert-level.

As Ponchione notes, this could suggest that women who have risen to the top of the profession have succeeded in doing so by adopting more “masculine” gestures. On the other hand, we may only see these movements as “masculine” because we’re used to seeing them from men. Certain mannerisms, especially those associated with leadership, have long been coded male. This often subliminal perception creates an even higher hurdle for female conductors to clear.

“Where women and men get into trouble, it’s when they take on the more extreme characteristics of the other sex,” Alice Eagly, a psychologist and professor at Northwestern University, told me. For instance, a woman who takes on overly “agentic” characteristics, like being boastful or aggressive, may be disliked, whereas a man may be disparaged if he shows too much “communal” conduct, like compromise or deference. “In general, for managerial roles the usual advice is to use a more androgynous style,” Eagly said. “To blend more feminine and masculine characteristics in leader behaviors.”

Whether consciously or not, Ponchione may embody something of this approach. She wears her hair cropped short, speaks with calm authority, and takes a neutral, academic approach to the study of music. When she’s conducting, her sole focus is on the music and the task. “Not only am I not thinking about my gender,” she said, “I’m really not focused on myself or my identity, but on communicating with people in front of me.”

The Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki is one of the few women who has truly distinguished herself at the highest tiers of the profession. A prominent cellist before devoting herself full-time to conducting, Mälkki studied at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy, as well as the Royal Academy of Music, and served as principal cellist of the Gothenburg Symphony. She was later the first female principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Last year, she conducted a three-night run with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall.

In a black kimono-style jacket and simple black pants, Mälkki, along with the Latvian violinist Baiba Skride, walked onstage for the evening’s opening piece, the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. As the two women took their places, the energy was pointed; the camaraderie was heartening.

Though small in stature, Mälkki conducted with captivating authority. Throughout the performance, she demonstrated not only a practiced confidence but a thoughtfulness not always apparent among some of the most exuberant male conductors—she looked as if she were listening and responding to her players, not simply charging forward with the baton. In a sign of true partnership, Mälkki seemed almost to constrain herself during Skride’s solo sections; Skride would then finish a section triumphantly, as if passing a figurative baton back to Mälkki, who would explode with energy and charisma. Mälkki kept her movements precise, drawing on her full range of movement only when the music warranted.

To call her performance masculine or feminine would be beside the point—it was simply expert.

NewsBeth Stewart