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IWD 2019: Women in Front

This is what a conductor looks like

Every year on 8 March, Radio 3 marks International Women’s Day by devoting its entire schedule to music by women composers.

In 2019, as well as learning about the women behind the music, we heard directly from some of the women in front of it – the conductors.

Although it's not as rare to see women on the podium as it was in the past, the number of women conductors in the UK is still comparatively small. The last five years have seen a flurry of new initiatives designed to support and encourage women to take up roles in musical leadership. But will the momentum last?

Throughout 8 March 2019, we heard the perspectives and experiences of eight women in musical leadership, all at different stages in their careers – from 19-year-old Stephanie Childress to conducting doyenne Marin Alsop.

Meet the conductors

Hear the conductors on Radio 3

Breakfast – Stephanie Childress
Essential Classics – Rebecca Miller
Afternoon Concert – Marin Alsop, Lina Gonzalez-Granados, Alice Farnham
In Tune – Karin Hendrickson
Radio 3 in Concert – Valentina Peleggi, Yshani Perinpanayagam

Marin Alsop: 'I don’t want women conductors to become "fashionable" – because fashion always goes out of style'

Marin Alsop: Women conductors and #MeToo

Marin is one of eight conductors taking part in our Women In Front focus for IWD 2019.

US conductor Marin Alsop is Music Director of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and Chief Conductor Designate of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. She is the founder of the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, which aims to foster talented young women conductors with active mentorship.

Some of my male colleagues have said to me: "Do you really NEED a fellowship for women conductors?" I guess when I've heard that question, it's made me realise how much we need it.

I think we've made a lot of progress; people have really worked hard to open the door to this profession to young women. [But] I think that it's really important that we are vigilant… so that every woman that ends up on the podium has had the opportunity to really develop her skills, and isn't pushed into it too early. I worry a little bit that the rush to feature women on the podium is a knee-jerk reaction to the #MeToo movement and a desire to be politically correct, as opposed to a real desire to equalise the playing field. I hope I'm proven wrong.

I don’t want [women conductors] to become something that's “fashionable” – because something that's fashionable always goes out of style. I want to see substance of change. I want to be having this conversation five or ten years from now and saying: "That was really a turning point.”

I think the real turning point will come when more women are Music Directors and Principal Conductors: taking the the leading role in making the decisions. When we see that happen, we'll know that we've turned that corner.

Hear more from Marin Alsop on Radio 3’s Afternoon Concert (Friday 8 March from 2pm).

Stephanie Childress: ‘We’re in the middle of a change’

Nineteen-year-old Franco-British conductor and violinist Stephanie Childress entered Cambridge University to read music aged just 16. A former leader of the National Youth Orchestra, she conducted widely while at university and made her professional conducting and soloist debut with the Southbank Sinfonia in April 2018.

When I was about 12 or 13, I had a conducting teacher tell me I would never make it because I was a woman. Maybe they weren’t trying to be sexist, but it felt as though they were putting my male colleagues over me. I thought it was total BS, although I didn't say it at the time.

I think the playing field is definitely more even, but there's still quite a lot of work to do. The perception that the conductor is a man is still very much ingrained in management, orchestras and even audiences. [But] we’re in the middle of a change. Things will eventually balance out and the world will be a much nicer place for all conductors.

[For now], I think the industry needs to listen to its young people. People in classical music like to think that they're very open-minded, promoting certain aspects of classical music – especially the “hipper”, “cooler” aspects. They have this vision of what classical music is supposed to be, but they should really listen to the demands of the next generation. We need a wider range of opportunities, better financial support, and [for the industry] to be more open to contemporary music.

Hear more from Stephanie Childress live on Breakfast (Friday 8 March from 6.30am)

Alice Farnham: 'It just doesn’t enter many women's minds that conducting is an option'

Alice Farnham – #23 in the BBC Woman's Hour Music Power List 2018: Top 40 – is a British conductor with an international reputation for her work in opera, ballet and orchestral music. Her series of Women Conductors workshops has been running since 2014, supported by the Royal Philharmonic Society since 2016.

In 2014, a report showed that just 1.4% of conductors in formal posts with UK orchestras were women. In 2018, it was 5.5%. That's still tiny, and work needs to be done, but it's a massive increase.

It's partly to do with the initiatives that have been happening all over the world, including our Women Conductors workshops. What I wanted to do with these courses is just to alert talented female musicians that they could become conductors. It just doesn’t enter many women's minds that conducting is an option for them. The biggest block is a lack of role models. One of the problems is that when a woman does get a good position, everyone talks about it a lot, which makes people think: "Oh there's loads of women out there". But the reality is, women are still very much a minority.

I certainly think we're going in the direction of equality, but it would be so easy for things to slip back. People need to keep asking the question: “Are there any women out there who could do this?” If it's simply tokenism, then I don't think it's helpful – but sometimes I get a feeling that institutions are saying things like: "We want to get only the very BEST women conductors". My question to them would be: If there's a woman that you might consider, does she have to be better than all of the male conductors in order to get a job?

Hear more from Alice Farnham live on Radio 3's Afternoon Concert (Friday 8 March from 2pm)

Lina Gonzalez-Granados: 'We need visibility'

Colombian conductor Lina Gonzalez-Granados is the founder and Artistic Director of Unitas Ensemble, a Boston-based orchestra specialising in Latin-American music. As the current Taki Concordia Conducting Fellow (2017-2019), she is mentored by Marin Alsop.

I really don't mind if the conductor is a woman or a man. We want to have real musicians; people who are working towards their craft. But if it's a woman, of course I'm going to be happy, even if [being a woman] is the reason they're there – because we need visibility. We need more women on the podium.

When I started studying conducting ten years ago, none of those workshops were available for me. The initiatives that everyone is taking is making the field more nourished. [Women] need not only representation on the podium: we need education, where we can learn in a really safe environment – judgement-free, stereotype-free, [so] it's just about the music.

These two years have been wonderful. Every time I see [Marin], I feel kilometres on from where I was a week before. It's really interesting to have such a strong woman in my life.

Hear more from Lina during Radio 3’s Afternoon Concert (Friday 8 March from 2pm)

Karin Hendrickson: 'Why aren't women putting their hands up?'

US conductor Karin Hendrickson is Assistant Conductor of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, Music Director of the Young Sinfonia and has recently been appointed Associate Artist at Sage Gateshead. She, too, has been mentored by Marin Alsop, and is an Artistic Associate of the RPS Women Conductors programme.

If you take the best musicians in a class and ask them how many would like to become conductors, many of the boys will usually put up their hands up and very few of the girls. This is true of leadership in general. Why aren’t women putting their hands up?

There are so many issues that could potentially prevent a woman from stepping forward to explore conducting – whether it's confidence, or feeling that her voice doesn't matter; whether it's actually having had the same musical training that her male peers have had, or just being brave! We're all still learning how to sort out these smaller issues.

But how people are mentored can be a huge factor in them getting onto the podium. Oftentimes, that mentorship happens early on: a student conductor approaches an older conductor and says: "Can I have a drink with you, so we can talk about the field?" If they're both men, that’s very different to how it would be if a young female conductor were to walk up to the older man saying: "Can I take you for a drink so we can talk about conducting?" [For women], getting a mentor or ally on your side early on can be difficult.

People are starting to change what they can change within their systems. Hopefully, that means the bigger system will get healthier – for woman and for men, and for orchestras. Because this is not only about women, it's about the system. You need the system to work in a way that identifies pure musicianship and pure talent and move that forward. Because frankly, at the end of the day, we're in the business of curating culture.

Hear more from Karin Hendrickson live on Radio 3’s In Tune (Friday 8 March from 5pm)

Rebecca Miller: 'The pinnacle of change will be when a woman conducts the New Year’s Concert'

US conductor Rebecca Miller has guest-conducted with a host of ensembles including the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, London Mozart Players, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Northern Sinfonia and several of the BBC orchestras. She will take on the role of Chief Conductor of the Uppsala Chamber Orchestra in Autumn 2019.

When I was rising up through the ranks, I didn't even think about the fact that I was a woman. But about ten years ago, an agent said to me: "I like your work and am very impressed, but I can't take you on because you are a woman and I can't sell you."

"If you were a man, I'd take you on in a second" was their actual phrase. Several other managers told me it was tough to sell a female conductor, especially in Europe. Even now, there are places that still won't have females on the podium.

When I first moved to the UK in 1999, there was a wave of interest in female conductors. But nothing positively was done, and it all went away again until the Proms in 2013 [when Marin Alsop was the first woman ever to conduct the Last Night of the Proms]. There are lots of organisations now that are looking to feature women conductors. It’s great. Nobody wants to get anything because they're a woman, but if the opportunities are created, then young women will be more motivated to work towards them – whereas before, they might not even have thought of it. So I see it as much more of an open door.

It's wonderful what’s happening now, but it needs to be built upon and maintained. It’s going to require a continued effort on the parts of organisations, orchestras and managers; we have to continually reinvent and remind people to make sure those opportunities are still there. For me, the real pinnacle of change will be when there's a woman conducting the New Year's Concert [in Vienna]. That’s when we can all say: “Yes, we've made it.”

Hear more from Rebecca Miller live on Radio 3's Essential Classics (Friday 8 March from 9am)

Valentina Peleggi: 'The "women conductor" box is limiting'

Italian conductor Valentina Peleggi is Guest Music Director at the Teatro São Pedro in São Paulo and the Mackerras Fellow at English National Opera. As the recipient of a Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, she was mentored by Marin Alsop between 2015 and 2017 and went on to assist her as Resident Conductor at the São Paulo Symphony, where she remains affiliated as the Principal Conductor of their professional chorus.

I'm very thankful to all the generations before me that helped to break these glass ceilings. [But] I think we are in a middle ground: still, there is so much to do. Sometimes it's not easy to know who we really are, as artists and as people. Society is pushing us to eat in a certain way, to dress in a certain way, to be in a certain way. And now, to be conductors in a certain way.

A couple of generations ago, there was just one kind of conductor, men – but the “women conductor” box is still limiting. I think Radio 3 is opening up this box; trying to show that there is not just one type of woman conductor. There are so many different personalities, so many different approaches, so many different pasts and hopes and characters.

To see a woman conducting can be inspiring; it is essential. But don't call someone just because they're a woman conductor. Hire someone because they are a good conductor! So many times, I do interviews and the first or last question is: "How do you feel, being a woman conductor?" I wish that we could arrive at a moment where this is no longer a question – where the only question is: "What do you think about this piece, Maestro?"

Hear Valentina Peleggi perform and speak live from Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, during Radio 3 in Concert (Friday 8 March from 7.30pm)

Yshani Perinpanayagam: 'I was the only female Music Director in the West End'

Yshani Perinpanayagam is a British pianist and Music Director who works in theatre and contemporary dance. She is currently MD for the West End transfer of Emilia, an all-woman show with music by Luisa Gerstein based on the life of the writer, teacher and poet Emilia Bassano, a contemporary of Shakespeare. She also works with Ladies of the Stave, an initiative that supports female and female-identifying musicians in theatre.

I think there are just three female Music Directors in the West End this season, including me. Last year, when the Musicians' Union did a sweep of the numbers, they found I was the only one. Why there are so few women is a huge, sprawling question that starts at the very bottom.

Getting into these roles can be very networky, as it is in the classical world. I like real ale and often go for a drink after a performance: that can be a very male environment. But if you're a woman who has a child, you may well be expected to go home.

I think what a lot of women need is to feel that they can do the job. We need to give people formal training and a chance to grow, rather than slinging someone in a pit or asking them if they'd like to have a go. Young women aren’t allowed to screw up and then come back, whereas there are lots of men who are allowed to kick around the business until they've got the experience to be competent. So, while the world is changing, let’s give women access to real skills so they can say with confidence: “I can do this. Give me the job.”

I took part in an RPS Women’s Conducting course. It was really hard, but really wonderful: an exploration of how to get the best out of a group of people with your interpretations. If you get it wrong, it feels incredibly lonely – but when it works, it's just the most amazing feeling. It has meant that I've felt more eligible to put myself forward.

Hear more from Yshani Perinpanayagam just after Radio 3 in Concert (Friday 8 March from 7.30pm)

The photographs of Marin Alsop and Lina Gonzalez-Granados were taken by Robert Shiret. All the remaining photos were taken by Tricia Yourkevich, for BBC Radio 3.