As part of Bachtrack’s Contemporary Music Month, Meg Wilhoite takes a look at the question of gender equality in the world of new music, in light of the recent debate sparked by conductor Vasily Petrenko.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

What does feminism have to do with performing contemporary music? Are there doors that are closed to women in this profession? The following is an informal discussion about the state of women’s equality in this field, featuring the input of several performers. Based in New York City as I am (and have been for the past 10 years), mine is admittedly a narrow take, so I welcome perspectives from a broader sampling in the comments section below.

Several weeks have passed since Vasily Petrenko stated (and subsequently apologised for stating), in essence, that women are sexually distracting and therefore make for lesser orchestra conductors. Sadly, as Anastasia Tsioulcas pointed out recently on NPR Classical, his comment is not an isolated one, as conductors Bruno Mantovani and Yuri Temirkanov have made similar comments in recent memory. While these statements garnered plenty of negative responses on social media outlets – here’s a Storify page with a few of them – it also resulted in something of a signal boost for women conductors, such as NYC-based radio station WQXR’s list of “Top Five Women Conductors on the Rise” and Jessica Duchen’s “Fanfare for the uncommon woman conductor”.

Duchen decided to “do something constructive” with the fallout from Petrenko’s remark by compiling a list of women conductors, which has grown considerably since she started it in early September, primarily to counter the idea that there are relatively few women in the field. Duchen makes the point that one reason for the staying power of this idea is the fact that women conductors “don’t often get the important dates that will be reviewed,” a direct result of the glass ceiling that still exists for women within the larger institutions.

Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary of Music, had, as she put it, her own “glass ceiling-breaking moment” last month, when she became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms (a program which opened with a piece by contemporary composer Anna Clyne). Alsop told her audience that she was “still quite shocked that it can be 2013 and there can still be firsts for women”, and in her piece in the London Evening Standard wrote of how she looked forward to the day when the focus would be on her passion for the transformative power of music, and not on “what it feels like to be a woman conductor.”

However, many performers of contemporary music believe it is important to be proactive about addressing the issue of gender inequality in the field, as exemplified in Ellen McSweeney’s article for New Music Box about Chicago magazine’s new music “power list”, which included only one woman. Mezzo-soprano and “gateway performer for new music” Megan Ihnen stressed to me that the issue warrants regular discussion: “I strongly believe that it’s absolutely necessary to talk about gender parity and gender issues in new music as well as classical music.”

Ihnen went on to say that discussions about the issue should include ways of moving forward, that “it’s important to recognize it and then each do our part to overcome”. More specifically, “the solutions raised... need to be scrutinized as helpful or stumbling blocks. Do we need to change quotas in ensembles to achieve gender equality? That may be a stumbling block. But, perhaps opting for blind auditions to thwart sexism is more realistic and helpful.”

Another solution is for the media to focus less on the physical appearance of women performers who aren’t in costume. Lesley Flanigan, an experimental electronic musician, told me that: “Early in my career, a reviewer started an article about a performance of mine by writing about my blonde hair, the cut of my blouse, and how it’s nice to have a female enter the world of noise/experimental music. He discussed my performance too, but the attention given to my appearance really offset the rest of the review... I have really struggled with how I should look when I perform so that people would take my music seriously.”

Despite the current state of gender inequality in contemporary music, the performers I spoke with expressed general optimism about the future of women in the field. Ihnen’s view is this: “While I do believe that there are... obstacles, I do not believe that there are any paths or doors that are absolutely closed to women performers.” Nia Llewelyn Jones, who was chosen last year as the first person to study Orchestral Chorus Mastering under Simon Halsey, a course that runs in association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, remarked: “I have attended conducting masterclasses and competitions in recent years where the male-to-female ratio of participants is far from being equally balanced. But I am confident that things are changing.”

Gemma New conducting the Lunar Ensemble
Gemma New conducting the Lunar Ensemble

When I asked Gemma New, associate conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and director of the Lunar Ensemble, if she had experienced this imbalance in similar situations, she replied, “Absolutely, we’ve been dealing with this issue for a long time, for over a hundred years... and now we’ve got many more female musicians in the orchestra. The leadership roles? That’s the last step. In principal roles in the orchestra as well... that’s something that we’re still seeing progress in. But I think, give it some time and we’ll see more women in those positions.” Jenny Q. Chai, a pianist who champions contemporary music both in NYC and in Shanghai, felt that diversity in general was on the rise, resulting in a broader spectrum of artistic expression.

New, who recently made her Carnegie Hall debut conducting the music of John Adams (reviewed on Bachtrack), stated that when looking at submissions to calls for scores for her contemporary music-focused Lunar Ensemble, “personally, I would look at the music even before I looked at the name.” New said that, as a conductor, knowing the music well is foremost in her mind: “I try not to think about [gender bias], because I don’t think when you get on the podium the orchestras mind if you’re female or male, they just want you to do a good job. They want to be able to play really well. So I try to focus on the music; and that takes a lot of time, so I’m happy to do that.” Flanigan similarly said, “Music should be the focus.” And as Jones succinctly put it: “gender shouldn’t be an issue if someone is good at what they do.”

When asked what they would tell a woman just beginning her journey as a performer, both New and Jones also emphasized simply focusing on the music. New writes: “Take every opportunity that you can to gain experience. We shouldn’t let traditional social archaic ideas inhibit us, especially in this day and age where actually a lot of people are very open and receptive to what you do if you’re good at it.” Jones’ advice was similar: “My ethos is not to waste time worrying about barriers, difficulties and impossibility. Instead, I would much rather follow Marin [Alsop]’s advice and simply focus my time and energy on making good music.”

Ihnen shared her own call to action, saying, “It would serve the whole community of new music if we try to be as open-minded about the people that compose, perform, and love new music as we claim to be about the music we play.”

Embarking on this task not really having a pre-conceived notion of the kind of responses I would receive, I came away from the interviews feeling inspired by the focus and the palpable enthusiasm for music that each woman shared with me. From my vantage point, it seems that women’s equality within contemporary music is generally on the rise, but that the upper echelon of responsibility and decision-making is still woefully out of balance, an issue that is of course pervasive throughout the classical music world, and indeed society (for example, New pointed out to me that women like her friend in engineering have a much steeper hill to climb in many ways than women musicians). What do you think? Is it possible to promote gender parity within the field of contemporary music? Share your thoughts below.

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