Winner of the first prize at the Paris Conservatoire fifty years ago, the first woman to conduct the La Scala Orchestra and musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic, Claire Gibault is a trailblazer of women conductors. After founding the Paris Mozart Orchestra in 2011, she's taken things further: in collaboration with the Paris Philharmonie, she is launching “La Maestra”, an international competition for women conductors, whose first edition will take place in March 2020, with the second to follow in March 2022. We meet an engaged artist who speaks to us with a cool head and extreme delicacy about a project that could change the world of classical music.

TL: At what point did the idea La Maestra come into being?

Claire Gibault
© Masha Mosconi

CG: There was a specific event which started it all, during an international conducting competition. I was the only woman on the jury and one of my colleagues was extremely derogatory, both about me but also about the candidates: when it was a woman, he closed his eyes and slept rather than watching them. It was a difficult moment for me. I couldn't believe my ears: his doctor, he told me, was a great scientist and had explained that women could not be conductors because of the biological nature of our arms, which were made for holding babies and not for conducting an orchestra. I was fuming as I returned to Paris.

Subsequently, I related the story to one of the sponsors of the Paris Mozart Orchestra. I felt the need to do something to set right these injustices, to encourage young women, to recognise their talents – to create a competition for them. She looked at me and said “if you want to do this, I will finance it for you this minute!” Every sponsor that I met afterwards gave me the same positive reaction. These are women with great responsibilities, who have been subject to the same discrimination that I have encountered in my own life, the condescension, sometimes aggression, the injustice, the sabotage. They have lived all this in boards of directors and executive committees.

Of course, there were detractors. And I asked myself a lot of questions: are we not going to be attacked for discrimination? But then the discrimination against women is so extensive... Just consider that only 4% of conductors playing at French musical institutions are women, compared to 10% in Europe... There's a great battle to be fought, and I believe it's a just cause. Fortunately, I'm not alone, I have many allies around me.

How were you able to establish a partnership with the Philharmonie de Paris, which will host the competition?

I admire greatly both Laurent Bayle and Emmanuel Hondré [general director and director of concerts at the Philharmonie], who were totally convinced straight away. They just needed some time. After an initial event for young women conductors which took place last November, Emmanuel Hondré was hoping to create a new springboard for them. Bayle and Hondré critiqued what they had done and were not entirely happy with it, they wanted to go further... So everything that I was bringing struck a joyous and positive chord. It has been a delight to create this international competition with this team, a fine alliance of people fighting the same fight. I felt thoroughly respected, with a true dialogue. It was I who constructed the programme, but they examined it and commented on it.

Paris Mozart Orchestra
© Gilles Mermet

The competition will run from the 16th to the 19th of March, with heats, semi-finals and a final. Before all of that, how will selection be handled?

The candidates will have to apply on our website. Their application will have to include videos where we see them conducting (facing the camera), letters of recommendation, a CV, a covering letter and so on. We have to do the initial selection from an application, because you can't audition 300 people with an orchestra! We only want to see candidates of a very high standard: our goal is to show each of them at their best, to do something for the career of everyone who takes part, long before the final. Twelve participants will be chosen by selection committee, which will comprise François-Xavier Roth, Laurent Bayle, [composer] Graciane Finzi and me.

There will also be female jurors, which virtually never happens in conducting competitions, not least Deborah Borda, the director of the New York Philharmonic, who was extremely enthusiastic about the project. We've tried to assemble an excellent international jury, amongst which we're happy to number Pablo Heras-Casado, one of the world's rising conducting stars, Sian Edwards, Yutaka Sado, Valentina Peleggi who conducts the São Paulo Orchestra, Atso Almila who teaches at the Sibelius Academy – he's a fantastic man who trained Susanna Mälkki!

The selection committee and the jury are gender-balanced. Our goal as a competition is not to stay women-only forever. Our ambition is to increase the number of women who conduct both in France and Europe: once we've reached an appropriate level, it could become a gender-neutral competition! We're not trying to fight against men, but I think we need to set down a marker, to disturb some men in their convictions, their certainties, their egoism. We are sure that when there is a woman in charge of a conducting class or a director of a conservatoire, then more women candidates will dare to come forward.

There's also gender balance for the two commissions awarded for the competition, for the semi-final and final...

We had to find a female composer! There will be two world premières, one of them being humus, by Alexandra Grimal who is a splendid artist, and very interested in ecology – I'm very glad that this theme will be part of this competition. And for the other commission, since I am personally against all forms of discrimination, I have asked Fabio Vacchi to create something inspired by Nadine Gordimer's novel Beethoven Was One Sixteenth Black.

Claire Gibault
© Masha Mosconi

What rewards can the participants expect, apart from the obvious of the three prizes for the finalists?

We are hoping to pay a lot of attention to the twelve selected candidates, to whom we hope to offer assistant conductor positions in the course of two years. It hasn't yet been finalised, but several festivals have expressed interest in inviting the Paris Mozart Orchestra, under the baton of one of the candidates. Emmanuel Hondré has also promised engagements, masterclasses, meetings with agents. Many things will become possible...

What qualities are you expecting, are you hoping for from the candidates?

What we want to here are formidable musical personalities who will make sure that we are never bored for a moment. After that, they have to possess means of transmitting that charisma, this passion for exchange and transmission. As well as solid technique. But I realise that it's easy enough to be clear and precise. What is much more difficult is to make one's movements embody the musical idea, and that the musical idea should be powerful, visible even with the tiniest of gestures. What interests is what's in the inside – but the inside must become visible.

Conducting is a highly physical enterprise, a corporeal one. Yesterday, when I was watching videos for another competition, I noticed failings that I suffered from when I was young, namely conducting “from high”, with breathing blocked, suppressing the use of the lower body. That's now changed, but there used to be a tradition of women being demure on the podium. And in young women who are extremely musical and in whom I have faith, I still see how difficult it is to get rid of this constraint.

This article was sponsored by Paris Mozart Orchestra.