While a good deal has been done to encourage more women to conduct, the effect has not always been what the Germans would call “prima” (optimal). The number of female conductors assigned to European orchestras is still very modest, where there is still a strong bias towards men, whose placements outnumber those of women by some twelve to one. Granted, conducting has had a good 100 years longer to establish itself formally as a male profession: in former times, it was customary for the composer himself to take up the baton when his own work was performed. And limiting as the notion may be, many would still associate "conductor" with "male".

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Europe at the Lucerne Festival © Lucerne Festival|Peter Fischli
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Europe at the Lucerne Festival
© Lucerne Festival|Peter Fischli
Planners of the Lucerne Festival at the Kultur und Kongresshaus Luzern (KKL) set out to change that preconception. With a theme entitled “Prima Donna”, the aim is to promote female conductors: the Lucerne Festival’s Executive and Artistic Director Michael Haefliger has invited no fewer than eleven prominent female conductors to perform here, among them soprano/conductor Barbara Hannigan, Marin Alsop (music director of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra) and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who succeeds Andris Nelsons at the helm of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Featured among the many creative spirits is the brilliant Olga Neuwirth, who again, as in 2002, holds the position of the Lucerne Festival’s Composer-in-Residence.

While special events are peppered through the four-week summer programme, 21 August was reserved at KKL for an intensive encounter with the current work of six female contemporary composers. Among them, American big-band jazz singer Maria Schneider conducted the musical accompaniment she had written to the poetry of the acclaimed Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. His work underlines the sometimes dramatic unpredictability of daily experience, and sopranos Lucy Fitz Gibbon and Kelly Newberry alternated the five songs of Schneider’s “Stories” tribute to accompaniment by the Ensemble of the Lucerne Festival Academy. It tore at the heart strings to hear lines like “She waited for letters” in the poet’s Souvenir of the Ancient World or “Don’t kill yourself”, de Andrade’s appeal to himself to “calm down” after a lost love.

Konstantia Gourzi conducts the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra © Lucerne Festival|Stefan Deuber
Konstantia Gourzi conducts the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra
© Lucerne Festival|Stefan Deuber
Far closer to home were the texts, voice and orchestration of Winter Morning Walks, which Schneider composed to selected poems by the American poet Ted Kooser. For the largely German-speaking audience, Schneider recited each of the poignant poems before the music began. Kooser’s earthy topics show an extraordinary level of tenderness towards the natural world, the humdrum of farm life and the sweet comfort gleaned from the one you most love. In Walking by Flashlight, for example, a group of birds sees the poet with a torch as someone with the “moon on a leash”. Against orchestration sometimes reminiscent of Aaron Copland, soprano Diana Newman gave new dimension to the poems, and the jazz clarinet in Our Finch Feeder made one want more of that musician’s magic. The work’s largely sentimental melodies made the cycle somewhat ripe for a Hollywood film score.

Maria Schneider © Lucerne Festival | Stefan Deuber
Maria Schneider
© Lucerne Festival | Stefan Deuber

Earlier in the day, works by other women composers had startled with their originality and dynamism. At the performance of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, for example, Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducted De profundis for string orchestra, a mesmerizing piece by fellow Lithuanian Raminta Šerkšnytė that reflects the nervous ambiguities around a young person’s search for a mature identity. The piece was submitted as part of bachelor’s degree, its maturity vastly outweighing its composer’s age. Emerging from a flurry of insectile sounds, this was a work of remarkable tonal lustre, and one chock-full of aural turns and surprises. To conduct it, Gražinytė-Tyla took a strict triangular stance on the podium that hardly varied throughout: feet planted firmly at a body’s width apart. Stumblng forward once or twice, she regained her balance by returning to position like a tennis pro after nailing a shot. But her cues were impeccable, the resulting playing just stunning.

At another Special Events Day concert, two works by Olga Neuwirth were given their Swiss premières. While her Eleanor, under the baton of conductor Elena Schwarz, featured the rich bronze voice of American blues singer Della Miles, Neuwirth’s Lost Highway was based on David Lynch’s iconic 1996 film.

Elena Schwarz with Olga Neuwirth © Lucerne Festival|Priska Ketterer
Elena Schwarz with Olga Neuwirth
© Lucerne Festival|Priska Ketterer
Further among the women’s musical offerings was an hour by Greek composer Konstantia Gourzi, who launched her programme by conducting a challenging piece by Iannis Xenakis. His work, with its pioneer muscular repetitions and explosive momentum, was a true test of accurate pacing. Gourzi also took on an intriguing piece by Per Nørgård, whose extended possibilities among some 25 instruments produced a variety of chuckling, grating and hauntingly metallic sounds. The world première of the conductor’s own piece Ny-él, Two Angels in the White Garden gave us a reflection of Gourzi’s deep sense of spirituality in four miniatures. I particularly liked its slithery segments, robust cello, and the way it explored the limitless possibilities of sound generation − bowing or slapping the cello’s wooden body, for example.

Last on her programme was a short piece by György Ligeti which included a superb escapade on jazz clarinet − played as well as any of Benny Goodman’s − while the rest of the orchestra hinted at a kind of lullaby, and ended on the sounds of distant alphorns. Taken together, the women’s work I heard showed great dedication, willingness to explore new aspects of the modern, and a rich spirit of invention that continues to be pervasive in Lucerne.