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New York Times


January 14, 2005

Call Me Madame Maestro

HE road to conducting one of the world's great orchestras could have been arduous for a 4-year-old girl beginning to learn music on a homemade piano in Dandong, China, in 1977. But because of the pioneering examples set by female conductors in China at that time, Xian Zhang, now 31 and the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, could look to a solid lineage of women for inspiration.

"My teacher at the Central Conservatory was female," she said of Wu Ling Fen, who also had studied with a woman. "That makes me the third generation of female conductors in China."

Ms. Zhang, who came to the United States in 1998, was a winner of the 2002 Maazel-Vilar Conductors' Competition. A confident, articulate young woman, she spoke passionately about training with her mentor Lorin Maazel and working with the Philharmonic - an orchestra she described as exceptionally professional and supportive.

After warming up her crisp yet fluid baton technique with a children's concert in December, she made her subscription concert debut with the Philharmonic on Wednesday. In the first of four concerts shared with Mr. Maazel, she led Benjamin Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" from "Peter Grimes" and the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's "Scherzoid," a Philharmonic commission.

Ms. Zhang is one of three women conducting established orchestras in the New York area this weekend. Anu Tali, 32, from Estonia, made her American debut this week with the New Jersey Symphony as part of its Northern Lights Festival, in a program to be presented again tonight, tomorrow and Sunday. And Andrea Quinn, a 40-year-old Englishwoman who is the music director of the New York City Ballet, leads performances at the New York State Theater. (Ms. Quinn recently announced that she will leave the dance company when her contract expires in June 2006, to return to Britain.)

These artists represent a new wave of female conductors in their late 20's through early 40's. Others are Joana Carneiro, Sara Jobin, Sarah Ioannides, Sarah Hicks, Keri-Lynn Wilson and Anne Manson. They confront significantly less prejudice than did their counterparts who are only a few years older: Gisèle Ben-Dor, Catherine Comet, Rachel Worby, JoAnn Falletta, Marin Alsop and others, performers who have made women a familiar presence on the orchestra podium.

That profile continues to evolve. Ms. Tali created her own Nordic Symphony Orchestra in Estonia in 1997, working with her identical twin sister, Kadri, who is the orchestra's manager. They have produced two CD's; one of them, "Swan Flight," on Finlandia, won Anu Tali the 2003 Echo Classic Award for young artist of the year.

Ms. Tali said in an e-mail message that she has encountered little resistance as a female conductor, and that the unique way in which each conductor communicates the music transcends gender differences.

"After all, isn't life in the end all about action, passion, illusion?" Ms. Tali wrote.

Ms. Quinn, like Ms. Zhang, had known of other female conductors like Sian Edwards, Jane Glover and Simone Young as she studied conducting at London's Royal Academy of Music. She said that gender as a barrier had not occurred to her as a young musician.

Gaining Acceptance

With the notable exception of music director posts at the largest symphonies, women have vanquished nearly every major orchestral barrier worldwide. Judith Somogi, an American who died in 1988, was principal conductor of the Frankfurt Opera from 1982 to 1987. In 1994, the British conductor Ms. Manson, now 43, led the then all-male Vienna Philharmonic in Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" at the Salzburg Festival. And Simone Young, 43, an Australian, conducted the Metropolitan Opera when she was five months pregnant and the Vienna State Opera one month before giving birth, in 1997.

Though women have made gains in leading major orchestras abroad, several of the conductors interviewed said that American audiences are generally more accepting.

"Women are rarer in Europe," Ms. Zhang said. "Usually, it's fine. But there have been times I felt like an animal in a zoo."

In 1986, no major management represented a female conductor, and female music directors were found only at small regional orchestras. Today, International Creative Management, International Management Group and Columbia Artists Management each list one or more female conductors, and women have held music directorships with at least nine orchestras posting annual budgets of more than $3 million.

Stalled Progress

Yet despite the progress female conductors have made over the last two decades, their momentum appears to have stalled, and the number of women entering the field has reached a plateau.

Although women have appeared as guest conductors at every major orchestra in the country, only two hold positions among the 51 orchestras of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians: Ms. Falletta, 50, who directs the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony, in Norfolk, and Ms. Quinn. Ms. Alsop, 48, directs the Bournemouth Symphony in England, which presents nearly twice as many concerts as the Colorado Symphony, where she served as director.

Now that women are no longer a curiosity on the podium, many female conductors experience far less discrimination, said Ms. Jobin, 34, who became the first woman to conduct a performance on the main stage of the San Francisco Opera with a production of "Tosca" in November. She will conduct performances of "Norma" with the company next season.

"Many obstacles have been removed in the last 10 years," said Ms. Falletta, who recalled that reviews in the 1980's nearly always mentioned her appearance or marital status. "Your musicianship is now the focal point."

What's more, female conductors seem to have achieved pay parity with their male counterparts. Although the group is too small to signal a trend, it is worth noting that the three women who led midsize symphonies in 2002 - Ms. Alsop (Colorado), Ms. Falletta (Buffalo Philharmonic) and Ms. Manson (Kansas City) - averaged $198,000 in salary, or 13 percent more than the $175,000 average salary of all music directors of the 11 orchestras with budgets of $8 million to $11 million.

Top Orchestras, Top Men

But no female conductors have been appointed to lead any of the 20 American symphony orchestras with budgets of $11 million to $70 million. Ms. Alsop, who has often been mentioned among the ranks of rising American conductors (along with David Robertson, 46; James Conlon, 54; and Kent Nagano, 53), remains one of the few women at the top.

"I assumed there would be an influx of women on the podium, but there are not many more at my level than there were 20 years ago," said Ms. Alsop, who was named artist of the year by Gramophone magazine in 2003. "Maybe boards don't want to hire women because they don't meet the archetypal image of the maestro."

But isn't it possible that female conductors are poised for greater success?

Because the number of American orchestras posting deficits has soared from 37 percent to 73 percent in the last five years, most boards remain conservative when selecting a music director, who, as the organization's figurehead, is crucial not only to making music but also to fund-raising and audience-building. Experience and age figure in these decisions.

Though the Los Angeles Philharmonic appointed Esa-Pekka Salonen at 31 in 1989, four of the Big Five American orchestras (Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia) have had music directors older than 60 in recent years. Only Cleveland broke with tradition, in 2002, hiring Franz Welser-Möst, now 44.

As the first handful of visible female conductors, who began their careers 20 or more years ago, accumulate greater experience as they approach 50, they will undoubtedly meet with serious consideration as well.

Breaking In

The history of female conductors in America began early in the 20th century. Some 30 all-female orchestras, with women conducting, operated in the United States from 1908 through the mid-1930's, staffed by musicians who were largely barred from membership in traditionally male orchestras.

A lone woman who graduated from the Juilliard School with a choral conducting degree in 1920 was not able to ignite much of a trend. Juilliard has since trained 34 more women in choral or orchestral conducting.

Although women in the first half of the 20th century were not offered music directorships at major symphonies, many - like Nadia Boulanger, who led the Boston Symphony in 1938 - were invited to guest-conduct.

The Dutch-born Antonia Brico became the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic, in 1930, and the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic, in 1938. Although she worked at the Metropolitan Opera twice, she was fired when a baritone refused to work with her.

Most women's symphonies shut down in the 1940's, when their members filled orchestra positions vacated by men fighting in World War II, leaving female conductors once again without an outlet for their talents.

The Sarah Caldwell Era

The postwar years offered little more than choral conducting opportunities for women, but in 1946, Sarah Caldwell, at 18, became the first female conducting student at Tanglewood. She so impressed the conductor Serge Koussevitzky that he appointed her to the faculty a year later.

Ms. Caldwell founded the Boston Opera Group in 1957, which she led until its demise in 1991. Eve Queler, who had worked as an assistant conductor at the New York City Opera, founded the Opera Orchestra of New York in 1967, and she continues to present three concert opera performances a year at Carnegie Hall.

As feminism dawned and Title IX of the Education Amendments outlawed discrimination against women in federally financed schools in 1972, a door opened for the first significant wave of female conductors.

Comfortable as LeadersVictoria Bond became the first woman to earn a conducting doctorate from the Juilliard School in 1977, then navigated unfamiliar terrain as the first female recipient of an Exxon-National Endowment for the Arts conducting fellowship.

"To the older men in the Pittsburgh Symphony, a woman meant a mother, wife or daughter, none of whom were people they turned to for advice," Ms. Bond said, describing the orchestra's reaction in 1978 to the only female conductor many of them had seen.

Since then, audiences, boards, managements and musicians have grown accustomed to women in leadership positions. Women serve as concertmasters in at least five American symphonies and hold the top executive positions at two of America's three largest-budget orchestras, the Chicago Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"When enough women appear in positions of power, a 'sexual static' takes over, and men no longer feel a vague sense of discomfort," said Judy B. Rosener, a business professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of "America's Competitive Secret: Women Managers."

Yet even as women become widely accepted in orchestral leadership positions, the number studying conducting has leveled off after an initial surge of interest in the 1980's. Although the proportion of conducting doctorates awarded to women jumped from 11 percent in 1983 to 20 percent in 1992, it had fallen to 18 percent by 2002, according to the Higher Education Arts Data Services.

Continued Success

Still, the dearth of newcomers has not slowed the professional evolution of the most experienced female music directors. Ms. Falletta, for example, led three formerly troubled orchestras, in Long Beach, Calif., Norfolk and Buffalo, to relative financial health, improving their national visibility through touring, broadcasting and recording. Her Buffalo appointment places her alongside William Steinberg and Michael Tilson Thomas in that orchestra's roster of distinguished former music directors.

And in the 10 years Ms. Alsop led the Colorado Symphony, where she is now conductor laureate, the orchestra's budget grew from $4 million to $10 million. Since Ms. Alsop took the helm of a deficit-ridden Cabrillo Music Festival in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 1992, its budget has increased 65 percent, grant income is up 84 percent and ticket sales have grown 106 percent.

These are just two conductors who have proved themselves not only as world-class musicians but also as experts in development, audience-building and long-range strategy, attributes that may soon put them on wish lists in music director searches for major American orchestras.

"As a female, living in America is refreshing because of its optimism," said Ms. Quinn, formerly music director of the Royal Ballet in London. "Here, it's assumed you can do anything unless you prove you can't."

Blair Tindall, a professional oboist, is writing "Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music" for Grove/Atlantic Press.

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