Bringing women conductors to the front of the orchestra

January 31, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
In the highly traditional world of classical music, one seldom sees women conductors. Among more than 20 of the nation's largest orchestras, only one is led by a woman director. Jeffrey Brown reports from the Dallas Opera, where an intensive institute for female conductors aims to lead a new movement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we look at efforts to change the face of classical music, and shake up tradition while keeping true to the sound.

Jeffrey Brown is our guide.

JEFFREY BROWN: An orchestra performing with singers. See anything unusual? At a recent concert by the Dallas Opera, the focus was on the conductors, women conductors.

And in the still highly traditional world of classical music, that is unusual. This was the culmination of the second annual Hart Institute for Women Conductors, six women and four observers, chosen from 156 applicants around the world, taking part in an intensive two-week rehearsal workshop, combined with sessions on how to build and maintain a career.

KEITH CERNY, General Director, Dallas Opera: I have absolutely seen very talented women who are held back from where they ought to be.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s the brainchild of Dallas Opera general director Keith Cerny.

KEITH CERNY: I think there are some individuals who are opposed to the idea of women leaders, whether on the podium or running large opera companies. Fortunately, there aren’t that many of those people, but there’s certainly some.

But, more generally, I think it’s an issue where, because there’s fewer women in those positions, search committees and general directors and symphony CEOs don’t tend to think so much about hiring women for those opportunities.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s just not part of their thinking?

KEITH CERNY: It’s just not part of the thinking.

JEFFREY BROWN: According to industry data, of the nine largest American opera companies by budget, none has a female music director and principal conductor.

And Marin Alsop in Baltimore, who served on the faculty at the Dallas workshop, remains the sole woman music director at the nation’s 24 largest orchestras.

In Dallas, Cerny hired Nicole Paiement as principal guest conductor, and she played a large role at the institute, encouraging.

NICOLE PAIEMENT, Principal Guest Conductor, Dallas Opera: When you have an idea, which are always very, very good…

JEFFREY BROWN: Cajoling, teaching.

NICOLE PAIEMENT: … say one thing and move on. You sort of explain it five times, but I think we get it the first time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Paiement runs her own small opera company in San Francisco, and travels the world performing with orchestras.

NICOLE PAIEMENT: I know there is that surprise phenomenon every time I’m guest conducting for the first time. They are surprised when I arrive on the podium. I don’t have the physique. I’m a woman. I’m a small woman.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. What do you mean? You sense that the audience is surprised?

NICOLE PAIEMENT: It’s not the audience, but the musicians. When I arrive, I can feel that they are like, oh, OK, that’s our conductor. And it’s a little bit of a surprise. It can be refreshing.

JEFFREY BROWN: But do you have — does that make you have to prove yourself, or…

NICOLE PAIEMENT: I have — no, not at all, because they see what I’m doing on the podium is not there to be a leader and to be the boss and to be — but to make music as a collaborative art form.

And, you know, the art of conducting has changed a great deal. The era of the tyrant on the podium…

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, that stereotype.

NICOLE PAIEMENT: That stereotype is long gone.

JEFFREY BROWN: Romanian conductor Mihaela Cesa-Goje recalls something she learned from one of her mentors.

MIHAELA CESA-GOJE, Conductor: Marin Alsop is giving a very, very good example.

So, if a woman goes and conducts with her hand like that, everybody, maybe, they might say, oh, that’s such a girly thing. But if a man does that, he’s so sensitive.

So, I think it’s a lot of question of perception, how people are looking. But I try not to focus so much on this, because if I’m thinking about this every day, then you just don’t do anything.

JEFFREY BROWN: That was what we heard from others here as well, including the youngest participant, 26-year-old Tianyi Lu, who grew up in New Zealand, love the music, embrace the work, and focus on how to get better.

But they’re all used to being a outnumbered in this world.

TIANYI LU, Conductor: It’s just a different dynamic. I have been in master classes where I’m the only girl, and I think …

JEFFREY BROWN: And what happens?

TIANYI LU: Well, certain things have happened.

But I think, for me, it’s more to do with, sometimes, it’s very easy for everyone to pretend like they’re really confident, whereas I don’t think I’m the sort of person who can pretend as well as others.

So, I actually need real confidence, and that comes with time in front of the orchestra, time with people who are experienced giving me their suggestions, their support and encouragement. And, for me, that’s the important thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Time in front of a prestigious ensemble is key to the institute. For a conductor, the orchestra is her instrument.

Rehearsals were augmented by one-on-one sessions with more seasoned conductors, including Italian conductor Carlo Montanaro.

But is there something that a conductor has to have, you know, that you must have to be a good — what makes a great conductor?

CARLO MONTANARO, Conductor: Charisma.


CARLO MONTANARO: Knowledge, technique, being true on the podium, not fake yourself on the podium, don’t make a show, believe in the music that you’re conducting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see differences in women and men conductors?



CARLO MONTANARO: I see a musician. I don’t treat them women, men. No.

JEFFREY BROWN: Off the podium, there were other very practical lessons, on building a resume and networking, whether and how to hire an agent, and developing executive leadership skills, in order to one day move into upper management.

WOMAN: We really have to do our homework. We really have to educate ourselves if we are going to be in this field. You will most likely be the musical director of an orchestra. And you will have understand about all of that. You are going to have to deal with a board. And the board is going to talk to you about numbers, right?

JEFFREY BROWN: American Elizabeth Askren has guest conducted in many leading European venues and, like the others here, is hoping one day to be a music director.

She saw the institute as a great opportunity for learning with and from other women.

ELIZABETH ASKREN, Conductor: It’s a safe space for us to treat some of those issues, some of which are just, you know, common, everyday things, like questions that all conductors have to face.

And then there are some issues to explore that may pertain to women. The fact that the numbers are rather low in positions of directorship in opera, why is that? Can we talk about that?

JEFFREY BROWN: The Dallas Opera has made a 20-year commitment to this institute. I asked general director Keith Cerny how he will judge success.

KEITH CERNY: It would be terrific to think that, 20 years from now, this whole issue will have gone away, and men and women will be equally evaluated for positions on the podium. I think that may be a little optimistic, but what I want …


KEITH CERNY: I do, unfortunately, because, there’s been no improvement. It’s been static for 25 years. I think it is starting to improve, slowly.

JEFFREY BROWN: From Dallas, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you know what I think. We need more women conductors.

MILES O’BRIEN: Said the maestra of news.


MILES O’BRIEN: All right. I agree.