Saturday, 13 September 2008

Why are there so few female conductors?

Why are there so few female conductors? (BBC News, Friday, 12 September 2008)

Another article that is more politically correct than informative, by avoiding all thorny issues.

* Long tradition of male conductors proving hard to shake off

With all due respect to Marin Alsop, to whom we owe a number of truly outstanding performances, female conductors are nothing new. The great Nadia Boulanger appeared as conductor of several major American orchestras in the 1930s. (How could they write a piece about female conductors without mentioning her?) In Britain around the same time there was Ethel Leginska.

There is a long tradition of female concert pianists, starting with Clara Schumann. Is there gender equality among the top 50 most celebrated pianists of the world today? I don't think so. Off the cuff, I suspect the situation is more balanced for top violinists, whereas there were few noted female violinists before 1900.

* Many conductors don't reach their peak until later life
* Top females still working up through system

That's it? This three point answer explains why there are so few female conductors? Would the same answer be given if asked why there are so few women CEOs? Just a matter of tradition, and in time it will even out?

Of course there are more important factors behind gender inequality in many professions, especially those that carry prestige. Some of these factors are 'nurture', and others, whether we like it or not, are 'nature'. Conjecturing about the relative importance of these factors without having done adequate research would reveal more about one's prejudices than about reality. But one thing is clear: the usual escapism of BBC News won't get us any nearer to real answers.


Anton Vowl said...

If we're going to talk about inequality in music, how come the only cello/violin players that exist (especially on TV) seem to be 20-year-old blondes in little dresses?

Jimbo said...

That's why I don't watch TV, Anton.

Honestly, the old black-and-white video recordings of English cellist Jacqueline du Pré in Elgar's Cello Concerto are a delight to eyes as well as ears. But I'm sure her gorgeous long hair swirling with the rhythm of the music had very little to do with her success then.

The big record companies may have discovered about ten years ago that sex sells even in classical music. I remember the cover of the first CD of Lara St John, where she holds her violin covering her seemingly naked chest.

But the average age of classical music lovers keeps rising, and it is becoming less and less interesting from a commercial viewpoint to release new CDs, with or without a sexy girl on the cover. So the big labels are withdrawing from classical music anyway, leaving the crumbs for the smaller specialised labels, who know their audience won't fall for a pretty face alone.

Off-the-cuff I would not say that 20-year-old blond female cellists or violinists are over-represented in the typical concerts that I attend. But I would have to do a thorough statistical investigation.