A Musical Glass Ceiling, Finally Broken

For the first time ever, the person given the honour of conducting the Last Night of the Proms, that great British musical occasion, will be a woman. An exceptionally well qualified woman, Marin Alsop.


Yes, I’m biased. Alsop is a protege of one of my musical heroes, Leonard Bernstein. But she has also distinguished herself through her very well-received tenures with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Bournemouth Symphony.

Female conductors are still an incredibly rare site on the podium, as the Telegraph article relates:

Female conductors are about as common as hen’s teeth. A comedian friend of mine once said that a comic is always the person facing the wrong way, and this is doubly true of a conductor. If a comedian onstage is the only individual in the room facing the audience, then a conductor is the only person on stage facing the performers.

To put yourself in a position where you are neither orchestra nor audience, that is to say, a unique figure, elevated on your own little platform, essentially telling everyone in the room what to do (you listen; you play) requires a rather particular set of personal characteristics that we probably traditionally associate with men, slightly crazy, arrogant, wild-eyed men.

The series of summer musical concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and associated venues, collectively known as the BBC Promenade Concerts, have expanded boundaries in a number of areas. We have already had the first American conductor to take charge of the Last Night – the excellent (and underappreciated) Leonard Slatkin, of St. Louis fame. The Proms now include outdoor concerts, late night concerts, and science fiction themed concerts (to the delight of many Doctor Who fans). This is all well and good. But the announcement that Alsop will be the first woman to conduct the BBC Symphony on this illustrious occasion should serve as a reminder that much more needs to be done before women are fully represented at the highest levels of classical music. Alsop has blazed a trail, but there are far too few younger women following in her wake.

That is not to say that there are no other women conductors of great talent and some renown – one might think of the excellent Xian Zhang, who occasionally guest conducts the London Symphony Orchestra – but this wikipedia page shows the depressing truth of the matter. Just 61 entries.

As always, I shall look forward to the upcoming Proms season, and to the Last Night. But the fact that we are celebrating this particular milestone only in the year 2013 should give us all pause for thought.

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