Why aren't there more women conductors? Jude Kelly leads a discussion at the Southbank Centre

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Leading women from the classical world come together for a frank session on women in music

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Marin AlsopIt’s been both an annus mirabilis and an annus horribilis for women in music. Not only did Marin Alsop (above) become the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, but big-hitter Xian Zhang brought the New York Philharmonic to the festival too, Jane Glover is finally conducting at the Met this December and the Quatar Philharmonic (of all unlikely ensembles) appointed Ha-Na Chang as music director. This month Jessica Duchen succeeded in tracking down no fewer than 123 female conductors working all over the world on her blog. OK, most of these names were not ‘known’ and few of them were getting the top jobs, but it looked like progress…

Except that in September Vasily Petrenko claimed in an interview that those ‘sweet things’ couldn’t be trusted on the podium; they had too much ‘sexual energy’ to focus on the music (er… unlike their poor testosterone-free male counterparts?) and couldn’t ‘devote’ themselves to such a career. Then Yuri Temirkanov, his erstwhile teacher, concurred with the hair-raising insight that ‘the essence of woman is weakness’, closely followed by Bruno Mantovani, director of the Paris Conservatoire, who claimed women simply didn’t have the physical strength and needed to bring up children (had he forgotten already that the formidable Susanna Mälkki premiered his opera Siddharta in 2009?)

You might think some of these men would have been forced to resign. Insert ‘homosexual’, ‘Muslim’ or ‘African-American’ into their statements and there would surely have been more serious repercussions. So why is it acceptable for them to continue to work for orchestras and institutions that – on paper - support equality? What kind of classical music world are we operating in where such grossly discriminatory attitudes pass without a murmur, indeed, as a joke?

This was the question on the minds of Southbank’s artistic director Jude Kelly and head of classical music Gillian Moore, who were joined by Marin Alsop and journalist Jessican Duchen to lead a discussion this Saturday with a group of women working in music, either as broadcasters, writers, composers, performers, educators or administrators. The message was: societal evolution left to its own devices won’t change things. Action is needed.

Marin Alsop has lead the way with her Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, which has now had a total of eight fellows, four of whom are music directors of American orchestras (how pleasing that Petrenko found he couldn’t refuse when asked recently to become a Fellowship mentor…). Kelly wanted more of the same, ideas that penetrated into the fabric of classical music at every level and led to more opportunities, more exposure and more support.

We heard from composers who have to measure their every bar written against the child-care costs involved (funny how no male composer with kids has ever made those calculations) and musicians who had conducted happily in their late teens only to find themselves handing over the baton to the lads when they reached college. There were angry musicians forced to play for conductors whose views on women were frankly patronising, and who realised their orchestras had never once employed a female conductor. There were successful female conductors so undermined by abuse and taunts they were considering giving up. We heard that there are only 16 female academics in senior posts in Music departments across Europe.

Ideas ping-ponged across the room. A classical musical equivalent of the Bailey's Prize for Fiction (previously the Orange Prize for Fiction) was suggested, and a women-only conducting competition at the highest international level. One table wanted to create a network for female student conductors working at the music colleges to practise on good school and amateur orchestras. One group suggested a fund to help women with PR and another called for a new approach to photography and imagery that stepped away from ‘bimbification’: ‘Bimbification and authority are mutually exclusive, so no one quite knows what to do with an attractive woman who is wielding power,' they said.

London’s leading adult education centre Morley College has already grasped the nettle. Head of Music, Andrea Brown, has just instituted a new conducting course for girls aged 16-18 to start next spring. It will be run in association with the Southbank Sinfonia, and Sian Edwards will take a senior role, as will their current head of the Opera School, Alice Farnham, who triumphed with Paul Bunyan at Welsh National Youth Opera this year. The idea is to build confidence in conducting before entry into music college. It’s a step in the right direction, but this is the only the beginning. The group intend to meet again, so watch this space.