One of the subtle changes in the world of high culture in my lifetime has been the widespread acceptance of women as both conductors and classical composers.
Long seen as a bastion of Dead White Males, almost exclusively Europeans, the musical bias was deeply engrained. Few of the world’s leading orchestras even had women in their ranks, much less on their programs or as regular guest soloists. That snobbery, by the way, also excluded American conductors and composers, and people of color in general, across the board in the Old World and the New.
When the gender line began to bend, the first women composers to gain significant attention, as far as I remember, were Felix Mendelsohn’s sister, Fanny, and Robert Schumann’s wife, Clara.
More recently, Amy Cheney Beach has come to the fore. New Hampshire-born and then proper Boston society, she was largely self-taught, a piano virtuoso whose hefty piano concerto and symphony are both personal favorites. Her keyboard works have justifiably gained advocates, and a comprehensive retrospective at the University of New Hampshire marking the 150th anniversary of her birth was a revelation. Some of her gorgeous chamber works, moving into a more Impressionistic vein, actually moved me to tears listening in live performance.
Today, talented women composers are showing up everywhere, even winning major prizes like the Pulitzer. Quite simply, it’s hard to keep up.
Similar advances are being seen on the podium, led by Americans.
Pioneered in the ‘60s and beyond by Sarah Caldwell at her Opera Company of Boston and Margaret Hillis at the Chicago Symphony Chorus, early conductors of note also included Judith Somogi with opera and orchestral roles across the U.S. and then Europe, Eve Queller at her Opera Orchestra of New York, and Fiora Contino, who I remember from opera productions at Indiana University.
Later, as innovative major symphony music directors, we’ve been blessed with Joanne Faletta at the resurrected Buffalo Philharmonic and Marin Alsop in Baltimore.
It’s all opened the doors for a slew of younger conductors who are moving up the ranks and in the running for major positions like heading the Los Angeles Philharmonic, now that Gustavo Dudamel will be moving on to Gotham.
Looking at the 18 conductors being heard on live Metropolitan Opera broadcasts this season, I see four are women, one twice, something that would have been unimaginable at such a conservative institution only a decade ago.
Do note the trend, then. Anyone else find it exciting?