Tea time for women conductors

Cup of tea and tea service

There are some subjects that I write about from time to time that I’m always delighted to revisit – they are the reasons that I love my work, and I enjoy the opportunity to discuss them on more than one occasion. How to ask questions; issues around education; what it really means to listen. There are others which I find myself compelled to revisit because something happens which yet again proves that a subject we all thought we’d dealt with and moved on from keeps raising its ugly head. And it would seem (groan) that women on the conductor’s podium is one of those subjects.

For anyone who missed Ivan Hewett’s interview with Mariss Jansons on Thursday, ahead of his receiving the RPS Gold Medal on Friday, here’s the moment we’ve all been rolling our eyes over:

Is he enthused by the biggest change in the conducting scene, the rise of young women to positions of prominence in the orchestral world? “Hmm, well…” Jansons pulls an embarrassed face, knowing he’s about to say something deeply politically incorrect. “Well, I don’t want to give offence, and I am not against it, that would be very wrong. I understand the world has changed, and there is now no profession that can be confined to this or that gender. It’s a question of what one is used to. I grew up in a different world, and for me seeing a woman on the podium… well, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea.”


It’s a brave man now who admits to such a sentiment, and it will no doubt bring on a storm of social media condemnation. But Jansons doesn’t do social media, and in any case he’s weathered far greater tribulations …

Jansons is quite justified in saying, of course, that he was born of a generation which had little room for the idea of a woman on the conductor’s podium. There were exceptions (Ruth Gipps and Nadia Boulanger have both been mentioned in other blogs I’ve seen), but in the main, conductors were all ‘he’.

Since Jansons was born in 1943, quite a few things have changed. Recording technology and media has evolved enormously. The internet has been created. People have explored space and landed on the moon. We have become, more than ever before (and in the face of considerable controversy), aware of the impact that we humans have on planet earth. Apartheid has been overturned. Those previously without entitlement to own property, to vote, to decide the fates of their own bodies, have been given new empowerment and legal protection. The mobile phone has been invented. E-mail. The foundation in law of crimes against humanity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Things do change. And accepting that, and questioning why certain changes might make you feel uncomfortable, is part of growing older. I might only be in my thirties, but even I know that. The idea that conductors might now be ‘she’ is one of those changes.

And the energy needed to encourage more women to train, to see that they are no automatically excluded from such a profession because it’s a traditionally masculine domain, is enormously important. Jansons’ statement seemed contrary to the very thing he evidently loves most in the world: music. We all know that classical music is a relatively niche discipline, and that it is easy to attack certain aspects of it: its cost, its ‘snobbery’ and ‘elitism’, its attitudes, and so on. As a major public figure working within this business, as someone who loves it, such prominent individuals as Jansons surely wishes to support it and help see it grow and blossom and survive and go from strength to strength. He has the right to feel uncomfortable with changing social mores, but publicly expressing that view seems spectacularly counter-productive. We are an art form constantly attempting to deal with problems of misogyny. And his words tainted that by expressing, as a major representative of the classical musical world, a private opinion that has upset a great many people who are working to bring about the same kind of world-class music-making as him. No wonder musicians and music-lovers feel let down by this.

The day after this article appeared, Jansons issued a statement apologising for his remarks. ‘It was undiplomatic,’ he wrote, ‘unnecessary and counterproductive for me to point out that I’m not yet accustomed to seeing women on the conducting platform.’ He’s right, and the fact that he saw fit to publicly apologise is good. You only have to substitute pretty much any other professional activity for ‘on the podium’ in his initial statement (in the operating theatre, running a company, in the Houses of Parliament, etc. etc.) to see how ridiculously outmoded it was. However, the problem with cups of tea is that they are usually poured from great steaming pots, and Jansons’ remarks are particularly depressing because of the surrounding attitudes of both his interviewer and indeed the Royal Philharmonic Society itself.

In framing the quotation from the Telegraph interview that I quoted above, Ivan Hewett described this assertion of discomfort with women on the podium as ‘brave’. What an extraordinary choice of adjective. I don’t know about anyone else, but as a historian, I tend to associate bravery with accepting change even when it seems terrifying, precarious, or even beyond the comprehension of the present generation. Galileo was brave. Those who opposed the idea of heliocentrism because it was not really their cup of tea – despite the fact that they could offer no solid, credible evidence as to why it should not be the case – were not.

Furthermore, the RPS itself did nothing to distance itself from Jansons’ comments, and indeed one trustee wrote that the RPS’s own (highly admirable) Women Conductors scheme ‘will change perceptions so that this isn’t something we even have to talk about.’ Great PR as this may be, the point is that we should be talking about it. If all we ever do is either ignore the issue or shout about it, there is no space for reasoned debate, for understanding varied perspectives and carefully, comprehensively trying to change peoples’ minds. Misogynism of this kind should not go unremarked upon. That doesn’t mean that the person in question should be indiscriminately yelled at; but nor should they be allowed to carry on without comment. And to describe such opining as ‘brave’ is, I fear, indicative of widespread attitudes still held by a not insubstantial proportion of the classical music world.

When I first set up this blog, I invented a series of category tags in case I decided to start adding thousands of news items, concert announcements, and so on. I never have, really, but the category tag under which this weekly offering falls is entitled ‘Let’s talk about this’. So really, let’s. Sensibly, critically, in detail. With everyone. With the next person you sit beside in a concert hall. The next music student you meet. With journalists, if you encounter them. With the RPS and organisations like them. Talk. Reason. Let’s show those still hiding behind a mound of lame excuses what ‘brave’ really means.


  • UriLiebrecht

    I would though question the use of the word ‘misogyny’. In many cases where there appears to be discrimination against women, it is often not the person who is being ill-judged (if you can separate a person from their gender!). As far as women conductors are concerned – as was the case back in the 1960s when a horn player of my aquaintance was eyed askance and considered rather brave – the doubt lies in whether a woman in that role can best serve the demands of the music – the performance of the music being the matter of ultimate importance. It is therefore, I would suggest, not argument which will settle this issue, but the experience of first class performances conducted by those women who have already made it through onto the podium.

    • Katy

      I disagree. If this worked in such a way that what we had was an equal opps meritocracy we wouldn’t be in this palaver in the first place. There are some EXCELLENT female conductors and have been for a long time. But ask most music lovers about conductors and they will assume ‘he’ (I had a class discussion about this only a few weeks ago), and there are stories aplenty about young women not trying conducting because the general attitude in the aether is that this is not for them, it’s what men do. The RPS scheme is a great thing and I hope it, and the advocacy of individuals like Barbara Hannigan and Marin Alsop will help change this. But at the moment, yes: the correct word is misogyny. And if it’s not so much a case of hating women, it’s certainly one of spectacularly discrediting their competence and indeed their right to question the status quo.

  • UriLiebrecht

    A ‘general attitude in the aether’ is the consequence of prejudice. I have yet to hear the argument from a music-lover who has experience of listening to a concert conducted by, say, Marin Alsop which puts forward a range of opinions based on a knowledge and an appreciation of the music which reveal how it was that she failed adequately to serve the music due to qualities, or lack of qualities, that might be specifically ascribed to a woman. Such a person, in my opinion, might be called a misogynist – denying the validity of an alternative interpretation of the music, were there to have been one. Someone expressing an opinion on this issue without having heard music conducted by a woman is merely prejudiced.

    • Katy

      You have obviously been luckier in the people you’ve overheard than I have. I’ve followed people out of concert halls who have made pitying remarks about a woman’s ability to conduct and, on another occasion, women’s ability to compose (yes, all women) after having listened to, variously a woman conducting and a piece by a female composer. So I’m sorry to say that there really are such misogynists out there.

  • uri Liebrecht

    As I said I’ve yet to hear a cogent knowledge-based argument to the effect that women are incapable of conducting etc. If members of the audience’s pleasure was diminished through lack of histrionic posing and tossed sweaty locks from the podium, that is a different perspective on the problem

    • Katy

      And yet despite this lack of knowledge-based argument, we are still having to have these discussions. Let’s hope this changes over time.

  • UriLiebrecht

    Da capo! Strike up the band! It’s the only way.

    (I remember as a 1940s tot being struck dumb in bemusement on finding a photo of my mum playing a cello. I thought it must be a joke – one in poor taste. I think I’ve got over it.)

  • Thank you Katy for writing this brilliant article!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.