Why are there not more female conductors? Alice Farnham is looking to tackle this issue through a new programme at the NCH, writes Cathy Desmond
On September 29, the French conductor Nathalie Stutzmann made Irish history when she stepped onto the podium to conduct the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra.
Stutzmann is remarkable not only for juggling a parallel career as a highly regarded singer but she is the first woman in the 91-year history to hold the post of principal guest conductor that will make her a regular visitor to the podium at the National Concert Hall during her tenure.
Although women occupy desks in all sections of most orchestras, the role of conductor has remained predominantly a male preserve. In a recent survey of 150 international orchestra appointments, only five were women. US conductor Marin Alsop created a stir as recently as 2013 when she became the first woman in 120 years to conduct the last night of the Proms, one of the most high-profile gigs in the classical music calendar.
Suddenly the absence of women on the podium became a major talking point. One international conductor got into hot water when he made some dismissive remarks in an interview. Vasily Petrenko later retracted his comments about “cute girls on the podium” being a distraction, claiming that he had been quoted out of context and that something had been lost in translation.
But the furore did galvanise one woman into a course of action. British conductor Alice Farnham decided to take some practical steps to encourage more women to take up the profession she loves so much. Beginning in Morley College in London in 2014, she began organising a series of workshops for young women.
Applications flooded in and the programme moved the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society. Now the National Concert Hall have engaged Farnham to roll out a similar programme in Ireland. On the same day as Stutzmann took up her post, 12 novices drawn from undergraduate and postgraduate music courses around the country gathered at the NCH for their first coaching sessions on the inaugural NCH female conductor programme. Designed to give talented female musicians the expertise and confidence to take on the challenge of the orchestral podium, the ten-month programme will offer hands-on experience on preparing and interpreting musical scores and leading rehearsals, as well as a showcase concert with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra next summer.
Farnham is well established working in major opera houses in the UK, Europe and Russia . When we speak by telephone, she is in Stockholm to conduct a run of performances of Turandot. But as a student in Oxford back in 1989, she was a somewhat reluctant leader. “If someone had told me then that I would become a conductor, I would never have believed them,” she says.
As an organ scholar, she was obliged to conduct the chapel choir, which she admits she found “terrifying”. Gradually, she found a way of overcoming her nerves and by the time she graduated she had discovered her niche. She went to Russia to study for three months with the famous conducting master Ilya Musin at St Petersburg. She stayed three years and has never looked back.
“If I had known then how hard it would be I sometimes think would I have really done that, but on the other hand I can’t imagine doing anything else. ”
What holds women back from punching a baton through the glass ceiling? Are they just more risk averse or slower to assume a position of authority?
Farnham believes it is more nuanced than that. “Training to be a conductor is tough because it is so public. When it goes wrong there is no hiding. You have to be not afraid to make those mistakes. You can prepare by studying your scores but the real practice comes when you stand in front of your orchestra.”
She believes the shortage of female role models in high-profile positions is a major factor. “It is still unusual to see female conductors. Until the representation changes, girls tend not to see themselves in that role.”
Farnham references the appointment of the young Lithuanian Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla to the top job at City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra last year as being a sign of an encouraging trend in “normalising” the position of women in conducting roles.
Although just in her first year at college, the youngest participant in the programme, Molly Burke from Ballincollig, Co Cork, already has significant conducting experience under her belt. As a fifth-year student at Gael Choláiste Choilm, she cut her conducting teeth with school ensembles and had the privilege of conducting the school choir for its 25th-anniversary concert. Playing with national and county youth orchestras and wind ensembles, Molly has had plenty of opportunities to see conductors work at close range.
“I’ve always enjoyed watching conductors in rehearsals but I also envied them for the power they had over the music. The way the conductor draws the emotion out of the music fascinates me. I’d love to do some orchestral conducting. I’d also love to conduct a wind band at some point as I grew up playing flute in bands and wind ensembles and I just love the music.
“I look forward to the day where people aren’t surprised when a female conductor walks on stage and while we’re not quite there yet we are certainly on the right track.”
Leading ladies of the Irish conducting scene
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