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'Not just old, white, and male': Where are the female conductors?

A new course run by the National Concert Hall in Dublin is training women as orchestral conductors.

Image: National Concert Hall

WHAT DO YOU think of when you think of a conductor?

Because there are so few female orchestral conductors in Ireland, the National Concert Hall (NCH) has set up a new course sponsored by Grant Thornton, for young women who want to take up the baton.

Led by acclaimed British conductor Alice Farnham, the programme began last weekend and runs for 10 months.

Nigel Flegg, the head of learning and participation at the NCH, said that the course stems back to conversations that went on at the NCH in late 2015 about conducting being “the final glass ceiling” in classical music.

“There is a growing number of significant female conductors but the very fact they are notable by their relatively few numbers is an indication that it is still very much a male-dominated profession,” says Flegg. “Particularly when it comes to orchestral conducting in Ireland and abroad there were perhaps more female conductors involved in choral conducting, but still orchestral conducting remains extremely low.”

The project was able to take off after Grant Thornton came in to support it. There were so many applications of a high standard that they had to increase the number of participants from eight to 12. The programme culminates with a concert with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra – who are working with the participants – in 2018.

Two of the women taking part, Raeghnya Zutshi and Síobhra Quinlan, told us why they were drawn to the course.

Zutshi mainly works with choral-based conducting, conducting school choirs. Did she ever see herself as a conductor? “Not at all – I don’t think you ever start out like that,” says Zutshi, who began conducting while at Trinity College Dublin, but never got the chance to try orchestral conducting.

“That was one thing that Alice had mentioned to us during the weekend – if anyone had said to her when she was 18 she would be a conductor she never would have believed it. I would probably be the same.”

“I always thought orchestral conducting is a very male-dominated world – it still is, and that’s why it’s great having a programme like this which are encouraging more women to get involved,” says Zutshi. “If you still look at it on a global scale it’s still primarily male dominated. It’s nice to try and see how can we break in.”

When Zutshi used to think of a conductor, she would typically think of someone “who was quite a large, authoritative figure”.

She found that while watching concerts “it was very rare that you saw a woman standing up there”.

And I suppose as a result it wasn’t something – [it] didn’t push you to think about it in that way. Not having that role model there, I think that was a big thing.

‘There’s a lack of visibility’

Síobhra Quinlan is another participant. She trained primarily as a classical singer and a composer, and says that conducting has been on her bucket list but she “never really previously considered it as an option”.

Previously, when she thought of an orchestral conductor, it was a “50/60-year-old white male”.

[Women are] just that… it’s not visible. It’s shocking when you realise it, and I definitely identify as an avid feminist [but] then you catch yourself in our own behaviour and it’s really shocking. You have to call yourself out.

She was even reticent to call herself a composer. “There’s a complete lack of visibility when it comes to female role models in that realm so I was really comfortable identifying as a singer and it took me a while to admit I was doing composing – even though I was majoring in it I didn’t really let on,” she says. “I actually majored in composition but everyone thought I was singer.”

Though she was involved with the Trinity Orchestra in college, where members were invited to take part in everything including conducting, she didn’t feel she could try.

“It’s a shame that you realise you missed out on the opportunity because you didn’t think you were entitled to it.”

The lightbulb moment for Quinlan was watching the singer Barbara Hannigan conduct while singing.  ”Seeing her do that, it was like oh my God, she’s a singer – that’s a way into it. Singing is a strength because you can listen to all the lines and sing them back to the musicians.”

She said the members of the group are all very supportive of each other. “It was great because there is a huge difference when you change from choral to orchestral,” she says. That includes using the baton, which is something orchestral conductors use all the time, but choral conductors don’t.

What does conducting involve? “You’re determining the basic tempo of the piece and you are cueing the instruments, but it’s about drawing out the different colours from within the piece and within the soundscape and drawing out the real emotion and human elements,” explains Quinlan.

Zutshi says that she found a new sense of enjoyment while conducting. ”Putting me in front of an audience playing the piano or singing a solo is always so daunting, but there’s something about having your back turned to the audience. It did something for me, it made me more relaxed. Your focus is on the choir and trying to get a sound, an appropriate sound, out of them which I think really calmed me down. I could really be myself with group rather than worrying about the audience.”

“Everyone that I’ve spoken to, who I’ve mentioned it to or heard that I am participating in it, the first thing they’ve said is well it’s about time,” says Zutshi. “There’s such a large gender divide in the orchestral conducting scene, it’s more a lot of people are glad to see they are doing something about it and trying to change it.”

Both women said they hope the course will encourage young girls to see orchestral conducting as a viable career. “Just having that role model there, it really does push you,” says Quinlan.

Adds Zutshi: “My aim would be to try and instill that into even younger generations to get that going even earlier.”

Quinlan has done a lot of research into gender and classical music, and found that if you go back to the 17th century, it was a time “before music was gendered”.

“This was the most authentic experience of women making music before they’re told it’s female music or they were female in music,” she says.

“The utopia would be to eventually get back to that where it’s not like ‘oh she’s a female composer’, it’s ‘here’s the composer, here’s the conductor’, and I just think that’s the way society needs to move forward – that we’re not thinking in gender, we’re thinking as a cohesive unit,” says Quinlan.

“We are not pretending we can change the world instantly, nor are we trying to replace the existing programme for the teaching of conducting,” says Flegg of the NCH. “What we are trying to do is encourage a group of women who might not have previously considered conducting to take the first steps. We are trying to be part of the conversation about this issue.”

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