Is there an “effeminate” way of conducting?

Alondra de la Parra was recently named the new conductor of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. The announcement was nothing but historic: besides Marin Alsop and some other exceptions, few orchestras are being led by women.

Coincidentally, I attended last week to a concert by the Orquesta Sinfónica y Coro RTVE, conducted by the Chinese conductor Yi-Chen-Li at Madrid’s Teatro Monumental. The program’s first half consisted of a -slightly inaccurate- performance of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, followed by an outstanding rendition of Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto for Sax and Orchestra by soloist Beatriz Tirado.

During the intermission, I overheard a couple of old ladies arguing about what we just had heard. One of them complained -rather vigorously- that Chen-Li’s interpretation of the Overture lacked the ferocity required by its most aggressive passages. She finished her remarks by stating, in the form of an unrequited hope: “Oh, if only the piece had been conducted by a man...”, implying the Tchaikovsky would have sounded tougher -hence better- if a man were conducting the orchestra. Her statement went into my head and kept ringing for a few days...

First of all, even when I didn’t like Ms. Li’s grasp on that overture -the brass and the string sections just didn’t seem to go along- I disagree with that lady in terms of the toughness of her interpretation: the orchestra roared when it had to, indeed.

Now, let’s go back to the question that originated this post. Even when I don’t have that large of an experience listening to women conducting, I’ve enjoyed the concerts I’ve been to. (I did end up disappointed in Alsop conducting Beethoven’s Eroica with the Baltimore Symphony at Carnegie Hall in 2010, but my discomfort came from her choice of tempi, not her strength.)

That question could play an interesting part in a discussion among classical music circles centered around the lack of women holding major posts in orchestras: Why? Is it because of sexism, discrimination, lack of opportunities?

In this case, some sort of intrigue seems to surround this interrogant: does music sound different when conducted by women?

Throughout the last two thirds of the twentieth century, there seemed to be this notion that there were nationalistic traits attached to the way of playing classical music. German: aggressive; Austrian: aggressive, yet subtler; Italian: fast; Russian: raw; French: refined; Japanese: precise; American: bold.

I really don’t know if that theory still holds up, though. The new generation of conductors is taught by maestros and leading orchestras with musicians from several nationalities. Long story short: it’s very difficult nowadays to judge music just because it’s conducted by musicians from specific countries.

Ok, so back to my dissertation: has gender become a new parameter of judging music? Is there really an acute difference in sound when the baton is taken by a woman? And if that were the case, would that be a bad thing?

I strongly oppose to this idea. One of the greatest assets of music is its inherent richness. A particular piece may be written hundreds of years ago, but endless possibilities arise the moment a conductor grabs the baton.

When I started going to classical music concerts in my hometown (Caracas, Venezuela), one of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard came from an old woman who had been attending to classical music concerts throughout all her life:

“Seize every opportunity you have to see an orchestra. It doesn’t matter if you like -or even if you know- the pieces being performed. Just go and watch as many different orchestras as you can. That way you will really grasp the power of how music can sound.”

I’ve taken her advice indeed: whenever I can go to a classical music concert, I just do it. It’s the greatest way to learn how to listen to music. Diversity, in that sense, adds value to music. And if music sounds different, that’s the audience’s gain -not its loss.

If we in the audience still remain prejudiced about a woman conductor, then we shouldn’t expect a different behaviour from the management or the people who decide to put a woman in the podium.

When I found out about Alondra’s naming I couldn’t be happier. She’s enormously talented and hardworking. I just hope I can see orchestras evolving until the point in which a woman conducting isn’t longer the exception.


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