Conducting’s glass podium: Female music directors are still rare, but the Northwest has nurtured some

The mere fact that female conductors are a comparative rarity around the world, at a point in history when women instrumentalists are commonplace, is an indication of the glacial rate of progress for women in ascending the podium.

When the Seattle Symphony presents its annual “Messiah” Dec. 15-17, there will be a woman on the podium. You might not think this fact is worthy of a “Hallelujah,” until you consider that Ruth Reinhardt will be the first woman in the orchestra’s history to conduct this annual and beloved holiday fixture.

This is a milestone worth considering. The mere fact that female conductors are a comparative rarity around the world, at a point in history when women instrumentalists are commonplace — female orchestra musicians make up 36 percent of the Seattle Symphony — is an indication of the glacial rate of progress for women in ascending the podium.

Of the 22 major U.S. symphony orchestras (ranked by budget size), only one has a woman in the top job of music director (aka principal conductor): the Baltimore Symphony’s Marin Alsop. And she faced daunting obstacles: 90 percent of the orchestra’s musicians publicly declared their opposition to her appointment in 2005. She met with the players and eventually won their support, along with international acclaim and a contract renewal.

One reason there aren’t more female conductors is likely that symphony orchestras are highly traditional entities. They perform repertoire whose core formed in the 18th and 19th centuries, and for whom the 20th century still counts as “new music.” Most maestros, and many orchestras, still wear traditional formal dress, and most symphony concerts adhere to a long-held formula.

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That traditionalism can manifest in comments by male conductors such as those by Vasily Petrenko, National Youth Orchestra and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conductor, who told a Norwegian newspaper in 2013 that “a cute girl on the podium means that musicians think about other things.” Or even this past month, when Mariss Jansons, chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor emeritus of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, apparently told The Telegraph that, while he wasn’t against having female conductors, “for me seeing a woman on the podium … well, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea.”

The Seattle Symphony, meanwhile, has…

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