Dallas — Have you ever wondered why there are so few women conducting symphony orchestras or operas? Part of the answer is that women weren’t even players in orchestras until the 1900’s. In 1930, harpist Edna Phillips became the first woman in an American orchestra. Leopold Stokowski hired her for a position in the Philadelphia Orchestra.
On the far end of recalcitrant, the Vienna Philharmonic hired its first female member in 1997. She was harpist Anna Lelkes, and had played with the orchestra for years. However, she was always considered a freelancer and her name never appeared in the program. Today, women make up more than half of the members of symphony orchestras worldwide.
So, given this baleful history there is little wonder that there are just a few conductors who are female.
In 2015, the Dallas Opera set out to change this paradigm by establishing the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute of Women Conductors (IWC). This program is a special dream program for Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny. He personally guided it through the many steps to make it happen. Bringing on TDO’s Principal Guest Conductor, Nicole Paiement, was an important step. Last year, the first program was a huge success and the second installation is currently underway with Paiement and an impressive list of distinguished conductors and music professionals for the seminars.
The six IWC fellows are Elizabeth Askren (USA), Mihaela Cesa-Goje (Romania), Alexandra Cravero (France), Tianyi Lu (New Zealand), Chaowen Ting (USA/Taiwan) and Zoe Zeniodi (Greece).
Any list of women conductors has Marin Alsop at the top and she is one of the distinguished lecturers at this seminar. Alsop first came to international attention when she was appointed Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007. This created quite a stir because she was the first woman to hold this position with a major American orchestra. It is a tribute to her abilities that she still holds that position today. She is also the music director of the São Paulo State Symphony in Brazil.
An aside: The days of a music director having only one position are long over. Most major conductors have two or three. The argument over the pro or con of this situation is also long over. Some wish for a return to a music director concentrating on one orchestral appointment with the podium seasoned with glittering guest conductors.
Other conductors participating in the IWC are the renowned Italian conductor, Carlo Montanaro, and two established conductors from England, Alice Farnham and Renato Balsodonna. Cerny and Alec Treuhaft, retired Senior Vice President of IMG Artists, gave seminars on the business side of a conductor’s career—which is something too often ignored in the training of all musicians.
Montenaro praised the level of the participants. He says that his goal for his sessions is to impart his own approach to music. “I try to understand what the composer intended and then make up my mind. My concept of piano [soft] would not be your piano.”
He talked about understanding the era that surrounds the music and the importance of words in verismo, in which “You have to talk the text as you sing it,” he says.
“Modern music is more about contrast,” he says. “Going from the big picture to the details is like admiring a painting. You see the total of the painting but coming closer and closer reveals the details such as a small flower in the corner.”
“In opera, you need to understand how the composer intended the music,” he adds. “Is it integral to the scene or is it a film score under the action?”
The six conductors in the IWC were selected from an overwhelming batch of applicants from all over the world. They will each get to rehearse and conduct in a final program some operatic selections with the TDO orchestra and singers from the apprentice program. In addition, four American (or legal resident) conductors were chosen to audit the seminar, but will not conduct. The selections they will perform on Saturday night come from a range of eras and styles: Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, Gounod, Bizet, Dvořák, Kurt Weill, Carlisle Floyd, Mark Adamo and Jake Heggie.
The final concert will be 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10 at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House. Tickets are only $10 and it will be general seating. You can buy tickets here.