Accessed 4th September 2013
Vasily Petrenko, principal conductor of the National Youth Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, says women distract orchestras. A mezzo-soprano disagrees.
We should be celebrating that on Saturday night, Marin Alsop will conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the Last Night of the Proms, the first time in the event’s 118-year history that a woman will have held the baton on this prestigious occasion.
Instead, women – and men – throughout the classical music world are talking about female conductors for quite a different reason. Like me, they will be shaking their heads with disbelief and embarrassment following the statements made in an interview last week by Vasily Petrenko, principal conductor of the National Youth Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
For it has emerged that Petrenko believes women are far too distracting to stand on the podium. We’re too “cute” to be conductors, creating too much “sexual energy” among the male members of the pit. We are Delilahs to the Samsons in the strings, Salome in her seven veils dancing before the Herods in the brass.
Good grief! In Petrenko’s opinion, it seems every performance is like Carry on Conducting, with Sid James, dressed in black tie, ignoring his snare drums to gawp at Barbara Windsor giggling over her baton. It is pathetic.
Having stood in front of orchestras as a mezzo-soprano for 20 years, I can honestly say I have never felt judged like that. No musician, male or female, would want to be evaluated for their looks. We are, as we expect, judged on the sound we produce.
How appalling that any woman performer who perfects her art with hours of daily practice should find the critical judgment of her colleagues reduced to what she looks like on the night.
When I sing, it is to the very best of my ability; I engage with the orchestra; I perform. I simply can’t imagine any of the male performers hoping I get booked because of my looks.
The most attention my appearance ever attracted was at the Last Night of the Proms four years ago, when I led the Rule, Britannia! finale dressed in an admiral’s uniform. Wearing trousers on stage is not unusual for me – I wore them in a competition when I was younger and, when told I ought to have worn a skirt, I replied: “Whatever for?” In the end, nobody cared. My voice, my music, was enough.
So I can’t believe that sexist comments such as Petrenko’s are still in circulation today. Particularly irritating is his remark that: “When women have families, it becomes difficult to be as dedicated as is demanded in the [classical music] business.” As a mother, I know that my career has not been impeded or my commitment lessened at all; why should it? The decision to have children is up to the woman and her partner. No one else has any right to discuss it.
Yet Petrenko’s remarks are not useless. They highlight the lack of women conductors. While most orchestras are now 50:50, there are still not enough women on the podium. It takes a lot of confidence, personality and charisma to conduct, and more than just determination. You have to earn the respect of an orchestra and its members. Technique can be learnt, but few also have the ability truly to draw out the poetry from the score.
And women do make great conductors. Marin Alsop, principal conductor of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, Jane Glover, artistic director of opera at the Royal Academy of Music, and Sian Edwards, former music director of English National Opera, all work hard at being role models for younger women interested in taking up the baton. I know they would be horrified by Petrenko’s remarks. But his words were insulting not just to women. What is he saying about the men in the orchestra? Does he really think experienced musicians are going to lose focus during an intense performance of Mahler, say, just because the conductor is “cute”?
Perhaps Petrenko is simply out of step with the world. He told the Norwegian paper Aftenposten of his comments: “If this had come up in
I don’t think people would have reacted in the same way.” If he thinks we are
all sniggering like Sid James, he needs to learn more about British culture.
And thank goodness he didn’t make these remarks in Great Britain . He would probably have been sued. New York
He will certainly have a lot of explaining to do next time he stands on the podium in front of a pit full of cuties.