Top Conductors: Stick it to the Woman

“Honored to be the first, but shocked that we can be in this year, in this century, and there can still be ‘firsts’ for women.”

This was Marin Alsop’s statement to The Guardian upon her 2007 appointment as the first female music director of a major American orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony. She was also the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, a 118-year-old London concert that marks the end of the city’s eight-week summer concert season. 118 years for a woman to punch her baton through the glass ceiling of the tradition-steeped world of classical music.


It’s 2019, and seeing a female conductor on the podium is still a surprise. A pleasant surprise, but one that just half a decade ago elicited sniggers and raised eyebrows from orchestras and audiences alike.

In the 1960s, Sylvia Caduff turned a blind eye to doubts about the ability of “lady conductors.” An apprentice to the German maestro Herbert von Karajan, she soon won an assistantship with Leonard Bernstein. She was the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Script for Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts

The media were fascinated with this new breed of conductor, but mostly just wanted pictures of Caduff that assured people she wasn’t completely renouncing her gender role… think hoovering, cooking, ironing.

Things have certainly changed since the 60s, but the pace of change is slow. And in a world where everything we do is scrutinized, from the slightest gesture to the inflection of the voice, conductors have never had it harder…

So should conducting be more masculine or more feminine? Or should the act of conducting transcend notions of “man” and “woman”? The Estonian conductor Anu Tali seems to believe that it is precisely these traditionally gendered characteristics— female sensitivity, male abandon—that are transcended in the act of music-making.

So if masculine/feminine conducting is a nothing more than a long-drawn out myth, why are women still so underrepresented on the podium? Marin Alsop believes its part of a much bigger worldwide commitment to equality. Her final word on the matter? It’s all a question of perception. And it’s only a matter of time.


The greatest conductors are dynamic, exacting, sensitive, and everything in between. They are the musicians who are prepared to get up in front of an orchestra and bring the music to life. Conducting takes courage, and the world of classical music only stands to gain from the courageous women who are taking up the baton—and sticking it to the man.

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