Male conductors still think they are gods

A casual remark has signalled the sexism rife in classical music

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Even allowing for loose translation, Vasily Petrenko's description of a woman conducting as "some cute girl on the podium" managed to upset the maximum number of people in the fewest syllables. It was a veritable Puccini aria – all over in a trice but resounding long after, like a gong.

Clang! Female conductors, including Marin Alsop, the first woman to preside over The Last Night of the Proms, last night, must have thought they had woken up in the 18th century to a little Mozartian night music – a time before Nadia Boulanger (b 1887) or Jane Glover, let alone Alsop or Xian Zhang, whose Thursday night Prom ended with a Rossini William Tell Overture of spine-tingling virility.

Clang! As conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Petrenko faces some of the most brilliant young musicians in the country, tomorrow's soloists and principals, more than half of them young women who, mysteriously, manage to play on in his presence.

Clang! His interview with a Norwegian magazine came to light just after he had conducted, two nights running at the Proms last week, the Oslo Phil, about 40 per cent of whose players are female, and which is led by a woman.

The priapic tendencies of certain male conductors is well known, and is encouraged by their godlike practice of dropping in and out of orchestras and countries all over the world. Far from sharing the work around, what feels like a handful of men, largely, have the top music jobs sewn up. So, Valery Gergiev is general director and artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, and principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Vladimir Jurowski holds positions with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, a major Russian orchestra and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, has just left Glyndebourne, and guests in concert halls and at opera houses worldwide.

Petrenko and Jurowski are dishy and charismatic, and while some question the sexy marketing of young female soloists, a parallel beauty pageant is taking place on the podium. When public funding is squeezed and business sponsorship is vital to the arts, there is money in exoticism and, offstage, there is vital schmoozing to be done.

So while Petrenko belittles his female colleagues, players, and, indeed, his audiences, he knows in his heart that when he is wheeled out to potential backers as the face of, say, his Liverpool Philharmonic, it does no harm at all to be a hunk with a broken accent.

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