Madeleine Lovell: Noises Off

Conducting is the last bastion of musical male dominance, but the women are breaking in
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The Independent Online

Jane Asher, Katie Derham and Sue Perkins may be wielding batons in BBC2's celebrity-conductor show Maestro, but there is only one female conductor at this year's Proms, and apparently no women vying with the Rattles and Gergievs for space on the biggest podiums. Will female conductors ever achieve equality? I think they will.

I've been conducting since I left university seven years ago, and though I have my own ensemble, the St George's Chamber Orchestra, and am preparing the BBC Symphony Chorus for their Proms performance next Sunday, I've had some odd reactions. After one performance, I was told that a member of the viola section had been fixated on my chest; the more elderly chairmen of groups often like to know what I'll be wearing on the podium. But that's been my experience with a few amateur groups. I've never had any issues with the professionals.

Out-of-date attitudes linger, though. Wondering about the lack of top-flight female conductors leading professional orchestras, Richard Morrison said in The Times recently that women conductors have to be "10 times more commanding than the men around them". That's a view from an outsider, one that's slightly derogatory towards the players themselves.

If you have the musical skills, know the score and can do the job, you'll gain the respect of the players. Charisma is also important. But the difficulties I've had as a woman conductor are more to do with the nebulous "powers that be", the administrators: they often feel it is too risky to break the mould, and that mould is the middle-aged male conductor or the exciting dynamic young man such as Gustavo Dudamel. I have been told, off the record, that one female administrator feels disinclined to engage female conductors because they "don't know what to do with their hair".

It will take time for things to change at the highest level, but I believe female conductors will lead the great orchestras. I'm 29, and it's certainly my ambition to lead a major London orchestra. All the first-rate conductors are in their fifties and sixties, if not older. In this sense, conducting is the last bastion of male dominance in classical music, and it will take at least another generation for the balance to shift. It stems from old-fashioned notions of femininity: not putting yourself forward and avoiding high-profile positions of responsibility.

This view is based on an old-fashioned idea of the conductor who strikes fear into the hearts of his players. The reality is that, with the mainstream repertoire, any professional orchestra could happily play with little direction. At the highest level the conductor is there to lead, yes, but also to inspire, to shape, to bring enthusiasm and draw out the orchestra's personality.

Do women conductors have something their male counterparts lack? Well, after a recent performance at St Luke's, in London, a player I'd conducted told me it was a pleasant change to see someone so emotional on the podium. I suppose that's a quality traditionally ascribed to women. It was good to get positive feedback, but one of the interesting questions for a female conductor is, do you try to be as masculine as possible or try to be feminine? The answer, I think, is be yourself. If you're really thinking about the music, you've not time to be self-conscious.

It should be said that some things have improved radically for women. Take Emmanuelle Haïm, who has performed at this year's Proms: she has established a niche in early music, and the historically informed performance movement has been a ground breaker, enabling women to lead conducterless ensembles.

The early music movement has helped to erode the idea of a dictator conductor. For them, the conductor is more a member of the ensemble. Despite this progress, though, Haïm remains the only female conductor at this year's Proms. The best classical music festival in the world should set an example and promote established female conductors: Simone Young, for instance – a judge in Maestro.

I've been impressed by two female contestants in Maestro, Sue Perkins and Katie Derham. Both have some music training, and you can tell. Goldie, too, has an innate understanding, conducting with his hands and arms as if moving the sound of the music itself – and the best conductors all have that quality. But Maestro is a crash course. The contestants get nowhere near the fundamentals of working with an orchestra. You need decades of musical and academic training for that. The contestants, though, have been humble before, and appreciative of, the orchestras – which is refreshing. Also, the programme has helped to explain the art of conducting to TV audiences.

I have been preparing the BBC Symphony Chorus for Tuesday's edition of Maestro. Alex James, Bradley Walsh, Goldie, Jane Asher, Sue Perkins and Katie Denham are going to be conducting the chorus in parts of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana (the "Old Spice" music), Verdi's Requiem, Mozart's Requiem and Handel's Zadok the Priest, and other pieces. They'll struggle with Carmina Burana and Zadok: rookie conductors never like it when the tempo changes and they have to bring players and singers in. The Verdi, though – that'll run itself.

Madeleine Lovell conducts 'Cycles', a concert of song cycles, with the London Lyric Opera on Tuesday 16 September at Cadogan Hall, Sloane Square (020-7730 4500)