Women Conductors: Her Baton Isn’t for Twirling!

Her Baton Isn’t For Twirling

In the ‘70’s, my father loved to tell the story about being aboard a commercial jet and discovering that the pilot was a woman. He’d relive his outrage and panic. He wanted to get off; he wanted a refund; he had to swallow all his “goof balls” (anti-anxiety meds) to survive the flight. My sisters and I could never determine if he told this story simply to get a rise out of us or, we wondered, did he actually believe what he spouted, that women were suitable for 3 professions: teachers, nurses or nuns. Too bad one of his daughters didn’t become a nursing nun assigned to a foreign mission school, and then Dad could also justify his love of exotic travel. But the ‘70’s are ancient history and thankfully, barriers for women have fallen in most professions.

On November 23, 2006 my husband and I went to Disney Hall to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform a Brahms/Dvorak program. I knew little about the evening; our friends had given us two tickets they couldn’t use. It was Casual Friday, which is a very cool series that the LA Phil created “with classical music neophytes in mind”. Orchestra members are casually dressed and there are programs before and after the concert in which the players discuss the music and their lives as musicians.

After the orchestra was seated, a young attractive woman dressed in Gap black casual, her long, dark hair pulled back with a headband, walked out carrying a baton. “Wait a minute,” I thought, “surely she’s not ….” but, yes, she stepped up to the podium and took command. I had never before seen a woman conduct a symphony orchestra. As Alex Ross noted in the January 7, 2008 edition of The New Yorker, “It isn’t so much that misogyny runs rampant in the music world; it’s that the classical business is temperamentally resistant to novelty, whether in the form of female conductors, American conductors, younger conductors, new music, post 1900 concert dress or concert-hall color schemes that aren’t corporate beige”.
Since the role of conductor is the ultimate authority figure, it was very impressive to see this young woman, Joana Carneiro, confidently take charge. She was the guest conductor and she was magnificent. As part of the Casual Friday series, she, along with two of the soloists, stayed for a post concert Q&A with the audience. She was warm and open and told about growing up in Portugal in a very musical household. She said she knew she wanted to be a conductor from the age of 8. How lucky for her that she is living her dream.

What I found amazing is that she conducted the Dvorak Symphony No.9 “From the New World” without the score in front of her. She is a very young woman; how many times could she have conducted this symphony? She said she prepared, not by listening to other recordings of the symphony, but by studying the score. Her interpretation was wonderful – crisp, triumphant, moving and very passionate. I agree with one of the audience members who voiced the thought that she was ready to have her own orchestra.

Spending an evening watching this dynamic young woman on the podium inspired me to revisit not only my Dvorak “New World” CD, but many other classical CD’s I hadn’t listened to in a long time. Like many multi-taskers, I’d stopped listening to classical music because I believed I didn’t have time to truly listen and savor the music. But, hey, when you think about it, isn’t that what traffic congestion in LA is perfectly suited for?
This is not a slam at Los Angeles, my adopted home. As Alex Ross also noted in The New Yorker, on “Lists of forward-thinking American orchestras – the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony are the de-facto leaders.” So I shout out a “BRAVO” to our city’s musical establishment for bringing Joana Carneiro to the helm. Perhaps Joana’s career will inspire a new crop of young women to enter a field that had seemed closed to them.

Jan Bina, Blogger for Women Over 40 Rock / In the Trenches Productions

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Even today we still have in mind what works and what doesn’t work, so seeing something that is not the normal practice is an exercise in stretching our minds and acceptance of what’s ‘normal’. How lovely to have witnessed this young woman’s dream become reality. Perhaps we’ll see her name appear in magazines and other publications in the not so distant future, so we can travel her journey with her!

  2. Yes, the world has certainly changed for women and, as an early baby boomer who experienced the feminist movement of the ’70s, I give a lot of credit to our generation. This is a wonderfully inspiring story of the fruit of our labors. It warms my heart. Thank you for sharing!

  3. There you go! Another woman stepping up to her rightful position in life…HER life! Just goes to show there is noting we cannot do, once we set our dreams free….loved this article! Thanks for sharing.


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