Culture | Orchestrating Equality

Misogyny takes the lead in symphony orchestras

Content warning: Discussions of sexual assault, misogyny

Vasily Petrenko made headlines in 2013 – but not for his accomplishments as a rising star in the world of orchestral conducting, leading the Oslo Philharmonic and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic at only 37 years old. It was for his overtly sexist comments alleging that women don’t merit a place on the conductor’s podium.

“[Orchestras] react better when they have a man in front of them,” he told the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. “A cute girl on the podium means that musicians think about other things.”

Petrenko immediately came under fire: critics called for his resignation, while Norwegian conductor Cathrine Winnes questioned his “extra-unacceptable” comments, and National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain chief executive Sarah Alexander expressed disappointment in his “narrow view.”

Yet, less than two months later, Petrenko’s album of Shostakovich symphonies topped the United Kingdom’s classical charts; the following year, he was invited to conduct the European Union Youth Orchestra. His career continued to skyrocket without a hitch.

Petrenko has since walked back his Aftenposten comments, noting that his words had been poorly translated from Norwegian and interpreted out of context. “What I said was meant to be a description of the situation in Russia, my homeland,” he explained in a post on the Oslo Philharmonic’s website. “I have the utmost respect for female conductors.”

Petrenko immediately came under fire: critics called for his resignation […] Yet his career continued to skyrocket.

“I’d encourage any girl to study conducting,” he added in the statement. “How successful they turn out to be depends on their talent and their work, definitely not their gender. I also want to add that my beloved wife is a choral conductor.”

A “description” of sexism in Russia, without context or critique, is far from a condemnation. History has also proven that one can be married to a woman and still participate in misogynistic thought and culture. However, the general consensus in the classical music industry now seems to hold that Petrenko’s comments were misreported and not spoken with misogynistic intent. In the court of public opinion, Vasily Petrenko was acquitted of all charges.

Last month, on February 22, Petrenko joined the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) as a guest conductor, strolling on stage at Place des Arts’ Maison Symphonique to enthusiastic applause. The audience, though not a full house, was surprisingly large for a midweek show. They were there to catch Petrenko and the OSM interpret Brahms’ brooding First Symphony, and to hear Blake Pouliot, the 22-year-old winner of the prestigious 2016 OSM Manulife Competition for emerging classical musicians, perform Erich Korngold’s cinematic Violin Concerto.

Under the baton of a conductor who may or may not be a misogynist, the orchestra flailed.

Also on the docket was Plages, Quebec composer Serge Garant’s 1981 abstract symphonic soundscape meant to portray “[bands] of musical time and orchestral colour,” according to the OSM’s program notes. The piece fell flat: combinations of instruments blasted discrete pillars of sound in plodding and dissonant sequence, leaving the audience uncertain of when to applaud.

It was refreshing to hear a contemporary work programmed alongside symphonic strongholds like Korngold and Brahms – particularly a work by a Quebec composer. However, a certain mediocrity plagued Plages, along with the other two pieces on the program. Pouliot’s showmanship – knees bent à la Elvis, leaning in to face concertmaster Andrew Wan for a warmly phrased duet in the third movement – managed to compensate for a solo tone that was far too hushed. Meanwhile, gruff brass and occasional high-octane vibrato made the Brahms fall a bit below the OSM’s usually exquisite standards.

The OSM is regularly hailed as one of the greatest symphony orchestras in North America. Yet, under the baton of a conductor who may or may not be a misogynist, the orchestra flailed.

Vasily Petrenko’s alleged misogyny, however, is not the problem – it’s a symptom of something larger: a systemic force that bars women from participating equally in the orchestra.

Vasily Petrenko’s alleged misogyny, however, is not the problem – it’s a symptom of something larger: a systemic force that bars women from participating equally in the orchestral workplace.

To use the OSM as a case study: according to data collected from the 2016-17 brochure, out of 87 works programmed throughout this season, only one was composed by a woman. The OSM commissioned and premiered two brand new works this season, both by men. Twenty two men performed with the OSM as invited instrumental soloists, compared to only three women. And out of 14 guest conductors invited to lead the orchestra this season, exactly zero were women.

The OSM hired a conductor who was once censured for his alleged misogyny, but did not hire any women to fill that role.

These patterns are not exclusive to the OSM. While the Los Angeles Philharmonic has announced a promising lineup of four women guest conductors to take the helm in the 2017-18 season, journalist Brian Lauritzen noted in an article for KUSC radio, “More women will conduct the LA Phil next season than the symphonies of Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Nashville, Oregon, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic combined.”

The numbers are unsurprising, McGill bassoonist Danielle Findlay observed in a phone interview with The Daily. “These are industry standards everywhere,” Findlay said. “There’s no pressure […] to have ten per cent minimum female composer works, so there’s just no reason for that. They have no mandate or idea or concept in mind that this even matters.”

To Findlay, however, representation does matter a lot. Several years ago, while participating in a musical ensemble, she was harassed by the ensemble’s male conductor. “I was one of the more advanced players, so that kind of gets you attention,” she explained. “This was when I had only restarted bassoon playing [following an injury], so I was progressing quickly as I picked up the instrument again, and people thought well of me. That’s when the director started talking to me more, and it started getting sort of too close for comfort, and this was getting worse as time went on.”

The OSM hired a conductor who was once censured for his alleged misogyny, but did not hire any woman to fill that role.

Findlay began receiving inappropriate messages from the conductor. “It was all too often,” she said. “There were a few sexual jokes he’d make […] Then he’d say he was just kidding, or, ‘oh, I shouldn’t have said that.’” When Findlay discovered that another woman in the ensemble was receiving similar messages, she offered her colleague a warning, and ultimately decided to leave the ensemble.

“The ensemble’s great – all the musicians were super, which is why I stuck it out. I can’t describe the sense of family that this ensemble really offered, which is the only reason that I stayed […] But eventually I couldn’t go to rehearsals anymore. I didn’t have it in me to wear the smile and play.”

Findlay’s experience is not unique. Smaller orchestras may lack the human resources infrastructure to investigate complaints or accommodate anonymity, and in larger organizations, the person making advances may be in a position of power, such as a conductor or Principal player – thus discouraging any reports of the incident.

Beyond non-consensual advances, sexism in orchestras often takes subtle forms. “Misogyny is all over the place,” Findlay stated. “When I started playing contrabassoon […] I wasn’t really taken seriously. I’d have people doubting that I could fill the instrument with air, or transport it around.”

Assumptions and biases about women in the music industry begin as early as childhood: a University of Washington study found that five-year-olds exhibit preferences for certain musical instruments based on gender stereotypes – boys favouring trumpet, percussion, or saxophone, while girls tended toward violin, clarinet, or flute. As a future music educator, Findlay aspires to challenge these preconceptions.

“My goal would be a nice, even distribution between men and women within the section, so that there’s no being shy to play tuba if you’re a girl […] You don’t need to be a dainty, small girl to play flute,” Findlay said. “I will do what I can to get [these assumptions] out of their heads and just present every instrument as equal opportunity to musical creativity, and that no one is imposing limitations that don’t actually exist.”

When Vasily Petrenko’s comments first came to light in 2013, Marin Alsop – acclaimed Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra – was about to become the first woman conductor to lead the celebrated final concert of the U.K.’s annual BBC Proms, a milestone 118 years in the making. Regarding her appointment to conduct the performance, Alsop told the Guardian. “There is no logical reason to stop women from conducting. The baton isn’t heavy. It weighs about an ounce. No superhuman strength is required. Good musicianship is all that counts.”

“As a society we have a lack of comfort in seeing women in these ultimate authority roles,” Alsop added.

Biases about women in the music industry begin as early as childhood […] Boys [favoured] trumpet, percussion, or saxophone, while girls tended toward violin, clarinet, or flute.

Across industries, opponents of workplace gender parity argue that hiring a woman for a position denies that job to a man who might be more qualified. However, this argument ignores the systems of privilege and oppression that have, for centuries, woven a false narrative of equivalency between maleness and workplace competence. As the OSM proved on February 22, placing a man on the conductor’s podium does not guarantee successful results.

In the 1970s, professional orchestras began instituting “blind auditions” (where the musican’s identity is concealed behind a screen) to curtail the bias that prevented women from even crossing the threshold into the orchestral workforce. Even as more women are hired for orchestral positions, there is one job post – the conductor – that remains out of reach.

Findlay calls this “the final frontier.” “It’s this leading role, and everyone just has to believe in what you’re doing,” Findlay said. “You’ll see orchestras can be close to gender parity, but the podium will definitely be a long time coming.”

As the OSM prepares to announce its 2017-18 season on March 22, let’s hope that time comes sooner.


Data cited in this piece are drawn from the OSM 2016-17 season brochure, and include data from the Grands Concerts Series, Haydn & the Minimalists Festival, Italian Festival, and Closing Concert. Excluded were the Metro+Concerto Series, Holiday Season, OSM Pop Series, Children’s Corner Series, and Music & Images.


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