The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra recently announced that its current season is the “year of the conductor,” with a series of 11 high-profile maestros appearing on its podium throughout the year, including charismatic Russian Daniel Raiskin, who opened last month’s Angels and Demons festival, and Germany’s Jun Märkl, a protegé of Leonard Bernstein, who leads next weekend’s Classics concert, Strauss, Ravel and More.
However, arguably every season is the “year of the conductor,” in the same way that one might posit this is the “year of the composer” or “year of the guest artist.” Each of these integral roles represent, by their nature, the very warp and weft of the orchestral fabric, making this kind of statement a bit self-evident, if not downright silly.
But of course, it all goes deeper than this.
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The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra recently announced that its current season is the "year of the conductor," with a series of 11 high-profile maestros appearing on its podium throughout the year, including charismatic Russian Daniel Raiskin, who opened last month’s Angels and Demons festival, and Germany’s Jun Märkl, a protegé of Leonard Bernstein, who leads next weekend’s Classics concert, Strauss, Ravel and More.
However, arguably every season is the "year of the conductor," in the same way that one might posit this is the "year of the composer" or "year of the guest artist." Each of these integral roles represent, by their nature, the very warp and weft of the orchestral fabric, making this kind of statement a bit self-evident, if not downright silly.
But of course, it all goes deeper than this.
It’s no secret that the WSO is searching for a new music director to replace the popular Alexander Mickelthwate, now in his 12th year on the podium, when he begins his tenure with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic in September 2018.
While researching my recent Free Press story on the WSO’s former music director Victor Feldbrill, I was gobsmacked to learn that this great, senior statesman of the Canadian classical music scene remains the only — let me repeat that — the only Canadian-born maestro to helm the orchestra in its 70 years. I find this seeming nod to the Trojan horse of colonialism that is still the basis for all North American orchestras, powered by those proverbial "dead white composers" (whose music I also quite like, by the way), truly astounding, perpetuated even today.
But a more pressing issue is that there have been few female conductors leading major orchestras in Canada or elsewhere, with the notable exceptions of Manitoba Chamber Orchestra’s Anne Manson, now in her 10th season, and the always wonderful Tania Miller, who left the Victoria Symphony Orchestra this past August. Miller has guest conducted both our local orchestras in recent years and is the first woman to lead a major Canadian orchestra when she was first appointed to the VSO in a not-that-distant 2003.
It’s more common now to see women taking their rightful place in the highest echelons of the symphonic world, such as concertmaster (look at the WSO’s incomparable Gwen Hoebig, still going strong after 30 years), principal players (five of the WSO’s current 18 principals are women; still fewer than one-third) and composers (a female composer-in-residence on my personal wish list).
Women have also been leading the charge in senior management roles — WSO executive director Trudy Schroeder was appointed in 2008 and the MCO’s Vicki Young was hired in 2003. However, the podium remains a final frontier, a last bastion for true equality in the classical world.
I turned to WSO president of the board Terry Sargeant for his perspective. He is co-chairing the search committee for Mickelthwate’s successor with principal cellist Yuri Hooker. That ongoing process, which began putting feelers out three years ago as good, long-range planning, has already highlighted several women, including Miller and Mei-Ann Chen. There have also been several Canadians vying for the plum post, including Quebecer Jean-Marie Zeitouni, who steps onto the podium in April.
"We want a good musician, a good conductor and someone who will take the WSO to the next level," Sargeant says, when asked what would ultimately tip the baton for a particular candidate.
"The person also has to have the right fit, both with the WSO and also the city of Winnipeg. He or she has to have the ability to connect with the community, business leaders, artistic leaders, school kids and all the many things that we do."
And is gender a part of that artistic alchemy?
"It is as much that we deliberately wanted women on the shorter list," he explains, adding that Canadian-born conductors are also being carefully considered.
"I just think that the world hasn’t been terribly good at promoting women into senior positions in any field, and that we should all be trying to change that and get more women into leadership positions in all the arts, including conducting," he adds, noting the WSO’s recent Canadian Conducting Workshop held in September featured two women among its four emerging maestros.
The MCO’s Manson is renowned worldwide for her opera conducting career. As the first woman to lead the iconic Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival in 1994 — a full three years before the notoriously all-male orchestra hired its first female musician — she’s uniquely qualified to speak to this issue.
"These are all excellent questions… and I wish I had good answers, because I’m asked this kind of thing all the time. I still find the situation really puzzling," Manson replies by email when asked for comment, also noting that there are currently no female music directors of mid- to larger-sized opera companies in North America and an "insignificant" number of female guest conductors.
"There is a strong trend away from the dictatorial approach of the Toscaninis and Karajans of the past, and certainly a desire on the part of orchestral musicians to participate collaboratively in both music-making and in management of symphony orchestras," she elaborates. "This may have led to more openness to women on the podium, or it may simply be something that the world is changing — albeit slowly — over time. I do believe that over the next 20 years or so we will see a different picture."
Another guest conductor (and sole woman) appearing on the WSO podium this year is Winnipeg’s Keri-Lynn Wilson, who has built an impressive international career, including becoming the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra’s first female chief conductor in 2013. Wilson returns to her roots to lead the WSO Classics concert Nielsen and Mozart on Jan. 12-13.
Her succinct email speaks volumes: "I would prefer not to comment on the status of women conductors, since I look forward to the day when talent, not sex, is the determining factor of a successful conducting career," Wilson says from London, where she is currently conducting the English National Opera in Verdi’s Aida.
This past January, in the tidal wake of a jolting U.S. presidential inauguration, millions protested around the world in what became known as the "Women’s March," described cheekily by one pundit as "an entire gender up in arms."
Well, with "inclusivity" now a firmly entrenched concept, I would urge the WSO — or any orchestra, for that matter — to keep casting a wider net and dip its toes into the "other" gender pool, while resisting the omnipresent siren song of a formalized quota system (that’s a whole other column).
That way, it’s possible the orchestra might discover its next maestro is right around the next corner, and that she is ready, baton in hand, to lead a new generation of musicians boldly into the future.
GroundSwell features acclaimed pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico during its next concert, Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The eclectic program Global Sirens features rarely performed solo works by female composers from around the world, including Winnipeg-based Diana McIntosh’s Dark Journey. For tickets or further information, see gswell.ca