France Launches Effort to Right Classical Music’s Gender Imbalance

Only about six percent of the world’s professional classical music orchestras are headed by women. But in France, there is a drive to change that, including La Maestra – an international competition for women conductors in Paris.  The winner of the contest, which attracted more than 200 applicants from Asia, Europe and the Americas, will be announced later this month.Laurent Bayle, director of the Paris Philharmonic which is co-hosting La Maestra, said the victor and runner-ups will get two years of intensive mentoring and other support.Experts say there is a need for that kind of encouragement. While women head nearly 40 percent of Belgian orchestras, just three percent of French orchestras have female conductors.  In the U.S., only eight percent of orchestras are led by women. The Philharmonic is doing better— 30 percent of its visiting conductors this current season are women, an uptick from a few years ago.A mix of factors hamper women’s advancement in the field, from historical to cultural. Bayle said that in France, for example, the country’s theoretically egalitarian, so-called “Republican values” frown on affirmative action initiatives supporting women and other minorities.  Claire Gilbault is one of France’s rare female conductors, heading the Paris Mozart Orchestra, which is co-hosting this event. She noted that men head all major musical institutions — and share power among themselves. This contest is breaking new ground in another way: the jury is headed by a female conductor and is gender balanced.Of course, for this all-women competition, performance is the key criteria.Italian Sara Caneva competes in La Maestra. She is both a conductor and classical music composer. (L. Bryant/VOA)Twenty-nine-year-old Sara Caneva from Italy faced extra stress as the first candidate to perform. The coronavirus pandemic has not helped.”It’s the first, it’s after a long time without conducting because of the lockdown, and all the potential commitment that just vanished,” she said.Holly Hyun Choe from the U.S. felt better about her performance. She is currently a conductor in Switzerland.”My first goal is to be an international conductor, to be conducting at the highest level possible,” Choe said. “Of course that has to come with a lot of luck and a lot of hard work, and your own talent. And I also have to be honest with myself…can I make it to the top, do I have what it takes? …But I think to dream big is always good.”The Philharmonic’s Bayle said this contest’s ultimate goal is not just to hand out prizes, but rather to encourage other European orchestras to invite these conductors to perform and, as Choe puts it, to dream big.

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