Though a few decades ago Herbert von Karajan, the conductor who long defined the profile of the Berlin Philharmonic, declared that women’s place was in the kitchen, not a symphony orchestra, there is no corner of classical music where they are not present. Nowadays more and more women are taking up the conductor’s baton, and two such world-famous artists, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and Emmanuelle Haïm appear at the Budapest Spring Festival.
A few years ago Vasily Petrenko thought it fit to say that an orchestra “reacts better when they have a man in front of them”, and that “a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things”. The Russian conductor has doubtless countless times regretted giving voice to this conviction, though he subsequently tried to defend himself by saying this was not his personal opinion, but referred to the situation of his female colleagues in Russia.
Whatever Petrenko was referring to, for a long time this profession did indeed seem unattainable for women. While in other areas of classical music the ratio of the sexes gradually evened out, in a 2014 list of the world’s leading conductors, only five of the 150 listed were women. In another survey also from 2014 of twenty leading orchestras in the United States, it was found that only one of them had a woman music director at the helm: Marin Alsop conducting the Baltimore Symphony.
She has remained the most famous woman conductor: her place in music history is not just as the first woman director of a US orchestra, but also because in 2013 she was the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms in London. In 2015 she founded the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, which enables talented young women conductors to study for two years alongside Alsop, and to work with several orchestras for six weeks.
Symphony Hall in Birmingham, the home auditorium of the orchestra of the 2 April concert, was voted the concert hall with the best acoustic in the UK in 2016, and it came seventh place on the global list. With a capacity of 2262, it was opened by the Queen herself in 1991, since when it has hosted each year about 270 events of classical and light music, jazz, dance, and theatre. The interior of the building was designed on the basis of the Musikverein in Vienna and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, while the acoustics of the hall are akin to those in the Müpa Budapest, because they were executed by the world-famous acoustics expert Russell Johnson, who is also responsible for the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall. This auditorium, which has outstanding acoustics (and includes Johnson’s hallmark, later used in the Müpa too, an enormous echo chamber and an acoustic canopy over the stage), saw the addition of a 6000-pipe organ in 2001. This instrument is the largest mechanical action organ in the UK today. Each year 12 thousand children and six thousand adults participate in the hall’s education and community programmes.
Following in Alsop’s footsteps more and more women can take to the conductor’s rostrum. One, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla from Lithuania hit the headlines when in 2016 at the age of 29 she was appointed chief conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. This set her on the path of great predecessors such as Sir Simon Rattle and Andris Nelsons. She is the first woman to take the post in the history of the orchestra, and the third woman to do so in a leading British orchestra. Previously she worked at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and as well as her work in Birmingham she is music director of the Landestheater in Salzburg, and committed to her career as a superstar in the international classical music world.
On 2 April she conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the Liszt Academy, partnered by the legendary Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder. The programme includes the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Schumann’s Piano Concerto, as well as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
The other globally renowned woman conductor we can hear in Budapest during the festival is Emmanuelle Haïm from France. Haïm, who started out as a harpsichordist, is playing Italian cantatas with Le Concert d’Astrée, the orchestra she founded, at the Liszt Academy on 3 April. A feted interpreter of Baroque music, for a decade she accompanied William Christie and Les Arts Florissants on the harpsichord, and then began her conducting career in 2000 at the head of her own ensemble. With Le Concert d’Astrée she has appeared in many opera houses and concert halls in Europe, and Haïm’s name became more widely known when in 2001 she conducted Händel’s Rodelinda at the Glyndebourne Touring Opera.
Today she is a recognized representative of the conducting profession, who although often referred to as a “pretty conductor girl” is recognized as having a “God-given talent”. Emmanuelle Haïm has directed world- famous orchestras such as the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, the Vienna Philharmonic, and is a recurrent guest at concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic. With Le Concert d’Astrée she has recorded several discs for the Erato label, owned by Warner, and the recordings have won several celebrated awards. Her most recent discs have been Mozart’s opera Mitridate re di Ponto, and Händel’s oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. In Budapest too, they will be playing works by Händel in the Liszt Academy on 3 April: a trio sonata and three cantatas.
Hungarian women conductors have played a pioneering role in smashing the glass ceiling: Valéria Csányi conducted for the first time in 1988 in the Hungarian State Opera House, while Katalin Váradi directed many operettas and musicals in provincial theatres and even in the Budapest Operetta. In recent years the Liszt Academy has produced artists such as conductor Andrea Daru, and conductor, composer, and pianist Ilona Dobszay-Meskó.
This article first appeared in BSF Magazine, published by Budapest Spring Festival. To view the magazine in full, please click here.