#MakeItHappen: Jon Stewart, Alan Gilbert, and some thoughts on being a woman in classical music

Note: The use of the word “woman” throughout this post is meant to be inclusive of individuals who identify as women, womxn, femmes, trans, queer, and non-binary, and who experience oppression and misogyny on the basis of their gender identity, presentation, or expression.



Though Stewart’s announcement is almost a month old at this point, it still stings to imagine a 2016 election cycle without his brilliant, biting, and entirely necessary perspective.  I’ve been watching the Daily Show for literally half of my life — longer even than I’ve been playing oboe — and it’s going to be sad to watch him go.

As per usual, the Internet reacted to the news with a whirlwind variety of thoughts and opinions, and I was particularly struck by one sector of the online community’s call to action:

That Guardian headline gets it right — “It’s time.”  Isn’t it time?  Representation of women in late-night comedy is deplorably low, moderated by a systemic, male-dominated bias in the popular media.  (A white-male-dominated bias, I should add: Larry Wilmore of the Nightly Show is currently the only African-American late night comedy host on TV.)

Mere days before Jon Stewart announced his departure, another great man in the entertainment industry announced his impending resignation: Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic for the past eight years.  Though Gilbert won’t actually be leaving until 2017, his departure will leave a particularly prominent job position open for applicants.  Today, on International Women’s Day, I therefore offer the following proposal:

Alan Gilbert’s replacement should be a woman.  It’s time.

Bachtrack’s listing of the top women conductors and composers of 2014 (source)

In Bachtrack’s 2014 year-end round-up of classical music statistics (check out the full infographic here), the editors noted only four women among the top 100 busiest conductors last year, with the incomparable Marin Alsop as the lone female representative in the top 50.  As for most-performed women composers, only one placed in the top 150 — Sofia Gubaidulina, ranking at 132 — with the fifth most-performed, Sally Beamish, coming in way down at 260th place.

Bachtrack draws these statistics just from the events it posts on its site — 25,000 in 2014, the site states — so not every single classical event in the world has contributed to these calculations.  Nonetheless, the numbers point to a frustrating pattern of underrepresentation for women in the classical music industry.

The dearth of regularly programmed repertoire by women composers can in many regards be attributed to the circumstances of history: men in the West have had far more centuries of widely socially accepted education and musical training than women, resulting in only a small and recent window of time for women composers to make their mark.  Nonetheless, there’s really no reason not to program music written by women — it’s just as beautiful and exciting as works written by men.  The fact that 178 men (plus Sofia Gubaidulina) rank above Clara Schumann — arguably, one of the most famous women composers, if only because of her association with her husband — as the most performed composers of 2014 suggests a systemic flaw in how professional classical organizations select performance repertoire: a lack of effort at best, discrimination at worst.

Women performers aren’t as lacking, though this phenomenon is a recent one.  Orchestras only began instituting blind auditions in the ’70s, and some famous research by economists Cecilia Rouse and Claudia Goldin (from Princeton and Harvard, respectively — so you know it’s legit) found that behind-the-screen auditions were pretty much entirely responsible for the significant increase in women orchestral hires from 1970-1996.  Even so, sexism in orchestral auditions hasn’t disappeared: a French horn friend of mine was recently advised to remove her shoes before entering the audition room, so the telltale clacking of high-heels wouldn’t adversely affect her score.

Despite all this, I’ve never felt that my opportunities are somehow limited due to my gender.  I attend a music school with a student body predominantly comprising women, and am a member of an all-women graduating oboe class.

And yet, I’ve never performed a piece by a woman composer, and only once been in an ensemble led by a woman conductor, during my four years as a student here.

It’s easy to say that this is no big deal — that there happen to be lots of men who are good conductors or composers or performers, and there happen to be women who are good at these things too, but perhaps not as many, and does any of this really matter?  But it does matter — unequivocally — because leaving women out of concert programs and off the podium means leaving out an entire point of view.  It means seeing the world through a single lens — hearing the music through a headphone in just one ear.  Only through equal representation can we hear the classical genre in stereo.

This isn’t to say that progress hasn’t been made.  The 2013 Bachtrack listing had only one woman in the top 100 busiest conductors (you guessed it — Marin Alsop), compared to 2014’s four.  This past December, 28-year-old Elim Chan became the first-ever woman to win the prestigious Donatella Flick Conducting Competition of the London Symphony Orchestra.  WXQR recently profiled five young women conductors “on the rise.”  Back in 2013, the last night of the Proms saw its first woman conductor — once again, Marin Alsop.

Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony, was the first woman conductor of any major symphony orchestra in the United States.  She shared the following thought in this Guardian article:

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.

This “lack of comfort” is the same reason no women have taken on late-night comedy — in this male-biased society, it’s risky for a network to place a woman in such a prominent, powerful position.  It shouldn’t be risky, but it is.

Which is why it’s time: time for the New York Phil to #MakeItHappen, take the risk, and put a woman on its podium.

Further reading:


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