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Bach off: The world of classical music is still dominated by men and lacking female role models

Vasily Petrenko

TOP jobs in classical music most often go to men, despite the high proportion of women studying Music at university.

A recent talk at King’s called: “Exploring the hidden currents of the classical music world”, looked at why these inequalities, particularly of gender, still persist.

Women make up a high proportion of those on Music degree programmes, but within the professions men dominate composition and conducting.

In 2013, the male conductor Vasily Petrenko questioned women’s ability to conduct orchestras when he was quoted as saying that orchestras “react better when they have a man in front of them”.

His comments came at the moment when, for the first time ever, a woman – Marin Alsop – was to conduct the Last Night of the Proms.

Petrenko’s remarks can be seen as symptomatic of major gender disparities in the world of conducting. It is clear that, though there are many successful female virtuosos and singers, women still remain underrepresented on podiums at the big concert halls and major orchestras.

Roar asked some female Music students at King’s whether this correlated with their experience, and while the majority expressed indifference as to the gender of a conductor, they also pointed out the lack of prominent female conductors and composers.

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

One in six

The situation is just the same when it comes to composers. The Performing Rights Society for Musicís membership is 14% female; The British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors is 17%.

This suggests that only about one sixth of the music industry’s creators are female.

Music journalist Jessica Duchen suggests that prejudices and preconceptions at school and college level are deterring women.  She points out that at the 2013 British Composer Awards all 13 prizes were awarded to men.

If this is the public face of modern classical music, it is no wonder that there are few female composers – there are few high-profile female role models.

Role models

When talking to female music students at King’s, some stressed the importance of having visible female role models in their chosen field.

Others were equally adamant that “the gender of a role model makes no difference”, and one even asserted that “it spurs people on that these role models don’t yet exist.”

Some initiatives, like the Women Conductors course at Morley College and the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, are challenging the myth of the male maestro by promoting talented female conductors.

But it is evident that the “attitudinal oil tanker” of classical music’s sexual politics still needs changing.

As long as most of the music you hear is made and conducted by men – more specifically, by white, straight, able-bodied and usually middle class men – classical music will not be a truly level playing field.

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