CUL­TURE Misog­yny in the mu­sic world

Misog­yny takes the lead in Sym­phony or­ches­tras

The McGill Daily - - News - Words by Carly Gor­don Visual by Taylor Mitchell

Con­tent warn­ing: Dis­cus­sions of sex­ual as­sault, misog­yny

Vasily Pe­trenko made head­lines in 2013 – but not for his ac­com­plish­ments as a ris­ing star in the world of or­ches­tral con­duct­ing, lead­ing the Oslo Phil­har­monic and Royal Liver­pool Phil­har­monic at only 37 years old. It was for his overtly sex­ist com­ments al­leg­ing that women don’t merit a place on the con­duc­tor’s podium.

“[ Or­ches­tras] re­act bet­ter when they have a man in front of them,” he told the Nor­we­gian news­pa­per Aften­posten. “A cute girl on the podium means that mu­si­cians think about other things.”

Pe­trenko im­me­di­ately came un­der fire: crit­ics called for his res­ig­na­tion, while Nor­we­gian con­duc­tor Cathrine Winnes ques­tioned his “ex­tra-un­ac­cept­able” com­ments, and Na­tional Youth Orches­tra of Great Bri­tain chief ex­ec­u­tive Sarah Alexan­der ex­pressed dis­ap­point­ment in his “nar­row view.”

Yet, less than two months later, Pe­trenko’s al­bum of Shostakovich sym­phonies topped the United King­dom’s clas­si­cal charts; the fol­low­ing year, he was in­vited to con­duct the Euro­pean Union Youth Orches­tra. His ca­reer con­tin­ued to sky­rocket with­out a hitch.

Pe­trenko has since walked back his Aften­posten com­ments, not­ing that his words had been poorly trans­lated from Norwe- gian and in­ter­preted out of con­text. “What I said was meant to be a de­scrip­tion of the sit­u­a­tion in Rus­sia, my home­land,” he ex­plained in a post on the Oslo Phil­har­monic’s web­site. “I have the ut­most re­spect for fe­male con­duc­tors.”

“I’d en­cour­age any girl to study con­duct­ing,” he added in the state­ment. “How suc­cess­ful they turn out to be de­pends on their tal­ent and their work, def­i­nitely not their gen­der. I also want to add that my beloved wife is a choral con­duc­tor.”

A “de­scrip­tion” of sex­ism in Rus­sia, with­out con­text or cri­tique, is far from a con­dem­na­tion. His­tory has also proven that one can be mar­ried to a woman and still par­tic­i­pate in misog­y­nis­tic thought and cul­ture. How­ever, the gen­eral con­sen­sus in the clas­si­cal mu­sic in­dus­try now seems to hold that Pe­trenko’s com­ments were mis­re­ported and not spo­ken with misog­y­nis­tic in­tent. In the court of pub­lic opin­ion, Vasily Pe­trenko was ac­quit­ted of all charges.

Last month, on Fe­bru­ary 22, Pe­trenko joined the Orchestre Sym­phonique de Mon­tréal ( OSM) as a guest con­duc­tor, strolling on stage at Place des Arts’ Mai­son Sym­phonique to en­thu­si­as­tic ap­plause. The au­di­ence, though not a full house, was sur­pris­ingly large for a mid­week show. They were there to catch Pe­trenko and the OSM in­ter­pret Brahms’ brood­ing First Sym­phony, and

to hear Blake Pouliot, the 22-year- old win­ner of the pres­ti­gious 2016 OSM Man­ulife Com­pe­ti­tion for emerg­ing clas­si­cal mu­si­cians, per­form Erich Korn­gold’s cin­e­matic Vi­olin Con­certo.

Also on the docket was Plages, Que­bec com­poser Serge Garant’s 1981 ab­stract sym­phonic sound­scape meant to por­tray “[bands] of mu­si­cal time and or­ches­tral colour,” ac­cord­ing to the OSM’S pro­gram notes. The piece fell flat: com­bi­na­tions of in­stru­ments blasted dis­crete pil­lars of sound in plod­ding and dis­so­nant se­quence, leav­ing the au­di­ence un­cer­tain of when to ap­plaud.

It was re­fresh­ing to hear a con­tem­po­rary work pro­grammed along­side sym­phonic strongholds like Korn­gold and Brahms – par­tic­u­larly a work by a Que­bec com­poser. How­ever, a cer­tain medi­ocrity plagued Plages, along with the other two pieces on the pro­gram. Pouliot’s show­man­ship – knees bent à la Elvis, lean­ing in to face con­cert­mas­ter An­drew Wan for a warmly phrased duet in the third move­ment – man­aged to com­pen­sate for a solo tone that was far too hushed. Mean­while, gruff brass and oc­ca­sional high-octane vi­brato made the Brahms fall a bit be­low the OSM’S usu­ally ex­quis­ite stan­dards.

The OSM is reg­u­larly hailed as one of the great­est sym­phony or­ches­tras in North Amer­ica. Yet, un­der the ba­ton of a con­duc­tor who may or may not be a misog­y­nist, the orches­tra flailed.

Vasily Pe­trenko’s al­leged misog­yny, how­ever, is not the prob­lem – it’s a symp­tom of some­thing larger: a sys­temic force that bars women from par­tic­i­pat­ing equally in the orches­tra.

To use the OSM as a case study: ac­cord­ing to data col­lected from the 201617 brochure, out of 87 works pro­grammed through­out this sea­son, only one was com­posed by a woman. The OSM com­mis­sioned and pre­miered two brand new works this sea­son, both by men. Twenty two men per- formed with the OSM as in­vited in­stru­men­tal soloists, com­pared to only three women. And out of 14 guest con­duc­tors in­vited to lead the orches­tra this sea­son, ex­actly zero were women.

The OSM hired a con­duc­tor who was once cen­sured for his al­leged misog­yny, but did not hire any women to fill that role.

These pat­terns are not ex­clu­sive to the OSM. While the Los An­ge­les Phil­har­monic has an­nounced a promis­ing lineup of four women guest con­duc­tors to take the helm in the 2017-18 sea­son, jour­nal­ist Brian Lau­ritzen noted in an ar­ti­cle for KUSC ra­dio, “More women will con­duct the LA Phil next sea­son than the sym­phonies of Chicago, Cincin­nati, Detroit, Dal­las, Hous­ton, In­di­anapo­lis, Nashville, Ore­gon, the Philadel­phia Orches­tra, and the New York Phil­har­monic com­bined.”

The num­bers are un­sur­pris­ing, Mcgill bas­soon­ist Danielle Find­lay ob­served in a phone in­ter­view with The Daily. “These are in­dus­try stan­dards ev­ery­where,” Find­lay said. “There’s no pres­sure [...] to have ten per cent min­i­mum fe­male com­poser works, so there’s just no rea­son for that. They have no man­date or idea or con­cept in mind that this even mat­ters.”

To Find­lay, how­ever, rep­re­sen­ta­tion does mat­ter a lot. Sev­eral years ago, while par­tic­i­pat­ing in a mu­si­cal en­sem­ble, she was ha­rassed by the en­sem­ble’s male con­duc­tor. “I was one of the more ad­vanced play­ers, so that kind of gets you at­ten­tion,” she ex­plained. “This was when I had only restarted bas­soon play­ing [ fol­low­ing an in­jury], so I was pro­gress­ing quickly as I picked up the in­stru­ment again, and peo­ple thought well of me. That’s when the di­rec­tor started talk­ing to me more, and it started get­ting sort of too close for com­fort, and this was get­ting worse as time went on.”

Find­lay be­gan re­ceiv­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ate mes­sages from the con­duc­tor. “It was all too of­ten,” she said. “There were a few sex­ual jokes he’d make [...] Then he’d say he was just kid­ding, or, ‘oh, I shouldn’t have said that.’” When Find­lay dis­cov­ered that an­other woman in the en­sem­ble was re­ceiv­ing sim­i­lar mes­sages, she of­fered her col­league a warn­ing, and ul­ti­mately de­cided to leave the en­sem­ble.

“The en­sem­ble’s great – all the mu­si­cians were su­per, which is why I stuck it out. I can’t de­scribe the sense of fam­ily that this en­sem­ble re­ally of­fered, which is the only rea­son that I stayed […] But even­tu­ally I couldn’t go to re­hearsals any­more. I didn’t have it in me to wear the smile and play.”

Find­lay’s ex­pe­ri­ence is not unique. Smaller or­ches­tras may lack the hu­man re­sources in­fra­struc­ture to in­ves­ti­gate com­plaints or ac­com­mo­date anonymity, and in larger or­ga­ni­za­tions, the per­son mak­ing ad­vances may be in a po­si­tion of power, such as a con­duc­tor or Prin­ci­pal player – thus dis­cour­ag­ing any re­ports of the in­ci­dent.

Be­yond non- con­sen­sual ad­vances, sex­ism in or­ches­tras of­ten takes sub­tle forms. “Misog­yny is all over the place,” Find­lay stated. “When I started play­ing con­tra­bas­soon […] I wasn’t re­ally taken se­ri­ously. I’d have peo­ple doubt­ing that I could fill the in­stru­ment with air, or trans­port it around.”

As­sump­tions and bi­ases about women in the mu­sic in­dus­try be­gin as early as child­hood: a Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton study found that five-year- olds ex­hibit pref­er­ences for cer­tain mu­si­cal in­stru­ments based on gen­der stereo­types – boys favour­ing trum­pet, per­cus­sion, or sax­o­phone, while girls tended to­ward vi­olin, clar­inet, or flute. As a fu­ture mu­sic ed­u­ca­tor, Find­lay as­pires to chal­lenge these pre­con­cep­tions.

“My goal would be a nice, even dis­tri­bu­tion be­tween men and women within the sec­tion, so that there’s no be­ing shy to play tuba if you’re a girl […] You don’t need to be a dainty, small girl to play flute,” Find­lay said. “I will do what I can to get [these as­sump­tions] out of their heads and just present ev­ery in­stru­ment as equal op­por­tu­nity to mu­si­cal cre­ativ­ity, and that no one is im­pos­ing lim­i­ta­tions that don’t ac­tu­ally ex­ist.”

When Vasily Pe­trenko’s com­ments first came to light in 2013, Marin Al­sop – ac­claimed Mu­sic Di­rec­tor of the Bal­ti­more Sym­phony Orches­tra – was about to be­come the first woman con­duc­tor to lead the cel­e­brated fi- nal con­cert of the U.K.’S an­nual BBC Proms, a mile­stone 118 years in the mak­ing. Re­gard­ing her ap­point­ment to con­duct the per­for­mance, Al­sop told the Guardian. “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,” Al­sop added.

Across in­dus­tries, op­po­nents of work­place gen­der par­ity ar­gue that hir­ing a woman for a po­si­tion de­nies that job to a man who might be more qual­i­fied. How­ever, this ar­gu­ment ig­nores the sys­tems of priv­i­lege and op­pres­sion that have, for cen­turies, wo­ven a false nar­ra­tive of equiv­a­lency be­tween male­ness and work­place com­pe­tence. As the OSM proved on Fe­bru­ary 22, plac­ing a man on the con­duc­tor’s podium does not guar­an­tee suc­cess­ful re­sults.

In the 1970s, pro­fes­sional or­ches­tras be­gan in­sti­tut­ing “blind au­di­tions” (where the mu­si­can’s iden­tity is con­cealed be­hind a screen) to cur­tail the bias that pre­vented women from even cross­ing the thresh­old into the or­ches­tral work­force. Even as more women are hired for or­ches­tral po­si­tions, there is one job post – the con­duc­tor – that re­mains out of reach.

Find­lay calls this “the fi­nal fron­tier.” “It’s this lead­ing role, and ev­ery­one just has to be­lieve in what you’re do­ing,” Find­lay said. “You’ll see or­ches­tras can be close to gen­der par­ity, but the podium will def­i­nitely be a long time com­ing.”

Pe­trenko im­me­di­ately came un­der fire: crit­ics called for his res­ig­na­tion [...] Yet his ca­reer con­tin­ued to sky­rocket. Un­der the ba­ton of a con­duc­tor who may or may not be a misog­y­nist, the orches­tra flailed. The OSM hired a con­duc­tor who was once cen­sured for his al­leged misog­yny, but did not hire any woman to fill that role. “When I started play­ing con­tra­bas­soon [...] I wasn’t re­ally taken se­ri­ously. I’d have peo­ple doubt­ing that I could fill the in­stru­ment with air, or trans­port it around.” —Danielle Find­lay Mcgill bas­soon­ist Vasily Pe­trenko’s al­leged misog­yny, how­ever, is not the prob­lem – it’s a symp­tom of some­thing larger: a sys­temic force that bars women from par­tic­i­pat­ing equally in the or­ches­tral work­place.

Data cited in this piece are drawn from the OSM 2016-17 sea­son brochure, and in­clude data from the Grands Con­certs Se­ries, Haydn & the Min­i­mal­ists Fes­ti­val, Ital­ian Fes­ti­val, and Clos­ing Con­cert. Ex­cluded were the Metro+ Con­certo Se­ries, Hol­i­day Sea­son, OSM Pop Se­ries, Chil­dren’s Cor­ner Se­ries, and Mu­sic & Im­ages.

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