Sunday, October 27, 2013

Female maestros - a passing "novelty"?

After writing about three women who received public accolades for their physical bravery, I now return to what this blog was originally intended to be about: women who have made their mark in some way in spite of the obstacles in their paths.

While they may not be literally hauling buckets any more, women are still battling through fields that are predominantly male preserves. There was considerable dismay in Australia recently after its voters threw out their first female prime minister and replaced her with a conservative regime that has only one woman on its front bench. Even the opposition has reverted to jobs for the boys.

That led me to thinking about another area in which women seem to still be poorly represented – despite it being in the usual female-friendly area of music and the arts – and that is conducting orchestras.

It doesn't take long to find plenty of articles online bemoaning the lack of female conductors of major orchestras, not helped by recent sexist and fatuous remarks by Vassily Petrenko as to why there are so few. His comments drew a great deal of flak with even demands that he resign as conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic. Read them here and here.

But it is difficult to find any authoritative information on who really was the very first woman to lead a prestigious orchestra with both a national and international reputation.

As far as USA goes, one suggestion is that she was Mary Davenport Engberg, who warrants a pathetic six-line Wikipedia entry although this link to a Washington State history site gives a few more details about her.

Antonia Brico (1902-1989)

A better candidate is Antonia Brico, who conducted the New York Philharmonic in 1930 and also guest conducted at the Berlin Philarmonic. More on her in this Encylopaedia Britannica entry, but this sentence neatly sums up what the bosses of big orchestras really thought about female conductors back then and perhaps the same attitude still lingers today.

"After the mid-1940s, perhaps as her [Brico’s] novelty disappeared, she found it increasingly difficult to gain serious attention in the traditionally male field she had chosen, her manifest ability notwithstanding."

In the UK, Iris Margaret Lemare is acknowledged as the first professional British woman conductor and a tireless supporter of the music of British composers yet she doesn’t seem to warrant a Wikipedia entry although she has an extensive entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Biography. Her obituary here.

Dame Ethel Smyth was perhaps better-known as a composer and also gained more notoriety as a sufragette and associate of the Bloomsbury Set later in life, but in 1928 she was reputedly the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philarmonic.

Veronika Dudarova (1916-2009)

Russia has had women conductors for a long time and the most famous and enduring was probably Veronika Dudarova

Teresa Carreno from Venezuela (she said she was a grand-niece of Simon Bolivar) was another early woman conductor. 

The newspaper archives carry reports on many women conductors of small, private or localised orchestras in the early part of the last century, including mention of one Australian, Marguerite Edwards, who allegedly became the first woman conductor in South Africa in the early 1900s but on whom I can find no further information.

Then there is Contessa Anne McParland Filippini that various sources credit with being the first acknowledged Australian female conductor yet she has no specific web link and few other references other than being notable as ancestor of her infinitely better-known grandson, musician Paul Kelly. It is strange that neither she nor her husband Count Ercole Filippini and the orchestra that they founded have been recorded in the Australian Dictionary of Biography or similar sources. A short book was published about her in 1988 but is obviously long out of print.

As to the first mention of any woman conducting music, this cryptic sentence appears in Samuel Pepys’ diary of 6 June 1661.

" ... we went and eat and drank and heard musique at the Globe, and saw the simple motion that is there of a woman with a rod in her hand keeping time to the musique while it plays, which is simple, methinks."

Was she really conducting the “musique” as in a band or orchestra, or was she just some woman tapping time to the tune, or was it some kind of automaton or clockwork figure, as seems most likely and suggested by the comments to be read on the Pepys site.

If anyone reading this can provide more information on early female orchestra conductors I would be most interested in hearing about them.

Simone Young in action. Copyright Sahlan Hayes, The Age

A number of woman conductors present and past from around the world can be found from this link. Once you start looking for them, their range of nationalities, capabilities and accomplishments are truly amazing, so there is great hope for the future of female conducting ... if they can only manage to break through the glass ceiling!

Here are just a few:

Tomoni Mishimoto from Japan has conducted the Bolshoi Orchestra.
Alondra de la Parra is from Mexico and a noted rising star.
Australian Simone Young was the first woman to crack the all-male Vienna Philharmonic.
Marin Alsop is American and conducts both the Baltimore and Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestras and in 2013 became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms in London.
Another highly respected American conductor is Jo Ann Falletta.
Xian Zhang is Chinese-American and conducts the Milan Symphony and has also appeared at the Proms.
Sarah Ioannides is another true international of Greek parentage, born in Canberra Australia, raised in the UK and has conducted at Carnegie Hall.
Diane Wittry is another American conductor with an amazing CV and who has written books of instruction on conducting.

Iona Brown (1941-2004)
Iona Brown was primarily associated with chamber orchestras, but also conducted many famous symphony orchestras including the London Philharmonic, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Hallé, Bournemouth Symphony, Danish Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, and Tokyo Philharmonic.
Ruth Gipps (1921-1999) was a composer well-known for inspiring music in young people but allegedly lost out as conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony due to sexist prejudice of the time.

This is a  great photo of Sarah Ioannides from her web gallery

Copyright Sarah Ioannides

Friday, October 4, 2013

Female George Medal Recipients (3)

A more sensational peace-time event that earned a young woman the George Medal took place in Australia in 1972. It was known as the Faraday School Kidnapping, and its hero was Mary Elizabeth Gibbs.

Miss Gibbs was 20 years old and in charge of the one-teacher school in Faraday in the farming area near the town of Castlemaine, in the State of Victoria. Two armed men broke into the school and abducted Gibbs and six of her female students (four were away due to illness).  The men left a ransom note for $1,000,000 and forced their hostages into a van and drove into a forest. To stop the children from being frightened, Miss Gibbs pretended it was a game and sang songs to them during the night. Just before dawn, she discovered that the men had left the front of the van and she urged the children to kick open the back door with her. They were lucky as the door came free and they were able to make their escape.

Connected to this event was another feat of bravery on the part of the State of Victoria's Minister for Education at the time, Lindsay Thompson. He later became Premier of the State. He delivered the ransom money in person to the place where the hostages were being kept, but fortunately they had escaped before the money could be handed over. In an amazing second incident, five years later after the kidnapper had been released from prison he attempted the same thing, abducting a teacher and group of students in rural Gippsland. Mr Thompson rushed to the scene where he intended to offer himself in exchange for the hostages, but the kidnapper was arrested after a shoot-out with the police. (One can't imagine a modern politician putting his life on the line like this!). More about the late Lindsay Thompson here

Lindsay Thompson, Mary Gibbs and Christine Ellery (former student) at Faraday School 2004.
Copyright The Age

One important outcome of these events was that one-teacher schools in remote areas of Australia became a thing of the past and hastened the closure of other rural schools with low enrolments.

More on the Faraday kidnapping story here and more detail in the links below. (They may work, or not, depending on your location as all these newspapers now charge for such archival records.)

Author Gabrielle Lord wrote a novel called Fortressloosely based on the event and which spawned a movie of the same name.