Comment: judge conductors on ability, not gender

New Zealand conductor Rachael Young on her musical career to date, and her belief that classical music should transcend gender boundaries.

My path to conducting had rather curious beginnings that are perhaps not so obvious. My grandmother’s love of dance meant both my sister and I began learning ballet at the age of five. She had won prizes for her dancing and was very keen for us to carry on her legacy. It was no hardship for me as I loved every minute.

We mostly danced to music that had its origins in European cultures; those sounds would evoke images or scenes, moods or characters, and we young dancers would learn how to project these through gestures and from our being. I realise now that these were my very first lessons in conducting.

But by then, at school, I had also begun learning the cello. Besides solo studies, I joined an orchestra and was immediately swept up with the sound of this wonderful instrument. I loved the inherent colours and drama. Then, as I progressed and started to play more demanding works, I fell completely in love with orchestral repertoire.

The art of performing held an unending fascination for me. I was eager to delve further into the complex mysteries of what makes a concert moving and memorable for an audience. I realised it was not an exact science at all, but an endless quest for perfection. For me, Russian performers displayed an admirable and humbling level of technical finesse and mastery, but also brought drama, excitement and haunting poetic depths to their concerts. I felt the same about Russian conductors; they displayed a consummate and commanding technique that was filled with expressiveness, poetry and an insightful psychological charge.

As well as Russian conductors, I admired conductors like Furtwängler, Karajan and Carlos Kleiber. Furtwängler brought out unsurpassed singing, melodic lines in the music as well as a profound philosophical depth. I will always remember the first recording I heard of him conducting Beethoven’s 7th Symphony with such a wonderful string sound: singing, rich and deep. Kleiber’s unequalled eloquence, charm, elegance and psychological characterisation also had a profound influence on me.

I was intrigued by the ‘Russian School’ of conducting. But the ‘Russian School’ had come directly out of the old German School. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Russian conductors and teachers like Rabinovich or Ginsberg went to Germany to study. Where, and how to learn this school of conducting, was to become one of my biggest decisions.My path became clear when I was chosen to participate in the Järvi International Summer Academy in 2008. There I saw Neeme Järvi and his son Paavo conduct. Apart from their musical personas, I was greatly impressed by their technical command of the orchestra.

Both maestros possess masterful conducting techniques and are able to ‘play’ the orchestra as if it were an instrument – which, of course, it is – a complex and wonderful instrument. Both were trained in a ‘Russian School’ of conducting: Neeme Järvi studied with Rabinovich in St Petersburg, in the room next to Ilya Musin’s class, and Paavo studied with Leonid Grin.

Here was the link I needed: Grin graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in the ‘70s, having studied with Leo Ginsberg and Kirill Kondrashin. He became associate conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic and taught at the Conservatory, before defecting to the West in the ‘80s when he became Leonard Bernstein’s associate conductor in LA. After working with me at the master class, and observing my concerts, Paavo Järvi kindly recommended me to Leonid Grin.

And so, in 2009 I began my conducting training with Grin. My study and work with Leonid has enabled me to understand something more of how drama, characterisation and psychological charge are created in performances, as well as how a conductor might make use of his or her talent, technique and knowledge to appropriately service the voice of a composer’s music. And how, in the words of a great conductor, to ‘see with your ears and hear with your eyes.’

For me the career of a conductor, like that of any performing artist, is a vocation. The desire to sustain a career needs to exist strongly inside an individual as it will be this that will sustain him or her through difficult and challenging moments.

I think it was Sir Adrian Boult who quipped with deadly seriousness, something along the lines of the following: ‘If you think you want to be a musician and the thought of not being a musician makes you want to stick your head in a gas oven, then by all means pursue it, if not then do something else.’

While role models for female singers and instrumentalists are in abundance, the aspiring female conductor has relatively few to choose from. This was certainly the case for me when my thoughts first turned to conducting. At that point figures such as Simone Young and Marin Alsop were not so well known in the musical world. Since then, however, Marin Alsop has put generous amounts of her time and energy furthering the cause of female conductors with her foundation, and Simone Young has blazed a trail all the way from her native Australia into the major European opera houses of Vienna, Berlin, Covent Garden and beyond.

At the outset of my own conducting path, the lack of female role models was challenging for me and I looked to other performing artists for inspiration. Though, in retrospect, this turned out to work in my favour; it forced me to look beyond the stereotypes and the surface glamour of the conductors. Instead I admired and explored the essence of what they were communicating. For me, all these conductors, regardless of gender, have the capacity to convincingly embody both the female and male aspects of their being.

It is desirable for any performing artist to have the capacity to project qualities traditionally associated with each of the sexes. For instance, with the male aspect, the attributes of strength, power and endurance; whilst traits traditionally associated with a female include elegance, delicacy, subtlety and empathy.

In my opinion, if an artist is to project the psychological, emotional, spiritual and human elements that lie at the heart of great music, then he or she must have the capacity to temporarily transcend their everyday sexual persona in order to match the artistic demands of the music.

In the end, the essential foundation in any accomplished performance is technical stability and that a conductor perform wells. What he or she is then able to offer creatively is very much dependent on an individual’s unique artistic talent and charisma and not gender.

This post originally appeared in IAM, November 2012.