Tea time for women conductors
There are some subjects that I write about from time to time that I’m always delighted to revisit – they are the reasons that I love my work, and I enjoy the opportunity to discuss them on more than one occasion. How to ask questions; issues around education; what it really means to listen. There are others which I find myself compelled to revisit because something happens which yet again proves that a subject we all thought we’d dealt with and moved on from keeps raising its ugly head. And it would seem (groan) that women on the conductor’s podium is one of those subjects.
Is he enthused by the biggest change in the conducting scene, the rise of young women to positions of prominence in the orchestral world? “Hmm, well…” Jansons pulls an embarrassed face, knowing he’s about to say something deeply politically incorrect. “Well, I don’t want to give offence, and I am not against it, that would be very wrong. I understand the world has changed, and there is now no profession that can be confined to this or that gender. It’s a question of what one is used to. I grew up in a different world, and for me seeing a woman on the podium… well, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea.”
It’s a brave man now who admits to such a sentiment, and it will no doubt bring on a storm of social media condemnation. But Jansons doesn’t do social media, and in any case he’s weathered far greater tribulations …
Jansons is quite justified in saying, of course, that he was born of a generation which had little room for the idea of a woman on the conductor’s podium. There were exceptions (Ruth Gipps and Nadia Boulanger have both been mentioned in other blogs I’ve seen), but in the main, conductors were all ‘he’.
Since Jansons was born in 1943, quite a few things have changed. Recording technology and media has evolved enormously. The internet has been created. People have explored space and landed on the moon. We have become, more than ever before (and in the face of considerable controversy), aware of the impact that we humans have on planet earth. Apartheid has been overturned. Those previously without entitlement to own property, to vote, to decide the fates of their own bodies, have been given new empowerment and legal protection. The mobile phone has been invented. E-mail. The foundation in law of crimes against humanity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Things do change. And accepting that, and questioning why certain changes might make you feel uncomfortable, is part of growing older. I might only be in my thirties, but even I know that. The idea that conductors might now be ‘she’ is one of those changes.
And the energy needed to encourage more women to train, to see that they are no automatically excluded from such a profession because it’s a traditionally masculine domain, is enormously important. Jansons’ statement seemed contrary to the very thing he evidently loves most in the world: music. We all know that classical music is a relatively niche discipline, and that it is easy to attack certain aspects of it: its cost, its ‘snobbery’ and ‘elitism’, its attitudes, and so on. As a major public figure working within this business, as someone who loves it, such prominent individuals as Jansons surely wishes to support it and help see it grow and blossom and survive and go from strength to strength. He has the right to feel uncomfortable with changing social mores, but publicly expressing that view seems spectacularly counter-productive. We are an art form constantly attempting to deal with problems of misogyny. And his words tainted that by expressing, as a major representative of the classical musical world, a private opinion that has upset a great many people who are working to bring about the same kind of world-class music-making as him. No wonder musicians and music-lovers feel let down by this.
The day after this article appeared, Jansons issued a statement apologising for his remarks. ‘It was undiplomatic,’ he wrote, ‘unnecessary and counterproductive for me to point out that I’m not yet accustomed to seeing women on the conducting platform.’ He’s right, and the fact that he saw fit to publicly apologise is good. You only have to substitute pretty much any other professional activity for ‘on the podium’ in his initial statement (in the operating theatre, running a company, in the Houses of Parliament, etc. etc.) to see how ridiculously outmoded it was. However, the problem with cups of tea is that they are usually poured from great steaming pots, and Jansons’ remarks are particularly depressing because of the surrounding attitudes of both his interviewer and indeed the Royal Philharmonic Society itself.
In framing the quotation from the Telegraph interview that I quoted above, Ivan Hewett described this assertion of discomfort with women on the podium as ‘brave’. What an extraordinary choice of adjective. I don’t know about anyone else, but as a historian, I tend to associate bravery with accepting change even when it seems terrifying, precarious, or even beyond the comprehension of the present generation. Galileo was brave. Those who opposed the idea of heliocentrism because it was not really their cup of tea – despite the fact that they could offer no solid, credible evidence as to why it should not be the case – were not.
Furthermore, the RPS itself did nothing to distance itself from Jansons’ comments, and indeed one trustee wrote that the RPS’s own (highly admirable) Women Conductors scheme ‘will change perceptions so that this isn’t something we even have to talk about.’ Great PR as this may be, the point is that we should be talking about it. If all we ever do is either ignore the issue or shout about it, there is no space for reasoned debate, for understanding varied perspectives and carefully, comprehensively trying to change peoples’ minds. Misogynism of this kind should not go unremarked upon. That doesn’t mean that the person in question should be indiscriminately yelled at; but nor should they be allowed to carry on without comment. And to describe such opining as ‘brave’ is, I fear, indicative of widespread attitudes still held by a not insubstantial proportion of the classical music world.
When I first set up this blog, I invented a series of category tags in case I decided to start adding thousands of news items, concert announcements, and so on. I never have, really, but the category tag under which this weekly offering falls is entitled ‘Let’s talk about this’. So really, let’s. Sensibly, critically, in detail. With everyone. With the next person you sit beside in a concert hall. The next music student you meet. With journalists, if you encounter them. With the RPS and organisations like them. Talk. Reason. Let’s show those still hiding behind a mound of lame excuses what ‘brave’ really means.