Maestra: Meet Four Pittsburgh Conductors Who Seek Gender Equity

Without cause, women are found at the conductor’s podium less frequently than men — and at major orchestras, they’re almost entirely absent. Four Pittsburgh-area conductors talk about the pursuit of gender equity in concert music.

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For Maria Sensi Sellner, it didn’t start as a mission. It became one.

The mechanical engineer turned music conductor and founder of Resonance Works — an independent performing arts nonprofit in Pittsburgh — didn’t start her production company as a platform for promoting the music of women and under-represented groups. That’s just what the organization evolved into.

“It’s something I feel really passionate about personally, and I feel like organizations need to step up and make changes in regard to what is programmed and the artists that are featured,” Sellner says.

An accomplished choral, orchestra and opera conductor, she’s one of four Pittsburgh-area women in music that we spoke to recently about their craft and gender diversity and inclusion in the performing arts, specifically with regard to conducting.

Within the first 10 minutes of the critically embraced film “TÁR,” fictional conductor Lydia Tár proclaims that gender equity is no longer an issue among classical music performers and conductors. The women we spoke to — and statistics — present a compelling counter argument.

When a conductor steps to the podium in the United States, odds remain staggering that the person will be a male. Of roughly 50 of the country’s largest professional orchestras, only four have women at the helm as full-time music directors and equally few minorities, according to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. Of those women, two were appointed within the last two years.

Among choirs, smaller orchestras and in academia, the numbers are less glaring — but a disparity still exists. The excuses are numerous, as is the case in many professions: It’s historically been described as a traditional industry with an old guard pulling the strings; gender stereotypes are sometimes credited, or there not being a large enough pool of candidates. All are excuses without any real justification, according to Sellner and others.

The late Mariss Jansons, who directed the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from 1997-2002 and was considered one of the greatest maestros in the world, caused an international stir in 2017 when he shared with a London newspaper his thoughts about women on the podium. “Let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea,” he said. He later apologized.

“I think there has to be some effort and accountability,” says Sellner. “The thing that I want to keep underlining for people is that it’s not about a lack of talent. There is amazing talent.”

Among her accolades, Sellner has served as cover conductor with the Pittsburgh Symphony, led Pittsburgh’s Mendelssohn Choir as acting director and received multiple awards for her opera conducting.

Even with the glaring statistics, she and others describe reasons for optimism for future female conductors. A look at those same orchestras shows much more diversity among musicians, associate conductors, and even board members and executive leadership (the Pittsburgh Symphony is an example of the latter, where Melia Tourangeau has served as president and CEO since 2015).

“I think at the moment there is a wonderful new wave of conductors who are women and people of color who are achieving things that I would say 10 or 20 years ago wasn’t as prevalent,” Sellner says — cautioning, however, against complacency.

In an industry that saw its first female guest conductors step on to some of the nation’s elite podiums in the 1930s, progress might still need a push. It wasn’t until 2007 that Marin Alsop became the first woman to claim a podium as music director of a major U.S. orchestra, when she assumed the role for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. JoAnn Falletta was the only other woman to do so prior, at the smaller Buffalo Philharmonic in 1998 — a position she still holds.

Susan Medley

“I think many of us have the experience that male conductors are assumed to be qualified and good at what they do. Female conductors have to work twice as hard to prove that they are qualified,” says Susan Medley, conductor and director of the Pittsburgh Concert Chorale and music professor and choral director at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington County. In addition to choral conducting she also conducts orchestras together with the Concert Chorale.

“It’s something that is starting to change, but there’s a long way to go,” Medley says. “I have to say, when I think about conducting, I don’t think about myself as a female conductor. I think of myself as a conductor. I think we all do. We certainly have the same amount of training.”

A handful of organizations have in recent years sprung up to address the inequity. In Paris, the Philharmonie de Paris and the Paris Mozart Orchestra joined forces to found La Maestra Competition & Academy for Women Conductors, giving women an opportunity to both showcase their talent and grow as conductors among their peers. According to their research, globally 8% of professional orchestras are led by women, up from 4.3% in 2018.

In the U.S., Sellner was part of a similar organization, the Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for Women Conductors.

“It was incredible to be in a room with only women talking about these issues,” she says, echoing the idea that women need to be overqualified to be selected for positions and also offering a word of caution.

“A lot of people will tell you there have been waves of this in the past but they fade,” she says. “It becomes, in many organizations, a little check box. I have colleagues that have definitely had the experience that that was why they felt they were there.”

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For her part, Caron Daley, Duquesne University director of choral activities and music professor, has also championed the promotion of women in music as well as an emphasis on works by BIPOC composers and musicians. As founder of the Halifax Choral Conducting Institute in Canada, Daley introduced a workshop program for women conductors. It’s something she’d like to bring to the states.

“I think there are tons of female conductors — many of them in their 20s and 30s. We’re seeing a huge influx of women in our fields. Now is the time to support them and make their pathways as smooth as possible,” Daley says. “It’s time for women to occupy the highest levels of roles. I think in the next 10 to 20 years we’re going to see a dramatic shift.”

Susan Rice

“Gender in the choral world is an interesting question, too,” says Heinz Chapel Choir Director Susan Rice; the issue, she explains, is less recognized than their orchestral counterparts. “The gender disparity is there. It has gotten a lot more attention on the orchestral side.”

Since the creation of the Heinz Chapel Choir in 1938, Rice is the only woman to be full-time director. Of nine previous directors, one other woman served a year as interim director in the 1970s.

“The only female was a stop-gap,” Rice says. “We’re lucky in Pittsburgh to have some women conductors doing really great work.”

230201 Pghmag Conductors Groups 70054rMedley adds, “I would say back in the ’80s there were maybe just a handful of female directors of choral activities. That fortunately has changed somewhat. Although still, the really big university positions are still pretty male dominated.”

The job of conductor itself is a complex one.

“It’s not drop the nickel in and go,” Sellner jokes. “So much happens before the audience steps into the theater.”

Rice further explains, “The first choice is what to program and then the conductor spends a significant portion of time preparing that music, learning it themselves really thoroughly” before even starting rehearsals with choir or orchestra.

Sellner says she enjoys late-night deep dives into musical performances on the web when researching content to perform.

“You’re studying these scores [for] hours and hours,” Daley says. “When you get to a rehearsal, you know the music inside and out. That’s the one thing that’s really special about being a conductor. You’re not responsible for one line of music like a soloist would be. You are learning everybody’s part.”

The top conductors have doctorates in conducting with years spent studying music and familiarizing themselves with extensive catalogs.

Each of the four say that the rehearsal process is as rewarding as the show itself.

“I think about myself as a teacher first,” Rice says. “Crafting that community of non-competitive collaborative music making in the choir is the part I value most.”

Collaboration is something all four women spoke to as conductors, rather than a traditional role where a conductor was often viewed almost as an authoritarian.

“In my mind,” Medley says, “I’m thinking, ‘What does the orchestra need? Who do I need to cue here? Who has been out for a while? Who do I need to bring in for their entrance? Physically what I’m doing, you don’t perceive a whole lot of difference.’”

“It’s like a dance,” says Daley. “Maybe it’s a bit like being a tennis player. There’s a game that’s unfolding moment by moment. There will be times when something unexpected happens. There’s a certain amount of reacting you have to do.”

Sellner calls the day of a performance “steering a ship,” one that’s already been built, prepared and thoroughly tested.

“There’s a lot of in-the-moment things that happen,” she says. “The way you wave your hands shows the musicians where you are.” Movements are often so distinct that another conductor might almost be able to determine the piece of music with only seeing the motions.

Maria Back

All four women credit the support of family, friends and their respective mentors for getting them where they are today. Each found music at a young age and was encouraged to pursue their passion without being told they couldn’t.

It’s something they each hope to pass on.

“I feel a great responsibility to support women conductors,” Daley says, naming a female student who she says is eager to conduct. “I can’t wait to champion this topic more and more. It’s a great time to be a woman in conducting.”

Sebastian Foltz is a Pittsburgh-area freelance photojournalist and writer with a passion for sports photography, outdoor writing and adventure sports. He’s been a photographer, writer and editor for newspapers and magazines in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Oregon and California prior to writing for Pittsburgh Magazine.

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