Alone At The Top: What Conductor Susanna Malkki’s Success Means—and What It Doesn’t

Conductor Susanna Malkki

Conductor Susanna Malkki
Photo by Simon Fowler

Watching Susanna Malkki conduct the Chicago Symphony was moving in an unexpected way. It was moving in the way that I imagine the Northern Lights might be moving, or the Great Pyramids. It was like seeing a natural phenomenon that I had heard about, read about, but never actually observed in the flesh. My God, I thought to myself, like a pilgrim who has finally arrived at the holy site. So this is what it’s like!

I have been a musician for twenty years, and before Tuesday night, I had never seen a woman conduct a great orchestra. And unless you count the string teachers in my public schools, I’ve never worked with a woman conductor myself.

So I suppose it makes sense that every time Malkki presided over a roaring crescendo during Tuesday night’s Chicago Symphony concert, I felt a rush of unexpected emotion. Because, for all my years of playing, the sound of an orchestral crescendo has been associated with the sight of a man’s body on the podium. For my entire life, the sounds of timpani and brass seemed to be born exclusively from the waving of a man’s arms. But I now have living proof that this isn’t the case. And it matters.

Malkki’s program—Debussy’s La Mer, the Stravinsky Violin Concerto with Leila Josefowicz, Thomas Adès’s …and all shall be well, and Sibelius’s suite from The Tempest —was one of the most interesting of the CSO’s season. The young couple next to me were excited, enthusiastic, and fully engrossed in the concert.

“She’s only the second female conductor I’ve ever seen,” the woman said after the Sibelius.

“Yeah. Besides Marin Alsop,” her date replied. There was a long pause.

“That’s so cool, though,” the girl said in a hushed and excited voice. “She’s really good.”

Malkki is really good. She has an alert, intense podium presence and a clear and lively technique. For much of the program, her touch was perceptibly light; her years in the collaborative environment of Ensemble Intercontemporain were evident. Malkki allowed the orchestra to play. They seemed relaxed; principal string players often smiled at her as she cued their entrances. The Stravinsky in particular was transparent and enthralling: there was a sense of absolute assurance between Malkki, Josefewicz, and the orchestra.

At intermission, I circulated in the lobby, hoping to overhear an interesting comment or two about Malkki. But her presence felt like a massively successful non-event. Response to the Stravinsky was overwhelmingly positive. People were drinking champagne. A woman was on the podium, and everything seemed to be in order.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mei-Ann Chen, conductor

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mei-Ann Chen, conductor
Photo by Todd Rosenberg

It is a testament to Malkki’s prodigious gifts that Chicago’s music critics wholeheartedly embraced her return to the CSO stage as they did her 2011 debut: with barely a whisper about her gender. Their focus, rightly so, was on the clarity and focus of her interpretive work and leadership. But I have no interest in pretending to be gender-blind. Malkki is unquestionably a master; she is also, statistically, a unicorn. In 2011, she became the first woman ever to conduct at La Scala; she remains the only woman who has. There is no sense in attempting to remove Malkki from her context: she is a brilliant musician who has rightly risen to the top of her profession, in spite of obstacles placed in her way by classical music’s persistent gender problems.

Alex Ross recently wrote about Marin Alsop breaking another glass ceiling at the Proms, and his welcome attention to the issue generated some thoughtful responses. But I find that the discussion over female conductors is often rife with false dichotomies. While one person despairs over how few female conductors there are, another protests that there are plenty and shows off a long list of them. While one person can point to misogynistic comments and despair, someone else can point to artists like Malkki and brightly insist that times are changing.

We could go down a rabbit hole of cultural differences, too. Why is it, for example, that fully half of the recently accepted conducting students at the Sibelius Conservatory in Malkki’s native Finland are women, while female doctoral conducting students remain a stubbornly small minority in the US?

Perhaps the most useful thing we can do as a society, and as a musical community, is to examine the causes of women’s low participation in conducting. Alex Ross’s most astute recent observation is that “the art of conducting is wrapped up in mythologies of male power.” At the moment, conducting and maleness seem almost inextricably linked. They aren’t, of course—but the deep historical and sociological bond means that women conductors may face subtle and complex challenges in rising to the top of the field.

As recent research out of Rutgers University shows, when women succeed at “male gender-typed tasks,” they are usually met with negative reactions that adversely affect their careers. We must also remember that there’s a likability tax paid by every successful professional woman. And in a music director role–on the podium, in the press, and at meetings with donors—likability is an extremely important factor.

Another major factor is the difficulty that female aspiring conductors may have finding role models and mentors who resemble them. A study from the University of Toronto, titled “Someone like me can be successful,” indicates that young women’s self-assessment is deeply impacted by the presence of a successful female role model. Without accessible role models, many young women literally cannot envision a life in conducting; for this reason, many talented potential conductors may never even consider the possibility.

Once a woman finally gets to the podium—no small thing in itself—we would also do well to consider sociologist Rosabeth Kanter’s research on tokenism in professional life. While the word “token” has some negative associations, Kanter used the term to refer to a minority that comprises less than fifteen percent of a workplace. Kanter’s work indicates that if you are a token minority—which women in high-level conducting absolutely are—you will endure three difficult conditions. First, you will be subject to unusually high scrutiny; second, you will have stereotypes attributed to you; third, your individuality will be compromised, and you will be viewed as a representative of the minority group.

So when the thought popped into my head that I didn’t care for the jacket Malkki was wearing, that was a perfect example of unusually high scrutiny. When we posit that female conductors are more collaborative and gentle than their male counterparts, this is a perfect example of attributing stereotypes to them. And when we conflate Malkki, Alsop, and Falletta—or even when we praise Malkki as evidence that “women can do this”—this is a perfect example of compromising the individuality of each artist, forcing them instead to Represent Women, to carry the mantle of Woman Conductor.

So in this thorny and difficult context—which we must acknowledge and actively fight against, in order to make things better—the example of Susanna Malkki is indeed a bright light.

This past Tuesday night she became, for me and probably for hundreds of other women in the audience, a role model. She steered expertly through the dangerous waters of programming, demeanor, wardrobe. She illuminated the music. She made us feel that success was possible for “someone like us.” And then, I imagine, she boarded a plane and flipped open a score, on her way to do it all again somewhere else.

15 thoughts on “Alone At The Top: What Conductor Susanna Malkki’s Success Means—and What It Doesn’t

  1. Jess Brodnax

    On Nov 28th, 1977, Margaret Hillis conducted the CSO at Carnegie Hall, subbing for Sir Georg Solti. She was widely praised…

    Reply
  2. Tom H.

    I consider the throwaway comments about Marin Alsop to be harmful to your intent in writing this article. Her accomplishments, ( First female to hold a conductors position in a major american orchestra, Principal Conductor, São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra and leading them to the first Brazilian Orchestra to play the Proms, as well as being the first female to conduct the last night of the Proms, she was recently awarded Honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music, London, and has been awarded multiple conductor and artist of the year awards worldwide ) I find more extraordinary than Malkkis’ guest conducting posts, (not to downplay the difficulty of going from holding Principal Cello with the Gothenburg symphony) and if you had wanted to better express your feelings about women in the field of conducting, maybe highlight their successes more than doing a review of one guest performance, which by all indications in Chicago, was uneventful.

    Reply
    1. Borton Greg Hathcock

      Tom—Who cares how you feel about Marin Alsop? If you actually read the article, you might understand that Malkki’s appearance in Chicago was NOT uneventful.

      Is your best criticism that really the article isn’t about Marin Alsop? Reading your inane reply, I found myself wondering what moss-covered rock you live under.

      Article: ::Interesting, personal feedback about Malkki::

      Tom H: “Bbbut, nnnno, lyk, Malkkki’s apppearance was…. meaningless!”

      Article: ::Succinct synthesis of individual story/greater theme::

      Tom H: “Bbbut, where’s MARIN??? I NEED MORE MARIN!!! MAAAAAA–RIIIIIIN.”

      Tom H—don’t you get that the writer is offering a PERSONAL anecdote of her own experience to make a BROADER point? That experience isn’t Marin (sorry), but Malkki. Didn’t you write essays in school? Often the personal illustrates the universal in a more effective way, like here. That’s called good writing. Whining about how you don’t like her story/wishing it were about Marin just makes you look like a myopic stalker who can only see the world through the obsessive lens of your prized object.

      Repeat after me: the story is about Malkki, not Marin. Malkki. Not Marin.

      Reply
      1. Matt West

        Hey Bort,

        Tom’s comments merely pointed to something I also noticed about the article, and I have absolutely no vested interest in any of it. If you’re writing an article about women conductors (and making a larger point about it), you have to mention Marin Alsop. Especially because she’s American and has been working in the big leagues for decades. And the way she’s mentioned is token and dismissive (“…Marin Alsop article…interesting…BUT…”). The tone is there, intended or not, and you’re the one who comes off as histrionic. Get a grip.

        Yours,

        Matt

        Reply
        1. Borton Greg Hathcock

          Dear Matt West,

          Thank you for speaking on behalf of your client, Mr. Tom H. I’m sure he’s very grateful for your support.

          “If you’re writing an article about women conductors (and making a larger point about it), you have to mention Marin Alsop.”

          I don’t agree with this claim, but the article DOES mention Marin Alsop. Not only that, she links to several articles which address Alsop IN DEPTH. I don’t understand how this is “token” or “dismissive.” As the most prominent female conductor, Alsop has had PLENTY of coverage. She’s the only female conductor who is a household name. This article is about a lesser-known conductor. Marin Alsop might be the only female conductor who exists in the narrow-minded universe of Tom H., but there are others, believe it or not., who also deserve attention.

          Reply
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  4. Andrew Balio

    I think it’s a bit early to make generalizations about female conductors since there’s so few of them. There was a time when there were so very few women musicians in American orchestras. Without any mandate from above, or any special role models, they started joining the ranks for no other reason than that they played the best audition. It’s a wonderful meritocracy we have in classical music. We will see more female conductors when more attempt the feat.

    Reply
  5. Liz Weamer

    I’m not sure which of the three comments above dumbfound me more, so I’ll just write a separate post here–Jess B., Tom H., and Andrew B., did you actually read the article before commenting?

    Reply
  6. Rick Robinson (Mr. CutTime)

    I enjoyed reading your articulation of the personal significance you felt from this novel experience. Not sure if I should hope the novelty will wear off… but life is full of such tradeoffs. It IS a slowly changing industry but I think the part Alex Ross described as the “mythologies of male power”, I describe as the preservation of “authenticity”. In this industry we tend to trust a male with a European accent (and energy) over anyone without… whether conducting, playing an instrument, or discoursing on the value of Aaron Copland’s music. (Accents can be seductive.) On the one hand that probably helped American orchestras absorb and compete with the European original. But since we’ve done so well and need more butts-in-seat, it’s about time to honor inclusivity in BALANCE with said exclusivity.

    Reply
  7. Catherine Wadley

    I agree with Liz. In particular my jaw fell to the ground when I read Andrew Balio’s comment.
    If one knows anything at all about the history of orchestras and the female component then you would know that this is remark is not only insulting but completely wrong.

    So Mr. Basio would have us believe that few women before the 1970s ever played a better audition than a man. And in particular that for the first 100 years of its existence that NOT ONE woman played a better audition than a man for the New York Philharmonic? Firstly until around the 1970s most appointments were made from within by male music directors auditioning the male students of key orchestra members. Large, open, advertized auditions for positions were rare and women were not even invited. What made the difference were the introduction of blind screen auditions in the 1970s – initially to get around allegations of racial bias. And surprise surprise – once the gender was unknown it seems that a woman’s chance of winning a place by audition went up by more than 40%. And women’s participation in orchestras grew hugely – though the amount they are paid is still way below that of most men. There is plenty written about this. And there are lots of great stories as well including eg Muti’s shock and horror when he realized that he had hired a female trumpet player for the Philadelphia Orchestra – behind a screen.
    And yes I should mention that very early on women realized that for the audition to be completely fair they needed to remove their shoes!

    Great article and a lot of good thought provoking material. Thanks.

    Reply
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  9. John

    There are now more than ever very fine conductors who are women, and as we see more of people like Carneiro and Tali, this kind of discussion might retreat. The majority of players in orchestras is shifting towards female and this is especially true in our conservatories today; and hopefully more of them will be drawn to the podium and also influence the decisions about who is there. Malkki is a truly wonderful musician and conductor, and as people like her make the rounds of the music world, this role for women may become more “normalized”.

    Reply
  10. Elaine Fine

    This is a very good and honest article. I feel very fortunate to have had early experiences working with conductors who were women. My first orchestral experience at Juilliard (conductor’s orchestra for the conducting students) was with Victoria Bond. The piece was Don Juan. I was 17. She was terrific–very clear and very helpful to the musicians, even as a student.

    Eventually people will have more room in their brains for women behind the podium, just like they now accept instrumentalists of all genders (including brass, where in Scandinavian countries women put the rest of the world to shame) in front of it. Articles like this REALLY help.

    Reply
  11. Andrew Patner

    I don’t believe that I am gender-blind, but you are right, that was not the main focus at least of my review:

    http://www.suntimes.com/entertainment/23220157-421/susanna-malkki-cso-combine-for-fascinating-program-of-ades-stravinsky.html

    I did go back on Tuesday for the Sibelius and enjoyed it immensely.

    I also taped and broadcast an interview with Ms. Mälkki on WFMT Chicago and wfmt.com. The hour-long program (including music) is here for free anytime:

    http://blogs.wfmt.com/andrewpatner/2013/10/21/susanna-malkki-conductor/

    Andrew Patner
    WFMT Fine Arts Radio Chicago and wfmt.com
    Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com
    The View from Here

    Reply
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