In the symphonic music industry, the issue of low female representation is not a new topic of discussion. Last week, however, well-known Russian composer, and Saint Petersburg Conservatory alumni, Vasily Petrenko found it acceptable to inform Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten of his belief that men are better conductors than women, as a female conductor on the podium makes for a sexual distraction for the musicians. The fact that such a notable figure within the orchestral industry was comfortable stating his blatant sexism so publicly highlights this particular field’s shortcomings in the strive for equality.
Petrenko stated that orchestras "react better" when the conductor is a man. He also said, "When women get a family, it becomes difficult to be as dedicated as the branch demands." When Aftenposten asked Petrenko his opinion on the fact that were no women among five conductors recently chosen to lead Norwegian orchestras, Petrenko said that men "often have less sexual energy and can focus more on the music. A sweet girl on the podium can make one's thoughts drift towards something else."
Of course, his statements were classically sexist in that he dismissed a woman doing her job to a mere sexual object, and assumed that she would be a seductress, an item of “sexual energy” whether she wanted to be or not.
But Petrenko, who is chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic at the age of 37, is one of the most notable young composers in his field. So why did he feel at ease making his controversial opinions so publicly known? What sets the sexism in this industry customary, compared to that in others?
In the orchestral field, there has been a unique struggle for women to be held in the same regard as men. This prejudice is rooted in time-honoured traditions which are accepted, and almost respected.
The Vienna Philharmonic, is an example where this traditionalist approach is dominant. Although the orchestra is widely recognised as one of the finest in the world, until 1997 it did not allow women to become full members. The former traditional attitude of the orchestra was expressed by Paul Fürst when he stated that, “A woman shouldn't play like a man, but an all-male orchestra is bound to have a special tone."
In response, feminists in California and New York picketed the Vienna Philharmonic in protest of its refusal to hire women. Still after this, the orchestra was criticized by the Green Party of Austria for only hiring three women, out of 40 new recruits in the last 13 years. In regards to this disparity, many high-profile musicians have claimed that it is all part of “tradition,” with Dieter Flury going as far as to state that gender uniformity must be maintained in order to preserve a certain “soul” or gender-based “tone” that goes into the music the orchestra aims to produce. These opinions are not considered abnormal or unfair within the high ranks of the orchestral industry. As Adela Ruth Tompsett wrote, in “Analysing Performance: Issues and Interpretations,” sexism in the orchestral industry is “a prejudice, dignified by the passage of time.”
Thus, it is easy to see why Petrenko was confident in his bias: He is part of an industry where a lot of prominent figures like himself are of the same opinion. He did not need to worry about criticism from his own colleagues. The orchestral scene, particularly in Europe, is incredibly inclusive, and it is no surprise that it hasn’t progressed as smoothly as many other fields, in terms of gender equality.
Of course, there are females who have done well for themselves in the industry, but it has not been easy, and they are still the exception. Mixed gender and all-female orchestras are constantly being regarded as second-tier in quality by the long-established “top players” of the industry.
Hopefully, as younger recruits began to form the makeup of highly regarded symphonies such as the Vienna Philharmonic, talent will prevail over tradition and seeing how other industries have thrived with female leaders, the attitudes in the orchestral industry will similarly evolve. With this type of progression, comments such as Petrenko’s won’t be viewed as standard procedure.