Thank you, Cate Blanchett, for taking up the baton for female conductors

The actor’s star turn in her new film Tár helps normalise the image of a woman on the podium

Read more: the conductor who prepared Cate Blanchett for Tár

Pinch me, I may be dreaming! The film star Cate Blanchett has just arrived at the launch party for my book about conducting. For someone who has dedicated years to securing recognition for women in the world of conducting, this feels like a watershed moment. But is it?

Let’s rewind to the early 90s when I first conducted an orchestra at university. There was a smattering of female role models: Sian Edwards and Jane Glover were enjoying careers, and among my peer group, Sarah Ioannides beat the men hands down in a competition to conduct the Oxford Philharmonia. Ten years later I took part in the Leeds Conductors Competition. Although Sian won in 1984, it was so unusual to see a woman selected, they made mention of it in the opening address. Another decade on, in 2013 Marin Alsop became the first woman to conduct the BBC Last Night of the Proms.

Until then, I had lazily assumed that conducting was unappealing to most women. We had all heard comments like: “We had a woman conducting recently, so we don’t need another yet.” We were wary and often pitted against each other, so felt little sorority. It was only really Marin who was nurturing the next generation of female conductors.

I suddenly realised my attitude wasn’t good enough and decided to make a change, starting at grassroots. With fellow conductor Andrea Brown, I established a series of workshops at Morley College in London for women to try conducting. At first, I had sleepless nights worrying nobody would apply, but we persevered. Finding a new home at the Royal Philharmonic Society, our “WoCo” (women conductor) workshops gathered momentum, embracing music students at university and conservatoire, and older music professionals. Soon I was running similar programmes in Ireland and Australia and now over 500 women have participated in workshops with me. Everyone leaves the workshops feeling empowered and inspired. For many this has been the catalyst they needed to embark on further training and a career.

Cate Blanchett in character, in formal conductor's dress, smiling and tilting her head back as she conducts
Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár in Tár. Photograph: Courtesy of Focus Features/AP

This past weekend I taught with Sian on the Glover-Edwards Conducting Programme at the Royal Academy of Music. It gives women applying for postgraduate conducting extra support, training and confidence to help them reach that next level. This week I will spend a few days with the Royal Northern Sinfonia in our most ambitious WoCo project yet. Its participants – Lada Valesova, Rita Castro Blanco, Constança Simas, Hannah von Wiehler, Charlotte Corderoy, Helen Harrison and Tess Jackson – are all names to watch. They get all-important podium time (a bit like air miles for a pilot) with this wonderful ensemble who give thoughtful, carefully tailored feedback. How I wish that had existed 20 years ago! Marin’s fellowship goes from strength to strength, and others like it. A truly supportive community of female conductors is emerging. Ten years since Marin’s Prom, we have normalised the idea of women on the podium.

But progress is slow, and this is no surprise to me. Just as there are no quick fixes to becoming a conductor (it takes years of training and development), nor can one expect to change statistics overnight. In 2014, according to a report by Dr Christina Scharff, the gender ratio of conductors holding titled conducting positions with professional UK orchestras was 1.4%. But that percentage has scarcely improved. At the Royal Philharmonic Society’s last count, only two UK orchestras had a female principal conductor, and only five female conductors had titled roles amid the several hundred conductors on staff at professional UK orchestras.

This is only part of the picture. I’ve been working full-time as a conductor of professional orchestras and opera companies for years and have yet to hold one of these positions. Most of us enjoy rich freelance careers, so another measurement is to look at artist managers and see how many female conductors they represent. In 2017 it was 5.5%, and (cue drumroll) this month it has more than doubled to reach a grand 11.2%. Forgive the sarcasm, but when I hear comments like “There’s a tsunami of women conductors now, and it could go too far” or “Where are all the male conductors?”, I get a little weary.

Marin Alsop gesturing as she conducts
Marin Alsop conducts the New York Philharmonic at the We Love NYC: The Homecoming Concert in Central Park on August 21, 2021. Photograph: John Angelillo/UPI/REX/Shutterstock

Nonetheless there are all sorts of ways to measure change. This week my book is published, telling my story and that of 16 other conductors. Nine of them are women, three from black and ethnically diverse backgrounds, and they represent an age range of nearly 50 years. Many of these stories weren’t being told a decade ago, and this might encourage others to feel their voices too can be heard. And now Todd Field’s film Tár about a female conductor is the toast of Hollywood, anchored by Cate Blanchett’s firebrand performance. The film is a glinting prism in which everyone will see different things. For me it asks timely questions about the abuse, fragility and illusion of power. Chatting to Cate and Todd at my book launch, it’s no surprise to me, having spent 30 years in this profession, how enrapt they both remain by this most beguiling of art forms.

So, what next? I’m mentoring the Galway-based conductor Sinead Hayes. She is seeking the next generation of Irish girls and boys to follow in the footsteps of fellow Galway girl Eimear Noone who was the first woman to conduct at the Oscars. As with all good mentoring relationships, I’m learning as much from her as she is from me. I’d love to do something similar in the UK, planting the seeds of change among a greater range of young people. I titled my book In Good Hands, and all of us who care about conducting need to think about the hands into which we entrust its future.

In Good Hands: The Making of a Modern Conductor by Alice Farnham is published by Faber on 19 January

Alice Farnham

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Power behind the baton: the conductor who prepared Cate Blanchett for Tár
The Oscar-winning actor turned to Natalie Murray Beale to learn the conducting skills that underpin her latest film role

Vanessa Thorpe Arts and media correspondent

15, Jan, 2023 @12:00 PM

Article image
From ice queen to hothead: how Cate Blanchett negotiated stardom on her own terms
The versatile actor is back on the small screen in two contrasting roles – Phyllis Schlafly, America’s scourge of second-wave feminism, and as an Australian cult leader

Sarah Hughes

05, Jul, 2020 @8:09 AM

Article image
Monstrous maestro: why is Cate Blanchett’s cancel culture film Tár angering so many people?
Despite glowing reviews, Todd Field’s drama about a predatory conductor has struggled at the box office. Is this because its protagonist is an unlikeable woman?

Xan Brooks

16, Jan, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
Pow! Why female writers are a top draw in the world of comics
As 15,000 fans gather in Yorkshire this weekend, authors tell how the male domination of the genre was broken

David Barnett

13, Nov, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Puccini and prawn cocktail: live music goes on cafe menu to tempt customers
Classical, jazz, cabaret and even circus tricks are being laid on by restaurants and pubs to win back clientele in an ever-tougher market

Vanessa Thorpe, Arts and Media Correspondent

22, Jan, 2023 @10:00 AM

Article image
Adelaide festival 2017 program: Cate Blanchett and Shakespeare get dark, weird and surreal
Program spanning opera, film, dance, music, performance art and theatre to feature Rufus Wainwright’s ‘symphonic visual concert’ and Neil Armfield’s outdoor production of The Secret River

Steph Harmon

27, Oct, 2016 @2:47 AM

Article image
Carol review - Cate Blanchett captivates in woozily obsessive lesbian romance
Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt has become an entrancing Cannes premiere directed by Todd Haynes, beautifully made and outstandingly intelligent

Peter Bradshaw

16, May, 2015 @8:45 PM

Article image
Merry widows? How attitudes to bereaved women have changed
Societies around the world have always had a problem with a wife who belongs to no one. But what does the term even mean in the modern era?

Louisa Young

25, Jun, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Fathers and daughters: what’s the truth behind this unexplored family bond?
Research suggests fathers of girls have more empathy for women. But as King Lear and new movie Aftersun show, there are plenty of challenges along the way

Andrew Anthony

19, Nov, 2022 @5:46 PM

Article image
The parent trap: why is it still seen as selfish to opt out of being a mother?
A new documentary says society is biased in favour of those who have babies. The film’s maker and others explain why they have chosen to be child-free

Vanessa Thorpe

30, Apr, 2022 @1:00 PM