No industry has been more of a closed and creaky old white boys club than classical music. Things are grudgingly changing now that the Western canon appears to be on its deathbed, but, according to research by the League of American Orchestras, “Women conductors are still rare, especially in the high-status position of music director.” So it was intriguing, if a little surprising, that we recently got not one but two new films about women who’ve made it to the top of that field.
One is about this: an American girl captivated as a child by Leonard Bernstein’s young people’s concerts, determined to be a conductor ever since then, and eventually mentored by Bernstein. She has risen to the position of chief conductor for major orchestras in the United States and Europe, and is a teacher of future music directors at a top American conservatory, as well as the founder of an organization that nurtures aspiring young women conductors. She’s also a lesbian, with a longtime partner who was a musician in an orchestra she conducted, and with whom she shares a child. She has an affinity for Mahler, especially his Fifth Symphony.
So is the other one.
The first one is The Conductor, a documentary about Marin Alsop, music director laureate of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, and, closer to home, chief conductor and curator of the Ravinia Festival.
The other is Tár, a psychodrama starring Cate Blanchett (who’s also one of its executive producers), written (as a vehicle for her) and directed by Todd Field. It’s a contender in numerous Oscar categories and has already won Blanchett a Golden Globe as Best Actress.
The first is the inspiring story of a trailblazer who, in spite of negation at every turn, never gave up on her dream, is committed to making the same path easier for others, and values music and conducting as a way of connecting with people.
The other, in spite of the protagonist’s similar résumé—Bernstein, Mahler, sexual orientation, and all—is its opposite: a Kubrick-influenced horror flick about the fictional Lydia Tár, a narcissistic predator whose career is canceled when her sexual exploitation of younger musicians, specifically one named Krista, is revealed.
Alsop’s partner is Kristin. Just a coincidence, right?
I came out of a movie theater after a screening of Tár last fall wondering if there was any way Alsop could sue.
Apparently not, but recently she has commented on the film, telling Agence France-Presse that it’s “yet another misogynistic portrayal of a woman in a leadership role.”
Here’s what Alsop told the [British] Sunday Times: “I was offended as a woman, I was offended as a conductor, I was offended as a lesbian.”
Offended because, “it’s not really about women conductors, is it? It’s about women as leaders in our society.”
“To have an opportunity to portray a woman in that role and to make her an abuser—for me that was heartbreaking,” Alsop said, after noting that “there are so many men—actual documented men—this film could have been based on.”
Well, yes, including a major predecessor at Ravinia—longtime (1973-1993) music director James Levine.
Also offensive: a claim that Lydia Tár makes in an early scene in the film (during a supercilious interview with the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, cast as himself). Tár claims that gender bias hasn’t been a problem for her career, and wasn’t a problem for Alsop either, actually invoking her by name. The viewer eventually understands that Tár is a frequent liar, but this assertion is not refuted in the film and seems especially egregious since, in fact, Alsop has had to wage a lifelong, gender-based struggle for acceptance as a conductor, all the way up to and including her contentious start with the Baltimore Symphony.
As the documentary makes clear, from the time she was taken to a Leonard Bernstein concert as a child, Alsop wanted only to conduct, while everyone, starting with her childhood violin teacher, told her, “Girls don’t do that.” She was repeatedly rejected for the conducting program at Juilliard, and, even after proving herself under Bernstein’s tutelage, here’s the “compliment” he paid her: “When I close my eyes, I can’t tell you’re a woman.”
What’s the Field/Blanchett explanation—history notwithstanding—for making the character they gradually reveal as a monster female? Blanchett has told the BBC that the movie is “a meditation on the corrupting nature of power and that is genderless,” and that “power is a corrupting force no matter what one’s gender is.”
But “power corrupts” is a cliche and a false one. It shifts responsibility from the doer to the position. Power doesn’t, in fact, corrupt everyone. It corrupts the corruptible. Alsop is objecting to implicating women when, as a group, they’re still fighting to get even a toe in the door.
At this date, among the 25 largest-budget orchestras in America, only one is led by a woman—Nathalie Stutzmann, at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The power that’s on the podium is male.