Women conductors spotlighted in “Breaking Barriers” festival at Ravinia

Sat Jul 30, 2022 at 1:20 pm

By John von Rhein

Marin Alsop with conductors (l to r) Laura Jackson, Jeri Lynne Johnson, and Anna Duczmal-Mróz, each of whom made their CSO debut Friday night at Ravinia. Photo: Patrick Gipson/ Ravinia Festival

Musical events under Marin Alsop’s direction this weekend at the Ravinia Festival point up how far women conductors have come in recent years as they strive for greater representation in major podium positions—but also how elusive the brass ring remains.

Consider the hard-fought ascent to the top of Alsop, Ravinia’s chief conductor, whose 14-season tenure with the Baltimore Symphony, ending last year, made her the first woman in history to lead a major American orchestra.

Suddenly opportunities began opening up for other female conductors. Earlier this season, the Atlanta Symphony named the second such designee, Natalie Stutzmann, as its next music director; and Eun Sun Kim led her first performances as music director of the San Francisco Opera. The ongoing tenures of music directors Mei-Ann Chen at the Chicago Sinfonietta and Jo Ann Falletta at the Buffalo Philharmonic further attest to the arrival of the new normal at U.S. symphony orchestras.

But while it has become easier for female conductors to make significant inroads in a rapidly shifting demographic, cultural and political climate, progress remains disconcertingly slow at the top U.S. orchestras. None of the so-called top five or six American orchestras has ever engaged a woman as music director. (The greatly gifted Finnish maestra Susanna Mälkki is said to be on the short list of candidates to fill impending podium vacancies in Chicago and New York, but nothing has advanced beyond the rumor stage at this point.)

Clearly old traditions and prejudices die hard, in the symphonic world as much as in the larger culture and society.

Which is why attention must be paid to Alsop’s efforts to clear a more direct path to the top of the podium heap for women conductors—represented by the inaugural installment of her latest curatorial initiative, the “Breaking Barriers” festival, running through Sunday at Ravinia.

Alsop has said that future editions of “Breaking Barriers” will celebrate more generally “the diverse artists and leaders in the vanguard of classical music today and for future generations,” but she is devoting the 2022 festival-within-a-festival to women on the podium. 

Her concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Friday night brought to the fore three aspiring female conductors whom she is mentoring and coaching as part of her unique Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship, which in its 20 years has supported the careers of more than two-dozen women musicians. 

Of course, merely providing push, exposure and guest conducting opportunities won’t amount to much if the talent to go the distance isn’t there. And in that respect Alsop appears to have chosen well with her new and recent mentorees: the 2022-24 Taki Alsop conducting fellow Anna Duczmal-Mróz, along with alumnae Laura Jackson and Jeri Lynne Johnson, each making her CSO debut on Friday.

A native of Poland who heads that country’s Amadeus Chamber Orchestra, Duczmal-Mróz got her Ravinia moment at the top of Friday’s program, which held the first CSO performance of Source Code by Jessie Montgomery, the orchestra’s current composer-in-residence.

As a black artist, New York-native Montgomery is acutely aware of her place in today’s rich multicultural creative ferment. Written for string quartet in 2003 and arranged for string orchestra in 2015, Source Code derives from reimagined gestures of such African American cultural icons as Ella Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes and Alvin Ailey; these gestures return her to the common ground of the black spiritual as the “source code” of the short piece. The music is, however, entirely of Montgomery’s invention: subtly elegiac in tone, a bluesy chromatic slide that builds several intense climaxes before dying away.

The trouble with the string-ensemble version heard on Friday is that the affecting intimacy of expression of the original is sacrificed to creating a fat, rather amorphous string sonority—something essential feels missing. That said, Duczmal-Mróz’s clear beat, vigorous body language and fluid control worked to accentuate the positive, resulting in a fervent reading. Her career progress will bear watching.

The fellowship graduates Jackson and Johnson joined their mentor for another Ravinia premiere, that of Michael Daugherty’s Time Machine for Three Conductors and Orchestra (2003).

Much of the Iowa-born Daugherty’s music has involved the assimilation of popular musical culture into pieces for the concert hall. Some of them have proved exhilarating and good fun, others merely facile and kitschy. 

Time Machine is different: the score eschews pop gimmicks in favor of a postmodernist musical representation of three-dimensional space and time—hence the use of three chamber orchestras, each with its own tempo and meter. Three conductors are needed to keep it all together.

There is, of course, nothing new in all this. Charles Ives pioneered even more complex aural layering in his Fourth Symphony (1916), which also calls for more than one conductor. The first movement, “Past,” draws heavily on a nostalgic lyricism out of the Renaissance era not unlike Leopold Stokowski’s fat arrangements of old Italian instrumental music, with rambunctious percussion underpinning. The metronomic rattle of rainsticks faced stiff competition from Ravinia’s resident cicada chorus.

The second and final movement, “Future,” is a dystopian vision of what lies ahead, the expectant murmurs of harp and rubbed water glasses eventually upended by sonic cataclysm—a bleaker future than even H.G. Wells imagined in the eponymous novel that inspired Daugherty.

A little of this sort of cacophony goes a very long way, though at least the wide open spaces of Ravinia provided the right spatial setting for the composer’s pile-driving climaxes. Alsop coordinated the many moving parts precisely from her podium command post, while both Jackson and Johnson acquitted themselves like the highly capable pros they are. The trio of ensembles clashed and finally merged brilliantly. A whooping ovation from the sparsely attended pavilion was the result.

“Breaking Barriers” is off to a promising start. This is exactly the sort of artistic enterprise an international music festival that cares about the next generation of musicians, and the continued vitality of the art form, should be investing in. 

Following intermission, Alsop returned to lead excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet. Her suite, lasting about 40 minutes, was shorter and differed slightly in its components from Riccardo Muti’s well-remembered CSO version in that Alsop includes music from all three of the composer’s suites. She emphasized big-boned sonority and kinetic excitement over orchestral color. There was one prominent blooper but generally the orchestra came through well for her, most notably in the tender phrasing of “The Young Juliet.”  

Ravinia’s “Breaking Barriers” festival continues Saturday and Sunday with two CSO concerts led by Alsop, performances by Esperanza Spalding and the Chicago Sinfonietta, film screenings, symposia and more. breakingbarriers.ravinia.org

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One Response to “Women conductors spotlighted in “Breaking Barriers” festival at Ravinia”

  1. Posted Jul 31, 2022 at 11:03 pm by Betsy Hiteshes

    Wish I could have been present. Congratulations to Marin Alsop whom I first saw and heard conduct at the LA Phil many years ago.

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