Bernard Trafford: Prejudice is still everywhere

Bernard Trafford explains how conductor Vasily Petrenko's remarks about women conductors are not confined to the world of classical music

Top conductor Vasily Petrenko is keeping a low profile at present. In fact, he’s in the dog-house: I suspect he’s sleeping on the sofa at home for the time being.

The Russian-born conductor, musical director of both the Oslo Philharmonic and Britain’s National Youth Orchestras, made tactless comments about women conductors. He claimed orchestras “react better when they have a man in front of them” and “a cute girl on the podium can make one’s thoughts drift towards something else”.

That brief statement leaves a whole load of unanswered questions. Is it only possible for a “cute girl” to make it to a leadership position, then?

Is that just so all the blokes can claim (as happens all too often in so many walks of life) that the girl (I prefer to say woman, actually) got the top job only because she was good-looking?

My impression of professional musicians is they’re too busy playing difficult music to a high standard to pay much attention to the conductor’s gender or appearance: indeed, the musicians’ canon is full of funny stories about how they don’t even have time to look at the conductor!

On my rare appearances as an amateur orchestral trumpeter I’m concentrating so hard on hitting the right notes in the correct place that, notwithstanding all those statistics about how frequently men are supposed to have an erotic thought, the middle of a symphony performance would be the last time I’d be at leisure to do so. Mr Petrenko’s contrite. He’s apologised, saying that he was describing the county of his birth, not present-day Western Europe. His wife’s a choral conductor: he might have a lot of humble pie to eat before he’s fully forgiven.

A marvellous rebuttal of his absurd statement was furnished by the very season of BBC Proms in which he featured prominently. American woman conductor Marin Alsop took the podium for the legendary Last Night of the Proms, the first woman ever to do so.

She’s not a cute girl: she’s an experienced musician doing not just a professional job but an inspirational one. She’d received rave reviews for her interpretation of Brahms’s choral masterpiece A German Requiem a couple of weeks before the Last Night. She put her stamp on the Last Night itself, creating one of the best ever. There was laughter and knockabout silliness, as there should be: but there were wonderful performances, too, crafted, thoughtful and sensitive.

In the conductor’s Last Night speech she didn’t mention Petrenko by name, but she chided him gently by implication, also taking the musical establishment to task for the fact that she was indeed the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms. Bouquets and accolades for Ms Alsop, then: and a resounding raspberry for Mr Petrenko.

Let’s not kid ourselves: prejudice isn’t confined to classical music. It’s still everywhere. We rightly criticise the glass ceiling: but entrenched attitudes still conspire not merely to keep it in place but to double and triple-glaze it. For example, it’s been a good summer for cricket, with England retaining the Ashes. England’s women, I mean. On their day of victory they received almost two minutes’ coverage on the TV news… before a rather longer report about the men’s 20/20 match that followed. So the girls were only the warm-up act after all.

The Great North Run did better. The élite men and women alike had great finishes: Mo Farah’s failure to pip Kenenisa Bekele at the post made the more exciting conclusion, but due credit was given to female athlete Priscah Jeptoo who beat the favourites and, at 65 minutes 45 seconds, came close to Paula Radcliffe’s course record. Well done GNR, the BBC and the North East!

As for Vasily Petrenko, all I can say is that I wish him many uncomfortable nights on the sofa. His wife shouldn’t relent until he’s truly learned his lesson.


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