A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

Women Conductors: a postscript


Last week I spoke to Jessica Cottis, Assistant Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, in print today. As usual, there was plenty more to say than space allowed, so here’s a bit more…

First, Jessica Duchen’s survey, which I cited in the article. She wrote the post when another high profile male conductor had opened his mouth and let his belly rumble about women on the podium. Rather than huffing and puffing about what he said, she put out a call to compile a list of women who are on the podium. It quickly reached triple figures and continues to grow, but the fact remains that we are still waiting for a woman to be appointed to one of the really juicy top jobs. I know, ‘top job’, arguable, but you know what I mean. We’re still waiting for a woman to scratch out the name on Maestro Karajan or Bernstein’s dressing room door.

Meanwhile, Jessica Cottis is getting on with the job, and so are many other talented conductors who just happen to be female. I called up Kate Lidbetter, the Managing Director of Symphony Services International. In conjunction with the state professional orchestras, SSI runs some of the most comprehensive conductor training programs in Australia. According to Kate’s figures, there were 11 applications from women in 2011, out of a total of 52, and the figure has stayed much the same since: 2012 had 14 and there were 12 in 2013 and 2014 each. The success rate for women has risen, with 3 accepted in 2011 and 5 accepted in 2014, rising from a 27% to 42% success rate. Nice trend, but tiny numbers.

As Jessica Cottis observes, the pace of change is painfully slow.

There is the generation of Simone Young, Marin Alsop and Sian Edwards. They were the trailblazers, and then what happened? Nothing. Not very much. I can think of only one person between them and me, Susanna Mälkki. She went, like me, through being a musician first and then into conducting. For me that has been the biggest stumbling block – just starting in the first place.


Consciously or otherwise, we look towards role models, and when I was little, as a young pianist and a young trumpeter, I didn’t see any female conductors. It’s very rare for somebody to break out from what has gone past. For that reason I would say, certainly in my generation, that has been one of the biggest stop signs. However, I would say that now things are changing.


When I went through the Academy I was the only female doing the course and had been for ten years. But I don’t know what happened. I went through and something changed. It’s now half/half.  We’re in a period of transition and I really do think there will be more female conductors coming up because there are more female conductors coming through now the conducting courses. So it’s just a matter of time.

While we wait, Kate Lidbetter gave me a good list of Australian women who are making waves as conductors. There’s Sarah Grace Williams, who founded the Metropolitan Orchestra in Sydney; Kellie Dickerson, who is making herself very, very useful in music theatre;  conductor of Perth Symphony Orchestra Jessica Gethin; pianist and director Aura Go; Liz Scott, who does brilliant work with Sydney Philharmonia’s VOX; and Rowan Harvey-Martin, who conducts the Llewellyn Choir, Canberra Youth Orchestra and many other ensembles in the Capital Territory. It’s worth noting these are all graduates of the Symphony Australia Conductor Development program, which has an impressive record in giving opportunities and training. 

I’m sure that list is just the beginning. What about it, Australia? Have we got any more role models for our young and talented students? Do let me know.





  1. Well, there’s Kelly Lovelady (www.kellylovelady.com), a West Australian now based in London. She is, among other things, Founding Artistic Director and Conductor of Ruthless Jabiru (www.ruthlessjabiru.com), a chamber orchestra made up of expat Australians in London. Limelight magazine did an article about them last year (http://bit.ly/1moD8Ue).

  2. I’m not sure how Lyn Williams could possibly have been left off this list. Apart from having conducted some of Australia’s top orchestras in the past, she chose to devote her career to founding both the Sydney Children’s Choir and the national children’s choral organisation, Gondwana National Choirs. Several of her choirs regularly work professionally with top Australian orchestras and are highly regarded on an international level. She is an enormously talented musician and Australian children should be extremely grateful that she chose to devote her career to them.

  3. Yes, thank you.
    I find it a tad disappointing to have been left off any sort of list having conducted the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the ACO, the MSO to name a few. However I decided to found an organisation which works with children and young people which is now 25 years old. I CHOSE to work with children, it was not because I was getting no work as a REAL conductor. Children are capable of great artistry . Why does working with children render you invisible to the musical world?

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.