The Thinking 

Conductor Enrages Womyn

April 7, 2014



Jorma Panula

IT’S always refreshing and inspiring when a male public figure has the courage or cluelessness to challenge feminist orthodoxy. Finnish conductor Jorma Panula recently said in public interview that women don’t make very good conductors. As we all know, that is tantamount to saying that women are not human beings. From WQXR:

Panula was asked in a Finnish television interview on March 30 whether he appreciated the fact that more women are entering the profession. “I do not!” he responded. “What the hell, it is such a limited profession. There are more than enough men. They can try, but it is completely different. Some of them are making faces, sweating and fussing, but it is not getting any better – only worse!”

The 83-year-old conductor added that women can try to be conductors provided that the music is “feminine.” For example, Stravinsky and Bruckner are not suitable for women; Debussy and Ravel are. “This is purely an issue of biology,” he reportedly said.

Panula’s remarks, which were reported by several Finnish media outlets and on the Slipped Disc blog, prompted a number of outraged responses online.

Conductor Salonen reportedly hit back with a Twitter message (in Finnish): “Conducting is about skill, not biology. There is no reason why women cannot do it equally well or better.” (The Tweet has since been deleted.)

A request for comment with Panula’s office was not immediately returned on Thursday.

Panula has been credited with helping to dramatically raise Finland’s profile on the international classical music scene by training generations of conductors at the Academy in Helsinki and elsewhere. He is currently teaching a masterclass in Vassa, Finland, where several participants are said to be women.

Panula’s comments come after a string of similar remarks made headlines in 2013. The young Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko told a Norwegian newspaper, perhaps ironically, that orchestras simply play better for men, and that “a sweet girl on the podium can make one’s thoughts drift towards something else.”

And Bruno Mantovani, the head of the Paris Conservatory, made headlines when he said in a radio interview that conducting is too demanding for women.

Mr. Panula is perhaps not familiar with Marin Alsop, conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Ms. Alsop’s website has these words at the top of the page:

As Alsop faced the cellos and drew from them the most tremendously shaped phrases with every inflection of her baton, you were aware of being in the presence of greatness.

Whatever one may think of the lesbian Ms. Alsop, one cannot accuse her of modesty.


A commenter at the WQXR Blog says that Mr. Panula’s comments shouldn’t have even been reported:

Why are these comments being taken as serious rather than as sexism? We are quite clear now on when comments are racist. Why is the same not true of comments that are sexist? That WQXR is entertaining these comments as serious by promoting them as worthy of headline raises concerns. What is of concern is not that a famous conductor would say such a thing. People will continue to speak in sexist terms as long as they believe their ideas are acceptable. It is the response to such comments that is most worthy of note.

Other commenters dismiss Mr. Panula as an old fool. Apparently, they believe the history of Western music, which developed perfectly well without women conductors, is a landscape of old fools and evidence of suppression of female talent. If Mr. Panula is an old fool, so were the great composers because they never spoke out against the absence of women conductors. Their silence is condemning. They are all guilty of holding women back.

— Comments —

Kevin M. writes:

“Whatever one may think of the lesbian Ms. Alsop, one cannot accuse her of modesty.”

If P.G. Wodehouse were alive, he would adore your prose.

“It is no use telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof.”

Laura writes:

If Wodehouse were still alive, I am sure he would adore women conductors.

Thomas F. Bertonneau writes:

Marin Alsop and Joanne Falletta have gotten good publicity.  Among other perquisites, recording enterprises like Naxos have been documenting their work commercially on disc.  Alsop has recorded the Brahms symphonies, works by Prokofiev, and much else.  Falletta also has an impressive discography including a newly released performance of Reinhold Glière’s massive Symphony No. 3, “Il’ya Murometz,” which in the past has been tackled only by the most ambitious of conductors.  The publicity for Falletta’s Glière has been hyperbolic.  Her performance with the Buffalo Philharmonic has supposedly made all previous recordings so much amateurish bungling.  An avid record-collector, I acquired Falletta’s Il’ya and listened to it carefully several times through.  I hear a reading superbly recorded, but a performance that while technically polished lacks what I would call spiritual commitment or understanding.  The archival early-1950s recoding by Hermann Scherchen with the Vienna Philharmonic is by contrast and despite its monophonic limitations utterly convincing.  There are fine recordings of the same work by Nathan Rakhlin, Harold Farberman, Edward Downes, and Leon Bottstein, all of which, again, find deeper communion with the composer than Falletta does.  Not that Falletta’s is bad – the others are simply better, more coherent, more visceral, and finally more convincing.

I would say the same for Marin Alsop’s Brahms.  Her traversal of the four symphonies is technically without a vice, beautifully recorded, and entirely without understanding of Brahms’ spirit.  I listened to it once and had no further interest in it.  By contrast, recordings of Brahms made at the beginning of the electrical era in the late 1920s by the likes of Hermann Abendroth, Walter Damrosch, and Bruno Walter, stand up today as valid attestations of the Brahmsian symphonic ethos.

Can women conduct symphony orchestras?  Of course, just as technically trained men can conduct symphony orchestras in a purely functional way, without any profound grasp of the score.  One might say that Mesdames Alsop and Falletta are just as good in their work as a hundred of their male counterparts living and working today, but at the same time it seems to me that they will leave no legacy greater than that achieved by most conductors, now or in the past.

While it no doubt chagrins the feminist mentality like fingernails in a chalkboard, Western musical high culture is a male achievement, from the art of composition to the intuitive science of conducting a symphony orchestra.  In instrumental performance, women have found their place in the tradition, but it remains the case that, while there have been women composers for centuries, none has ever convinced posterity of her greatness.  I suspect that the same holds true on the podium in front of the orchestra.

I had the privilege many years ago to know the pianist Johana Harris, wife (and when I knew her widow) of the composer Roy Harris.  It came to my attention that before Mrs. Harris met her husband-to-be at the Juilliard School, she had the ambition to become a composer.  I asked her why she changed her mind and concentrated on keyboard performance.  He answer was immediate and concise.  “When I met Roy,” she said, “I met a real composer.”

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