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Women on the Podium: Not One, But Two Conducting Together Onstage

By Maritza Cosano

Women on the Podium: Not One, But Two Conducting Together Onstage

By Maritza Cosano
Women have certainly come a long way, but there's still a long road ahead. Two women paving the field are Frost School of Music Director of Choral Activities, Conductor Amanda Quist, and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Emeritus, Conductor Marin Alsop. On November 17 - 19, they took the podium at the Philadelphia Orchestra together—showcasing not one but two women conductors onstage together, a rarity in the professional musical world.

Women on the podium, and two women conductors at that. Now, that's something you don't see every day. Yes, we are nearing the end of 2022, and though there are female names that consistently pop up on lists of the world's leading orchestras, the percentage of professional female conductors is still relatively small. 

In an exclusive interview with Amanda Quist, director of Choral Activities at the Frost School of Music, we raised the question: "Why is there still a discussion about whether women have the skills to conduct a symphony orchestra?" 

Without a doubt, they do. And yet, according to recent data from the League of American Orchestras, which claims to have made tangible progress towards "equity, diversity, and inclusion goals" in the last decade, only 14.6 percent of U.S. conductors at all levels—are women. Those numbers are even smaller among the country's top-tier orchestras.  

"I've never thought of myself as a "female" conductor, but just a conductor," said Quist as she headed to the stage on November 17 at the Philadelphia Orchestra with Marin Alsop, conductor and music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since 2007. "However, I realize that at the professional level, the numbers of female leaders make up a small percentage, and I'm honored to be a part of that group."  

A few months ago, Quist received the commission to come alongside Alsop to conduct the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir, the Philadelphia Orchestra's professional choir, a world-class ensemble and organization. "The experience has been fantastic," said Quist. "Marin Alsop is a consummate musician and has done the piece (Gustav Holst's The Planets) on several occasions, so it's great to have a chance to see how she puts it together. The concert was originally planned with conductor Bramwell Tovey, but unfortunately, Bramwell passed away in July."

As it happened, Alsop stepped in to lead the events. And because Holst's The Planets has a treble chorus that splits into as many as seven parts, they brought in Quist as the Chorus Master to conduct the choir backstage.  

The score indicates that this choir should be off-stage, so Quist's job was to direct the choir to be heard as though they were in another world. "The music is nebulous, somewhat bitonal, and the ranges are quite high—so challenging for the singers," added Quist. "The Philadelphia Symphonic Choir sopranos and altos are doing a phenomenal job."

The role of a Chorus Master is interesting, she observed. Typically, most of the preparation and work happens before the performance, and then you listen and hope it will go well. In this case, she was conducting simultaneously with Alsop, who was onstage with the orchestra, while Quist was backstage with the choir—an amazing thing to watch.

This is not Quist's first performance with the orchestra. Actually, this is her fifth time serving as Director of the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir. Before she came to Frost in 2019, Quist worked with Philadelphia Orchestra as well as the New York Philharmonic, and she has prepared many major works, including:  

  • Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem
  • Beethoven Symphony no. 9
  • Beethoven Missa Solemnis
  • Mahler Symphony no. 2
  • Mahler Symphony no. 3
  • Menotti Amahl and the Night Visitors
  • Mozart Requiem
  • Orff Carmina Burana 

As for her role in helping emerging future women conductors—showing them what is needed to assist them in pursuing their dreams—Quist hopes her work will create an easier path for them to follow. 

Alsop, who also has a mentorship program for women conductors, says, "I have never ascribed to the philosophy that, 'It was tough for me so that it will be tough for you.' My philosophy is: 'It was tough for me, so I could make it easier for you.' This is the philosophy of my non-musician mentor, Tomio Taki, who was compassionate and unwavering in his belief and support of my goal to become a conductor. Without Tomio, my path would have been far more difficult."

Quist thinks for women, and all people, it is crucial to see powerful leadership from other women. "I see women socialized from a young age to fill a certain role, and while that is

changing, some people would like to see women stay as we've been, somewhat marginalized, especially as you climb the ladder." 

What's so unique about this performance at the Philadelphia Orchestra is that no one set out to make it an "all-female" program. "We just happened to be set together in this way. I think normalizing this—that women and all people should be seen on equal footing, regardless of gender, is the way forward. The fact that this performance happens to have two female leaders is a happy accident, but a powerful example, nonetheless," said Quist.