‘Our existence on the podium is our resistance’ – A conversation about gender equity in classical music

Jeri Lynne Johnson, founder & artistic director of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, and Alecia Lawyer, founder, artistic director & principal oboe of ROCO
Interview with Jeri Lynne Johnson & Alecia Lawyer

Though gender equity in classical music has been an ongoing discussion, the recent appointment of Nathalie Stutzmann as the next Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra pinpoints how behind the industry is in hiring female conductors.

When she assumes her role in the 2022-23 season, Stutzmann will be only the second woman ever to lead a major, top-tier American orchestra.

This comes at a time when less than 10% of orchestra music directors in the U.S. are women, according to a 2016 study by the League of American Orchestra (the most recent industry study available).

In Houston, there are currently no female music directors at any professional orchestra in the area, though women hold other conducting positions in the city.

Among local professional ensembles, Mei-Ann Chen serves as Artistic Partner for ROCO, and Yue Bao was recently appointed Assistant Conductor of the Houston Symphony. Half of Houston Grand Opera’s productions this season will be led by female guest conductors, a first for the company.

Among local community orchestras, women lead the Conroe, Texas Medical Center and Fort Bend Symphony Orchestras – Anna-Maria Gkouni, Libi Lebel, and Dominique Røyem, respectively.

Last week, I interviewed conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson (Founder of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra) and Alecia Lawyer (Founder, Artistic Director, and Principal Oboe of ROCO). Johnson was in town to conduct ROCO’s A Stitch in Time concert, which has since taken place.

In a candid and ultimately joyful conversation, we spoke about gender equity in conducting, including:

~ Barriers that female conductors face

~ ROCO’s efforts to feature all-female conductors this season

~ Strides in Houston

~ Personal experiences as women in classical music

~ Why it’s important to have more women on the podium

Listen to the conversation (audio above) or read the transcript (below).

A portion of this interview originally aired on Houston Matters. It has been edited for clarity and length.

CATHERINE LU: Alecia Lawyer and Jeri Lynn Johnson, thank you so much for talking with me today.

ALECIA LAWYER: Yay! Thanks for having us.

JERI LYNNE JOHNSON: Thank you for having us.

LU: Welcome to Houston, Jeri.

JOHNSON: Yes.

LU: This is not only your ROCO debut that you’re about to make, but your first time in Houston.

JOHNSON: A lot of firsts for this concert, yes. The [Mark] Adamo premiere and my first time with ROCO, yes.

LU: I want to take us back even further, just in the spirit of getting to know you.

JOHNSON: Sure.

LU: How did you know you wanted to become a conductor?

JOHNSON: Oh, we’re going back that far? OK. [laughter] You know, I started piano when I was four. And even that was a struggle. You know, my parents just didn’t believe at four that I was really into this. And they heard me playing stuff that I’d heard off the radio by ear and they’re like, Where did you learn to play that? I said, I heard it off the radio. And so they consented to give me lessons. And I was really blessed to have – some family friends of my parents took me to my first orchestra concert.

At that time, we were living in Minnesota. It was the Minnesota Orchestra, and Neville Marriner was the music director at the time. And so I saw my first orchestra concert, and I just remember there was Beethoven. And I just was in awe of the music. I loved what I was seeing. And I noticed that there was no piano on the stage, so that if I wanted to make this music, I would have to do what the man with the stick was doing. And so I had to be a conductor. And that’s what I wanted, yeah.

LU: Wow. So you fell in love with classical music, and then fell in love with the idea of the orchestra being your instrument.

JOHNSON: Right, exactly. Exactly.

Nathalie Stutzmann, Principal Guest Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, has been named the Atlanta Symphony’s Music Director starting in fall 2022.

LU: You said “the man with a stick,” right? So in a way, that’s what I wanted to talk about today – sort of gender on the podium, and what we’re seeing. What we’ve been seeing and what we might see in the future … To put it into context, recently there was big news in the classical music world, about a month ago. It was announced that Nathalie Stutzmann would be the next Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony, which makes her only the second woman ever to lead a major top-tier American orchestra, if you will.

And another sort of piece of context is that – that means there was a first, and the first was Marin Alsop. And she actually just recently stepped down from the Baltimore Symphony after a long tenure. Which means that when Stutzmann steps into her role next season, she’s really the only woman currently active as a major orchestra music director.

Another statistic is that there was a 2016 study by the League of American Orchestras that shows that female music directors are only 9.2%.

I would love to hear your reactions and how you’re following [the issue], especially as a female conductor yourself directly involved in the music-making and in the industry. Yeah, what are your reactions to these kinds of statistics and these kinds of headlines, and this news of Nathalie Stutzmann?

JOHNSON: Well, first of all, I mean, that’s awesome. Nathalie’s an incredible musician, and a singer! I don’t know if your audience knows that, you know, conductors are also musicians. And her instrument is her voice as well. And so … she’s just a wonderful artist. And so, you know, kudos to Atlanta for making the appointment.

There’s a lot of movement and conversations at this time, around a lot of the issues of not just gender inequity, but racial inequity. And for me, both of those things coincide.

I think there’s going to be more to come on the horizon. And that’s not like I’m giving away any kind of secret. Like, it’s not like I know some insider information, and there’s going to be another announcement. I just feel like there’s a lot of movement and conversations at this time, around a lot of the issues of not just gender inequity, but racial inequity. And for me, both of those things coincide.

For your listeners, I’m an African American woman, and so the intersection of race and gender affects me in particular ways on the podium. And so all of these conversations about agency, about not just engaging women as artists, but empowering women as artists, are beginning to be made in some really constructive and important ways at various levels and sectors of the classical music world.

LU: Do you think we’ve been making progress along the way? Like, has there been sort of slow but steady progress at all? Or do you think this is a unique moment where finally more active conversations are being had and maybe a turning point?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, it’s interesting. I think progress is being made in terms of just the sheer numbers of women entering the field. I think you’re seeing a lot more women.

It isn’t just women on the podium. I think women leading major orchestras is also an issue. When you have women in positions of power to make these decisions about including and empowering women, you start to see those changes being made.

And from a statistical standpoint, that 9.2% of music directors is music directors of orchestras of all sizes and music directors of a variety of different ensembles. And so, you know, once you get to the top-tier orchestras –and these are all based upon budget sizes, that’s how the tiers of orchestras are decided – and once you get to those top-level orchestras with multimillion dollar budgets and major endowments to support them, those numbers drop precipitously. And that’s why the announcement of Nathalie Stutzmann as the new music director for Atlanta, and Marin Alsop stepping down at Baltimore, is so incredibly significant. And so from that standpoint, there’s more work to be done, examining what are the barriers to having women, you know, participate at those higher levels.

And again, you know, it isn’t just women on the podium. I think women leading major orchestras is also an issue. I was just participating in a wonderful symposium sponsored by the Dallas Symphony called Women in Classical Music, and it’s the third year of the symposium. And one of the things that we all kind of spoke about and noted during the course of this symposium – and I know that Alecia has participated in and been a panelist in the symposium as well – is that when you have women in positions of power to make these decisions about including and empowering women, you start to see those changes being made. And so I don’t think we can talk about women on the podium without also women in the in the C-suites of these major orchestras.

LU: At all levels … of leadership, administration.

JOHNSON: Exactly.

LU: Alecia, tell me what ROCO has been doing in terms of following and addressing this issue over the years.

LAWYER: Well, I’m a female. [laughter] Just stating the obvious. [laughter]

LU: For the record!

LAWYER: For the record. But yes, you know, it’s funny, my family is very matriarchal – from my great-grandmother, grandmother, aunt, mother, me. Now I have two boys. So being in dialogue with diverse voices, and being in relationship with them, is the most important thing in all arts. It all comes back to relationships. And you’ve heard me pound that drum for 15, 17 years now that it has to be based upon that.

The fear of just having that one woman … be the only voice that has to represent every woman in the universe, that is really destructive … But having many voices in the room is what I hope is the legacy of what I can leave with what ROCO is doing.

And when you can actually kind of lead the quest, like in a really great Dungeons and Dragons game and you’re walking through the forest and you bring people along with you, the empowerment that can happen with women, which I don’t think – and the reason I brought up my family is, in prior generations, the fear of just having that one woman in the room who’s going to be cutthroat against other women, or be the only voice that has to represent every woman in the universe, that is really destructive.

But now having so many women, we have so many different – I mean, we’re half the population, good gravy, right? But just having that many voices in the room is what I hope is the legacy of what I can leave with what ROCO is doing. And I don’t think there’s any machination that’s happened. And I get asked this – especially this season, it’s all female conductors – I get asked it all the time, Oh, what are you doing there? I’m like, There’s no agenda. It’s that I’ve been wanting to work with Jeri for a long time, and that Mei-Ann Chen has been our first Artistic Partner. And these people are in relationship with me. And it just happens like that, right?

That’s what’s exciting to me. We were number one in the nation in programming women composers in 2019. I did not know that was a statistic that was achievable. Didn’t even think somebody was counting, if that makes sense. And that’s what’s important is – where it comes from has to be authentic. And hopefully people can recognize that even just by glancing at our website and coming to our concerts.

And we are trying to be, you know, a collective. Not just ROCO, but I think us as the general movers and shakers right now of the classical world, really trying to be a collective of thought and dialogue. But I mean, let’s face it, no man who’s founded an orchestra would have had childcare-music education during and after concerts. It just wouldn’t be thought of. They wouldn’t be against it. They just wouldn’t think about it because it’s not in their zeitgeist to be like, What do I do with a child, right?  And we do that during rehearsals. We have childcare for musicians during rehearsals. I mean, that’s just such a logical choice, but not something that – and I have three wonderful men in my life, and my dad too – but they wouldn’t have thought of that.

And I think that’s what’s important is having people who have different experiences, different priorities, different life-walks, to be able to have influence on how we then walk forward together.

Mei-Ann Chen has served as ROCO Artistic Partner since 2019. Chen is also Music Director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, and this fall she became the first female Asian conductor to be named Chief Conductor of Austria’s recreation – Grosses Orchester Graz at Styriarte.

LU: Now, I want to ask you, Alecia, you know, as an arts leader in our community, what do you think are the strides that we’re making here in Houston?

And just to set this up with a little bit of context – because these musicians aren’t in the room with us to speak for themselves – I do know that for example, at the Houston Symphony, Yue Bao was just appointed assistant conductor. And we also have Libi Lebel, of course longtime director of the Texas Medical Center Orchestra. The Conroe Symphony, a community orchestra in the Greater Houston area, announced a new director – Anna-Marie Gkouni, I believe. And half of Houston Grand Opera’s operas this season will be conducted by women.

So it seems like Houston is making strides, but as someone who was directly working in this field, what do you think?

LAWYER: Yes, that’s great. It’s something that’s needed to be done for a really long time. I’m glad it’s happening, however it’s happening. It doesn’t really matter the way it happens, it needs to happen. I do love the fact that HGO just hired, you know, Khori Dastoor, to come in as the CEO. That’s going to be impactful. Houston Grand Opera has been always a wonderful partner with us as far as promotions and different things that we do.

And I think that we just do a disservice in our arts, and this is a global conversation not just about women, it’s about – we need to thrive and not just try to get equal. That to me sounds like a mathematic transactional problem instead of a relational problem. So to answer that question, of course, that’s great and wonderful. I mean, whatever it’s going to take to get us all to the point where it just is not even commented on would be a wonderful space to be in.

LU: Jeri, you’ve had a really, I think, a very successful and interesting journey. In 2005, you made history as the first Black woman to win an international conducting prize when you were awarded the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship. You’ve broken barriers in Europe and the US as the first African American woman on the podium for many orchestras. You’ve conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra and orchestras around this country and overseas. And in 2008, you founded your own orchestra, the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra in Philadelphia.

So, I mean, those are wonderful sort of milestones, but I would love to hear what your experience has been as a female conductor. What sort of challenges – I mean, good or bad – have you have you faced and barriers that you think female conductors face?

JOHNSON: You know, I would say starting out very early on, as any young conductor, it’s always hard to get opportunities. You’re just always grabbing for whatever you can do, even if you’re not being paid. You just want the experience to just wave your hands around [in front of] anybody but the mirror. And so I never really had any problems early on in my career.

There was a general sense – from people who should have been mentors and champions – there was kind of a lackluster response to my interest in going into conducting, which at the time, I didn’t really think much about. Of course, now in retrospect, I understand why they had a lackluster response. And that was really put into perspective after I had won the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship, which was started by Marin Alsop to really provide expanded opportunities and exposure for young women conductors, coming up through the system.

Marin Alsop / photo credit: Mariana Garcia

And so after winning that, and conducting orchestras all around the world and really doing some great stuff, I went out – like all conductors do – on the audition job trail. And … when conductors audition for an orchestra, unlike musicians in the orchestra, we are not behind a screen. So in order to make sure the audition process is fair for, like, violinists and oboists, they’re all behind a screen, so you can’t see who they are and what gender or race or anything. You’re just listening to the sound that this person is producing.

LAWYER: Never thought about that.

JOHNSON: Yeah. And so conductors cannot conduct behind the screen because we’re using our bodies to communicate non verbally. And so the orchestra has to see us. So they know who we are when we get up on the podium.

And so I had taken the auditions to be music director of three orchestras at various places around America and made it to the finals of all of these orchestras, which means I was one of the three last candidates. And did not get the job at any of them – again, not unusual. There’s a lot of rejection in the business, you know, [and] kind of in the phrase of that great poet of our age, Jay Z, “on to the next one.” And so you just kind of pick up and dust yourself off and keep moving forward.

This one orchestra in California, very unusually, the search committee chair said, you know, you did not get the job … but said, if you would like some feedback, we’d be happy to offer that to you. And that, again, is very rare. Normally, sometimes you don’t even hear that you didn’t get the job. You just kind of see the announcement that someone got the job. You’re like, oh, well, that’s not me. So I guess I didn’t get the job! [laughs]

That’s when he … said, ‘You just don’t look like what the audience expects the maestro to look like.’ A really painful … moment in my life …because what it told me was … I was always going to be an outsider in classical music because of my race and gender.

So for them to reach out was a rare opportunity to get some feedback. And so I contacted the gentleman at the time. He was the search committee chairman. We had a lovely conversation. And he was very complimentary of my work and said, ‘Look, the orchestra loved your conducting and the board thought you would be wonderful to work with, [you] had some great ideas, wonderful musicianship.’ I said, ‘Oh, okay. That’s very nice.’ He says, ‘Yeah, we just didn’t know how to market you.’

LU: Wow.

JOHNSON: Yes, wow. And, you know, being young and naive at the time, I didn’t really understand what he meant by that. And so I asked – you know, I didn’t understand. And so that’s when he kind of cleared his throat and said, ‘You just don’t look like what the audience expects the maestro to look like.’

A really painful, eye opening, perspective shifting, paradigm shifting moment in my life. Because what it told me was that no matter how good a conductor I was, no matter what my resume was, I was always going to be an outsider in classical music because of my race and gender.

And so that sort of put me on the path to Black Pearl, which was starting my own [orchestra]. And I kind of took that statement of ‘you don’t look like what the audience expects the maestro to look like’ – I turned it on its head. And so on a lot of our programs, I turn everyone into conductors. [laughs] And that was kind of how I addressed that.

My experience on the podium is very guided by the joy that I feel in being able to exercise my own agency, but also empowering the musicians that I’m honored to lead and work with.

And so my experiences on the podium have been, since that time, really deeply empowering – because when I conduct and when I teach other people to conduct, the lesson that that I learn, and that they learn, and I continue to love to feel, is the lesson of agency, of people having the clarity of knowing who they are, knowing what they want, communicating it effectively, and getting it from the world. Whether it’s an orchestra, whether it’s the medical institution, whether it’s a banking institution, whether it’s a legal institution, an educational institution. But that power of having agency over our world is something that is desperately missing now because of COVID. It’s something that communities of color have been desperately missing for any number of years due to systemic inequalities in a number of ways.

And so it’s a powerful lesson for everyone to have. And so my experience on the podium is very guided by the joy that I feel in being able to exercise my own agency, but also empowering the musicians that I’m honored to lead and work with, and allowing them to engage in their agency as creative people as well.

Jeri Lynn Johnson conducting the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, which she founded in 2008.

LU: So this may seem like a very – I mean, it may seem like a silly question, but why not ask sort of point blank. Why is it important to have more female conductors? What is at stake?

JOHNSON: Wow. I find that question so incredibly loaded, given that we’re in the state of Texas, which –regardless of your stance on the issue – is systematically eroding women’s constitutional rights. Again, I’m not taking a stand on the issue one way or another, that’s not it. But the ability for women to have agency –

LAWYER: There’s that word again. Yeah, “agency” is an important word.

JOHNSON: It’s an important word. And so, any way that we can remind girls and women that they have agency and to help them learn to develop it and display it in authentic ways – and that doesn’t mean you have to pretend like you’re a man in order to take up space in the room. You as a woman can take up exactly as much space as you need to be who you are authentically, and that is enough. It’s more than enough. It’s a lot.

And so, it’s important to model that and demonstrate that truth because talking about it isn’t enough. We have to model that not just, I think, for young women and girls, but we need to model that for all generations, because I think we have to think about the generations of women who did not grow up with that. We have to think about the women coming to America from other cultures who are not demonstrated that in wherever they’re coming from.

To the extent that conducting and classical music can play a small role in upholding American democratic values and embodying those democratic values, we are remaining true to this country and what it was founded on.

And so, you know, to me women’s rights is a fundamental American democratic issue. Because despite the practical imperfection of how the Founding Fathers executed those democratic values by owning slaves, and by not giving the women the right to vote, and all those kinds of things, the foundation was set by the concept of the inalienable rights of all humans.

And so we are a work-in-progress as Americans. And so to the extent that conducting and classical music can play a small role in upholding American democratic values and embodying those democratic values, we are remaining true to this country and what it was founded on.

LAWYER: You gotta write a book. That’s gorgeous.

JOHNSON: We’re going to do the podcast! Should we announce the podcast right now?

LAWYER: Yes, the podcast right now!

LU: You heard it here first. [laughter] Podcast coming from Jeri Lynne Johnson and Alecia Lawyer!

LAWYER: Yeah, that’s really a fabulous word, the word “agency.” I love that. I actually auditioned to be a conductor in undergraduate. Well, sort of. But the guy who was there, I won’t name him, he basically said, ‘You know, women can’t conduct. It’s too bad, so sad.’

JOHNSON: That’s actually a common theme, especially with Beethoven as a particular composer that women are simply – even physically, not just emotionally – incapable of interpreting and performing. So when I started Black Pearl, the first concert we did, of course we did Beethoven Five. Just ‘cause.

LAWYER: High five on that! Loud high five, yeah! [laughter]

JOHNSON: And we’re doing Beethoven Eight at ROCO!

LAWYER: Which, we don’t do a lot of Beethoven! [laughter]

JOHNSON: And so I always try to incorporate Beethoven, just personally, wherever and whenever I can … I think, you know, art and politics are very closely aligned in people’s minds right now.

When we talk about women composers and conductors … and why is it important to see that agency, the political statement almost becomes that our existence on the podium is our resistance.

Now, the truth of the matter is that they’ve always been aligned, so that’s a fallacy that they’re separate. But, you now, the way people use music to maybe relax and maybe take their minds off mundane things, I respect that and I do the same thing. But that doesn’t mean the composers who wrote these works felt the same way when they created them.

And so, you know, for me when we talk about women composers and conductors on the podiums, and why is it important to see that agency, the political statement almost becomes that our existence on the podium is our resistance.

The existence is the resistance.

Yeah, write that one down, Alecia. That’s really good.

LAWYER: I’m writing it down, my friend. I’m taking notes!

JOHNSON: That’s, like, the tag line for the podcast. Anyway, you’re hearing it here, Houston. [laughter] You’re reaching into the podcast creation process! [laughter]

LU: Magic is happening right now. [laughter]

LAWYER: That’s awesome.

LU: Jeri Lynne Johnson and Alecia lawyer, thank you so, so much for coming in to have this conversation with me, and also to, you know, spread the joy of this concert too – and your debut, Jeri, with ROCO!

JOHNSON: Yes, thank you! Thank you for having us. This is so much fun. Really appreciate it, Catherine.

LAWYER: Thank you, guys.

LU: Thank you.

Watch Jeri Lynne Johnson conduct ROCO’s “A Stitch in Time” concert.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: