Meet Some of the Women Shattering Classical Music’s Glass Ceiling

How one fellowship is helping more women conductors break through the old boys’ club
Laura Jackson – image: Jiyang Chen

In the United States, there have been fewer female music directors at major symphonies (four) than the number of toes on my right foot (five). And today, only 9.2% of the world’s music directors are women.

One of the people trying to change this is Marin Alsop, the first woman to become music director of a major American orchestra, and the only conductor to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, colloquially known as a “genius grant.” In 2002, Alsop formed the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship, whose mission is to “mentor, support and promote women conductors as they advance in their professional careers,” according to the organization’s website. Women chosen for the program spend two years working with Marin and other mentors and receive $20,000.

Alsop and her fellowship’s influence will be felt this weekend, as the Reno Philharmonic presents the latest in its Classix series: Clyne’s Cello Concerto. Laura Jackson, the Reno Phil’s music director, is a former Taki Alsop fellow, and guest conductor Irene Delgado-Jiménez is a current fellow. Kristin Jurkscheit is the fellowship’s executive director, and all three women recently chatted with The Sierra Nevada Ally to talk about how to get more women in classical music.

The Ally: I want to start with the fellowship. Can you just give me a little bit of background about the fellowship? What’s the purpose of it? How does it work?

Kristin Jurkscheit: So we’re actually celebrating our 20th year [of the fellowship]. It was started by Marin Alsop, who was a conductor who, when she decided to be a conductor, it was very unheard of for women to be conductors. So, it was very hard for her to get going. She got some backing from a really wonderful man named Tomio Taki, and as her career actually started to take off, she and Mr. Taki were going to wrap up the orchestra. And he said to her, ‘So you’re doing great, you’ve got your career. What about the other women? Where are the other women?’ And she too, said, ‘Where is everybody?’ Because she had been going alone for about 12 years.

So she started [the] fellowship, she and Tomio put in seed money, and they raised some money to create a pool of money that could then be used to give an award to a female conductor. And they call it a fellowship. There’s a financial award, and then there’s mentoring with Marin, and also opportunities. For example, we are doing this global concert series for this year to celebrate their 20th anniversary. And we’re able to sponsor 10 orchestras that are led by music directors who were in the fellowship program. Laura Jackson is one of those. Then we’re able to send along somebody who’s one of the newer awardees, which brings us to Irene, and so she’s able to go and assist.

In short, we support mentor, and promote women conductors — and that’s what we do.

Irene Delgado-Jiménez. – photo credit, Eulàlia Prat

Irene, you’re the fellow right now. Can you tell me a bit about your experience in the fellowship, but also just a little bit more about you? What instrument did you first start with? Or how did you get into music?

Irene Delgado-Jiménez: So I wanted to play guitar, because I come from the very south of Spain, and many people, people play guitar there. But they said, ‘Oh, you have little hands. So you should start playing piano.’ So, I started with piano, but then I started going to the conservatory. When I was 12 I had to change the conservatory because it wasn’t enough in my city, and it was a terrible change. After three months, I decided I didn’t want [to do] classical music anymore.

But then after two years, when I was 14, my mom died. And I felt like I needed music again, I needed to go for it. When I was 17, I just listened to myself in a conversation and decided, ‘Yeah, I think this is what I want to do.’ And then I came home, I said to my dad, ‘I want to be a conductor.’ And he’s like, ‘Okay, where should we go then?’ I went to Barcelona, and then I did a competition, a conducting competition. I got a special mention and saw the possibility of going to Austria to try it there. So I went to Vienna, and I did my master’s there and started working right before I got my master’s.

And of course, I also followed Marin Alsop. She came to Vienna almost at the same time I came and I moved there. I hadn’t met her before, but it felt like the right thing to do. It’s hard for women and it was harder in Vienna. It’s a very conservative place. We all know that. So I just applied [and] here I am and it’s a life-changing opportunity. It’s really a life-changing opportunity.

It’s interesting hearing a little bit of your story about how you lost your mom, and then you sort of rediscovered music in that way. You wanted to go down this conducting path where you didn’t see a lot of women. And you were without your mom. What was that like for you trying to forge that path for yourself when you didn’t have a model?

Irene: Actually in my city, there were no professional orchestras until [this week], when I founded and I premiered my own orchestra there. All my life actually, I didn’t have many, many opportunities to listen to orchestras live, because there were not many opportunities in my city. Also, my mom was a policewoman, so it was kind of a ‘let’s break barriers.’ She had a difficult time. It was very tough for her. She was one of the first women, police women in the region. So it’s been tough, but she gave me all the strength I need.

Laura, I want to get you involved here. Tell me a little bit about your experience with the fellowship, and I’m curious to know your own story. Growing up, how did you get into music?

Laura Jackson: I grew up in a small town, I was first living in Pennsylvania, and walking through a little cornfield every day to get to go to my little one-hallway elementary school. And I was lucky enough to have a public school program that handed me a violin. Because at the time, my mom was an office assistant, she did not yet have a college education, which she got later. And my dad was an engineer and my brother and sister were into science. And so I was I was sort of the odd duck in that I was so into music. And so I started with the violin and it really was like a love at first sight. And I just never recovered from it basically.

All my dreams for many years were to play in Carnegie Hall and play in a wonderful chamber music group and do all these things. I worked very hard and I had a career as a violinist and I was playing in New England. It was around that time that I had my first opportunity to conduct and it was really more like an educational thing. I was helping young string players learn how to play better together by conducting them and teaching them how to play their instruments. And I remember being home one evening, making dinner. And that night, I heard a radio interview [with] Marin Alsop, and this is in the 1990swhen nobody was doing what she was doing. Just hearing this interview and hearing her talk about music and about her own path and how she had to do so many things for the first time, it was the first experience I had of seeing a woman forging this new way of making a living and forging a place for herself in this career that really was not going to make space.

So when I was studying the violin at an art school I played under a female conductor when I was 15. I never again played under a woman until I was in my late 20s. So seeing a woman on the podium, for me, was something I had never seen. It wasn’t until I heard that radio interview that I even knew that there was somebody else out there that was wanting to do this, like me. So that was an inspiring moment.

I want to talk a little bit about the importance of bringing women together from all over the world, young artists and musicians. What does that mean to you to be able to create that network for women? And secondarily, how can men get more involved? What can men do to support the efforts you all are doing?

Kristin: You know, the community really came together during COVID, which was pretty, pretty horrible for artists. And there were no performances, all concerts got canceled. It actually was an opportunity for all of us to come together online because, of course, we couldn’t travel when everyone is all over the place. So we had all these zoom sessions with different industry leaders who are also sitting at home. We also had some of our conductors share some of the programs they themselves have started. We have quite a lot of entrepreneurs among our group and we started to get to know each other. Because really, unless they came upon each other somewhere over the course of their careers, they just were never going to meet. And so that was really, really wonderful.

This also ties in with your second question about what men can be doing, because there are so many men in leadership positions, it really does fall on them to actually hire women, to actually give opportunities to women and put them in those top positions. Not just hire them for a week and say ‘we did our thing.’ So hire women and give them opportunities, and give them more than one opportunity. Let them come back, let them grow, let them fail. Don’t make it be like, ‘Here’s your one opportunity, don’t blow it. We won’t see you for another decade.’

What we ideally want is for the fellowship to keep growing. And also, we have a mentoring program we started last fall. Laura is one of the mentors. We’re able to mentor 10 different conductors over three years, in addition to the conductors we consider in our pool of conductors. So we’re expanding the network. We’re also giving our 30 conductors an opportunity to teach and to mentor as well.

Reno Philharmonic – image: David Calvert

From your own experience to where we are today, how have you seen things change? Have you seen more doors open for women in classical music?

Laura Jackson: I would say that things have definitely changed. Twenty years ago, I felt like there were just a small handful of women conducting at the professional level, and we all knew each other. Now, there are lots of women that are entering the field, and I see names and people doing high-level concerts, and I don’t even know them all. That’s very exciting. That’s wonderful to see that.

I do think though that it is absolutely not yet a level playing field, and I think that there’s a difference between more and more people entering the field and how many women will be able to sustain through the field over the years. And that comes back to what Kristin was talking about giving women multiple opportunities, not deciding that if they make one mistake or have one ‘not good’ concert that that’s because women shouldn’t be on the podium. But maybe they had a bad day, like the gentleman who conducted the week before. So it’s not making these huge conclusions that women shouldn’t be here, and just letting them come and normalizing it more and more.

You mentioned you didn’t see anyone on the podium, there weren’t those opportunities. What’s the pressure like then when you are given an opportunity? I would imagine there’s a lot of pressure when you’re given those chances.

Irene: It is. I think maybe now with a fellowship, it’s different because they say you can fail. And maybe that is much better psychologically, but you still know that you shouldn’t fail. Because you don’t know how many opportunities you will have. I would say things have changed, but we still have to be careful, because things have to change much more. In my experience, I have always been almost the only woman in every single program, conference, whatever, until I got into the fellowship. I’ve been in Europe. Maybe it’s different here, but I don’t think so actually.

Laura: That kind of makes me crazy to hear that that’s still your experience, because my whole career, all the guest conducting that I’ve done, I am almost always the first woman on that podium. If it’s a smaller level orchestra or whatever, and I still have that happen, where I’m the first woman that they’ve ever had do a concert there. And the fact that you’re having that experience at conferences and in different communities, I find it incredible that we’re still there.

And I will say this: I have been in searches now where I am not the only woman in the pool of finalists. So I feel like there is some change for sure.

Irene: When I did my masters in Vienna, I was the only one [woman]. I wasn’t the first one of course, it’s Vienna. Everybody wants to go there. But I still was the only [woman] in that whole university. There are two universities. There’s another one where they take more people and there are more women. But in my case, I was always almost alone. I mean, I had to wait two years in Barcelona until the second woman entered the university. And I said, ‘Oh, finally.’ That was my first word to her, not, ‘Nice to meet you.’ It was like, ‘Finally.’ Because of course it’s good to have other women around.

Two or three years ago, I was in a master class in Germany and I was the only woman. The first thing they said was, ‘Good morning, everybody. Good morning Irene. We’re so glad to have you here.’ It was like, am I not everyone? I think this [idea] that everything’s changing is also creating some reaction because some people are losing privileges. We have to be careful with this. I think we have to be really careful that we don’t go backward.

I am curious, Kristin, just from your experience, what have you noticed, from your own personal experience to your role now?

Kristin: I would say that I think there are more opportunities for guest conducting and for smaller orchestras, for women who live in the community. There’s a big difference, putting a woman in charge as the leader. They stay, and they shape the organization, and they work with your community, and they build audience. It’s a real position of leadership and it’s very visual. That’s why it’s really important because if you want to see women in leadership roles, being a conductor in a very well-known, well-established orchestra is a huge public display of leadership. And that has not existed.

There’s so much talent out there. We’ve noticed from the last time we held an application for the fellowship, there were 141 women that applied from 40 different nations. And it’s part of the reason why we wanted to start the mentorship programs because we had so many highly-qualified conductors that needed the support and needed the community. I think it’s also really important to not feel like hiring a woman is checking a box, and then you’re done on them.

I’m not saying that there needs to be all women conductors. But there is not even parity. And this notion that there never will be, I think is not going to be in my lifetime.

What is your hope for the future? It sounds like you’re somewhat cautiously optimistic. It sounds like you don’t expect to see parity in your lifetime, so are you hopeful for the direction that classical music is going? Where do you see the future?

Kristin: I feel more hopeful than not hopeful. I’d like to see a woman leading an orchestra and then I’d like to see another one. I’d like to see more women at the medium level of orchestras. We’ve got conductors in our fellowship that have done great work in their orchestras. And then trying to get to the next level, forget about the top level, I want there to be women getting the attention they haven’t gotten. 10% of conductors are women across the world, so we’ve got a long, long way to go. There should be more of them as music directors and more of them on the podium.

Reno Philharmonic – image: David Calvert

Let’s talk about this weekend’s concert. What is it all about?

Laura: So, the Reno Philharmonic is one of ten orchestras worldwide that is taking part in celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Taki Alsop fellowship. So I won the Taki Alsop fellowship back in 2004 and then there are nine other recipients that are music directors around the world, and they are inviting a cellist who is a woman. We’re playing the work of a woman, a female composer. In the middle portion of the concert is three women that are being celebrated in classical music at that moment. That is the way that we’re celebrating the intent of the Taki Alsop fellowship, that is, primarily to lift up women conductors. But it’s [also] to lift up women in classical music.

This will be a very unusual concert, in that you almost never have two conductors on the same program. And that’s what we will have here, and she [Irene] will start the concert for us.

Irene, what are you looking most forward to this weekend about the show?

Irene: There are so many things I’m looking forward to actually. I really wanted to work with Laura, because our mission is actually the same, just on the other side of the world. And isn’t that beautiful?

I think the mission she has here with the Reno Philharmonic is great. I’m really interested in what she does on the podium and off the podium. I’m very much looking forward to meeting the orchestra, too. I think it’s going to be a great opportunity. I want you to enjoy this weekend and I’m really looking forward to everything. I can’t make any highlight because everything’s great.

Irene, you mentioned earlier that there wasn’t a symphony or any sort of professional orchestra in your hometown, especially not a female-led one until you showed up and brought your show there. What was that feeling like coming back home and putting on that show?

Irene: It’s crazy. And to be honest, I can’t still believe that it happened. It’s been two years of working with this organization and we decided to put this orchestra together in October. I wanted to bring something to my place and I wanted to bring music where there isn’t any. I wanted to bring music to people who really feel the need for it. And it’s been hard. We are a team of four people. Two of them are volunteers, and then it’s a producer and it’s me.

But we made it and it sold out. People don’t care if I’m a woman. We are changing things. We are changing the world by just doing what I think it has to be.

And then Laura, if there’s a little girl, whether it’s in small-town Pennsylvania or somewhere else, that comes across this interview, what would you say to her? What would be your message to her?

Laura: I would say listen to the voice of your own soul about how you spend your days. If there is something that you burn to do, you must follow that and make that happen. Even if the world is telling you it’s not possible. It is and the world needs each of us to shine in a way that is authentic and fully ourselves. And societal expectations must never get in the way of that.

Editor’s Note: This interview was edited slightly for length and clarity.

A photo of Noah Glick, in a radio studio with a microphone sitting to the side of his face.

Noah Glick is the Executive Editor for the Sierra Nevada Ally. He is an award-winning journalist, writer, and audio and podcast producer, whose work has been heard nationally on NPR, Marketplace, Here & Now, and more. He is a multiple regional Edward R. Murrow Award winner for his reporting on climate, energy, and housing.

Founded in 2020, the Sierra Nevada Ally is a self-reliant 501c3 nonprofit publication with no paywall, a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, offering unique, differentiated reporting, factual news, civics information, and explanatory journalism on the environment, conservation, and public policy, while giving voice to writers, filmmakers, visual artists, and performers. We rely on the generosity of our readers; please donate here.


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