November 30, 1999
Women step up to the conductor's podium
By Gloria Billiard
"I always had this conviction that this is what I was supposed to be doing, and that it was OK for me to do this. And I think for a woman, this is very important."
So says Gisèle Ben-Dor, music director and conductor of the Santa Barbara Symphony. A mother of two and protégé of Leonard Bernstein, the Uruguay-born musician has held her position for five years.
She's one of a handful of women in a business traditionally dominated by prominent men. You've heard of Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, Andre Previn, Robert Shaw.
Do you know Sarah Caldwell, the first women to conduct for New York's Metropolitan Opera? That was a production of Giuseppe Verdi's "La Traviata" in 1976.
How about Iona Brown, of the Chamber Orchestra of Los Angeles? Prior to her direction of that company, she was director of that company, she was director of London's acclaimed Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
Along with Ben-Dor, they're part of a not-so-quiet revolution in certain opera houses and concert halls. There, women are turning their backs on tradition - and the audience - and taking up the baton.
"I like to tell them what to do, which is very arrogant when you say it," Ben-Dor says.
For those who have wielded a pencil or other makeshift baton to a recorded piece of music, it may look easy to wave the real thing in front of a group of professional musicians. The music is the music, after all, and the musicians have all played it before. But beware taking the conductor for granted, Ben-Dor says - "(You) stand in front of a live group and try to do it, and see what comes out of the orchestra."
Her success at getting "what comes out" to sound good is supported by the guest-conducting spots she's held: the London Symphony, the Boston Pops, the Israel Chamber Orchestra are all on her résumé.
She's also in demand as a recording conductor, with a contract with BMG/Conifer for several new discs.
When she walks onto the stage, Ben-Dor says, "I feel everything is right with the world. ... When I am on the podium, I think I try to become the music, become the actual music."
It may not be a common profession for a woman. But, "there's no reason it shouldn't be," says the married mother of two, with a laugh.
"Actually, for a married woman with children, I recommend it."