Resources Provocation paper

Maestra: a Changing Model for Arts Leadership

In this paper, Clore 14 Fellow Marianna Hay explores how the approach of the ‘Maestra’ could serve as a blueprint for leadership in the arts more broadly.

Group of ten young people, holdoing various music instruments and red t-shirts with 'National Orchestra for All' written on them.
Orchestras for All

Marianna is Founder and Artistic Director of Orchestras for All (OFA). OFA’s mission is to unlock access to the life-changing experience of ensemble and orchestral music-making for 11-18 year olds with complex lives.Through OFA’s three programmes, including its unique non-auditioned, mixed ability youth orchestra, the organisation works with more than 450 young people and 60 schools across the country each year. Marianna has also worked in several freelance strategy roles, including writing policy for Teach First on its music education strategy. She trained and worked as a music teacher through the Teach First programme 2007-2010.

Setting the Scene

One of the most powerful, universal and iconic images of leadership in the arts is that of the great orchestral conductor. Summon up this image and we immediately visualise the ‘maestro’: a white male in late middle age (Arturo Toscanini, Herbert Von Karajan) commanding a (largely male) orchestra with an almost mystic degree of authority. He is the lone genius interpreting the works of other great geniuses.

Whilst the number of professional male conductors continues to significantly outweigh the number of female conductors (of 61 full member orchestras in the Association of British Orchestras there are 100 titled roles for conductors, of which only four positions are held by women), this traditional image of the maestro is complicated in today’s context by a number of factors. Firstly, it is outmoded – a new generation of conductors has significantly reimagined the role of conductor for the 21st century. Increasingly, conductors are judged not just on the basis of their ability to deliver spellbinding performances, but also on their willingness to collaborate with others, reach out to new audiences and communities, and act as an advocate and ambassador for the world of classical music. Secondly, in the recent climate of Me Too and Time’s Up, we are witnessing the problems that arise when men are given too much power. The world of classical music has not escaped, with high profile sexual assault allegations against conductors such as James Levine and Charles Dutoit recently coming to light. Thirdly, and the main focus of this essay, is that this traditional image of the maestro ignores the relatively recent phenomenon of the ‘maestra’ – a growing group of high-profile female conductors who are leading the way in carving out a leadership style on and off the podium that is both powerful and authoritative, whilst also open, collaborative and connected.

Two questions arise from this third point. Firstly, how are these women so effective in embodying the holy grail of leadership – one that, in the opinion of the author, seemingly and effortlessly combines authority with collaboration, power and kindness? What are some of the commonalities of their leadership style? Secondly, could their approach serve as a blueprint for leadership in the arts more broadly – for men and women, and across multiple fields (in the arts and beyond)?

In this paper I will specifically be focusing on three maestras: Marin Alsop, current music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) (the first woman to hold this position with a major American orchestra) and the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra; Mirga Gra inyt -Tyla, the current music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) (the orchestra which ultimately launched the international career of Sir Simon Rattle) and Sian Edwards, previously the music director at English National Opera (ENO) and now head of conducting at the Royal Academy of Music.

Leadership traits: The Maestro

In order to fully understand the context from which the maestra has emerged, it is helpful first to explore it in more depth in relation to the common leadership traits traditionally associated with the maestro. 

Ego is a word commonly linked to the maestro, whether it’s the conductor who flies home after the first rehearsal citing irreconcilable differences, Arturo Toscanini’s infamous podium rages, or Herbert von Karajan’s habit of conducting with his eyes shut in order better to communicate with the dead composer, forcing members of the orchestra not only to play to his command but also into a state of high anxiety about interpreting his internalised wishes. 

Humiliation is another tool in the traditional maestro’s quiver. Sir Thomas Beecham’s famous remark to a female cellist is just one example. ‘Madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands and all you can do is scratch it” , was, until recently, thought to be a superb example of Sir Thomas’s wit. David Gregory, a violinist with the CBSO for 37 years notes, “When I first joined the profession, a number of conductors were sheer tyrants and they really didn’t care if we liked them or not” .

Even in more enlightened times, emphasis on hierarchy and the patriarchy is another commonality, with conductors such as Jaap van Zweden, the incoming music director of the New York Philharmonic referring to himself and his role (apparently without irony) as the “father” of the orchestra. 

Post-war conductors such as von Karajan were no different from say, Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, when it came to projecting an aura of wealth, power and celebrity. This, of course, has not disappeared. Many maestros still command huge fees. A few still have vanity projects and Lear jets at their disposal; and some still behave like corporate leaders, with an entourage of agents, managers and PR teams – one egregious recent example being that of James Levine who was paid $1.8 million for the 2015-16 season at the Met, when he conducted just four operas. 

However, doubts have begun to appear about this model (as they have about the Jack Welch model at General Electric).  Whilst many of the traditional maestros produced spell binding performances, there is an increasing feeling that their approach was not always conducive to the best possible artistic outcome, even if their musicianship and talent was beyond doubt. David Gregory, the CBSO violinist who noted that the conductors he worked with in his early years couldn’t have cared less about the members of the orchestra also went on to say “But they would never get the best out of the orchestra” . As the music critic Ivan Hewitt has noted, excessive power in the context of music, is, in fact, anti-creative. “‘Jung liked to say that “where love is lacking, power fills the vacuum” . Artists like Herbert von Karajan actually shunned creativity, turning music, Hewitt writes, “into a luxury consumer item”. And von Karajan’s recordings, he notes, have not always stood the test of time.

It should also be emphasised that not all great male maestros have behaved badly or like spoilt tyrants – Carlos Kleiber, regarded by many as one of the greatest conductors of all time, was noted for his self-effacing style and focus on musicianship rather than personal gain. Many male conductors working today, such as Sir Simon Rattle, Robin Ticciati, Gustavo Dudamel and Daniel Harding operate very differently. Social mores have changed rapidly; a sustained challenge is being mounted against the conflation of male power with sexual abuse; and bullying, in particular, has come under the spotlight as toxically damaging to mental health. Elsewhere, the very concept of the ‘lone genius’ itself has come under close academic scrutiny. 

Yet despite these shifts in terms of attitude and approach, the role of conductor, even now, is still one of the toughest and least common jobs in the arts to take on as a woman (even in the course of writing this essay, ‘maestro’ is a recognised word on the computer’s spellchecker, ‘maestra’ is not). Whilst this paper is not about the battles women conductors have had to fight to get to where they are today, there is still a degree of exceptionalism that defines them, marking out their achievements as leaders all the more remarkable. 

Leadership traits: The Maestra

Whilst all three case studies in this paper differ significantly in terms of personality, conducting style and interpretation of some of the great works, certain commonalities in terms of leadership style are evident, with each in her own way managing to deliver a distinctive combination of power and connectedness. 

The first thing to note is that in terms of subject knowledge, musicianship and technique they have all undergone the highest possible level of training and mentoring and are, without any doubt, leading experts in their field. A total command of their subject matter is the fundamental starting point in terms of creating authority. As CBSO’s CEO notes, “She [Mirga] has a self-confidence and inner strength not to make it overtly about themselves. You have to believe you’re right but that doesn’t have to manifest itself in being monsters to the people around you… You respect anyone who is able to their job well” . These leaders are able to walk into a room and be granted silence as a basic starting point– they command respect and attention because the players have complete confidence in their vision and skill.

At the same time, the extent to which they are deeply reflective and humble about their practice and their openness in terms of much they still want to learn and develop is a further striking commonality. “I find rehearsing a tremendous challenge” says Sian “that’s the area where most conductors are really stretched to be able to think very quickly and diagnose what’s happening…. when an orchestra offers you things that you haven’t thought of before, it’s marvellous to actually then be able to say, “Oh yes, that’s wonderful. Yes, absolutely!  Let’s do it like that!”  I can cancel something else I thought of. I’d love to be able to work like that” . Mirga too talks about her journey with the CBSO as one of continuous learning ‘there are lots of things to discover and learn still”.

Alongside this, all three are united in their unwillingness to self-define as ‘female’ conductors, let alone rage against the patriarchy. They do not view themselves as ‘female’ conductors or like to be identified as such– instead they want to be perceived as ‘conductors’ based on their artistry and skill as musicians. “From my perspective, it is not a question” states Mirga, “I was always trying to do the job, to make music and do the best I can” . Her own career was never hindered by her gender. Indeed, she insists that the question of gender as a barrier “never even occurred”  to her. On announcing her appointment at CBSO too, the press team approached this issue with extreme care, deliberately not describing her as CBSO’s first woman female music director. “That’s not the lead for us” their Head of Marketing states, “the story is she is this amazing musician and conductor” . On Marin Alsop’s appointment at BSO (one that was initially riddled with controversy and concern about her suitability for the post in part, she herself recognises, because she was a woman) her only goal she says “was to be successful for them” . 

However, it is striking the way in which all three conductors talk about their work in terms of collaboration and the importance of making others feel valued, respected and listened to. Ahead of taking up her new role in 2019 with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Marin talks about “sharing the same enthusiasm for expanding the repertoire with the orchestra and for connecting with new audiences”. She goes onto say “I am deeply moved by the fact that the players instigated my appointment, and I can’t wait to start this journey with them” . 

Similarly, when asked why she wanted to come to Birmingham and take up the post, Mirga spoke first and foremost about the collaborative and creative spirit of the orchestra that appealed to her. She went onto say it “would be a great privilege to work with them….making music is nothing else other than communication and the connection between the musicians – seeing each other, hearing each other is the crucial part of making music” . Mirga is reflective on the changing status of the conductor – “it is so much more about team and everyone has his or her tasks and we are doing it together. Giving the direction [to the team] is the main task” . She has worked closely with the orchestra since taking up the post, engaging them collectively in setting goals and how they imagine the orchestra developing in the future. Her relationship with the individual players is key to her success – indeed she spent ten minutes hugging every member of the orchestra after her first concert and describes their relationship like “a friendship…..we grow together over a long period of time” . As CBSO’s CEO notes, her ambition for success primarily lies with others – “Mirga is ambitious for the orchestra, for Birmingham, for classical music – ambition for her own career as well but no more than is more and proper to get the job done” .

Sian Edwards too stresses the importance of collaboration, especially in the context of guest conducting an orchestra: “the first thing is to find out what is there, and really just to try to offer to the group some ideas of sound and interpretation without expecting that they’re going to take, or want to take on everything because they work in certain ways, and you sense where the boundaries are”. “The whole process of music-making”, Sian states, “should be a collaborative one, and it’s a question of how that evolves”.

The traditional concept of the conductor as lone genius working in isolation, at one remove from the members of the orchestra and in a different, even superior spiritual realm, is not relevant to these leaders. Indeed, they speak warmly of one another and their colleagues and have set up programmes and systems to support and develop younger conductors. Marin Alsop has set up conducting training courses and masterclasses for young women and teaches at the Peabody Conservatory. Sian Edwards has taken on the role of Head of Conducting at the Royal Academy of Music but is also passionate about training music teachers as conductors and supporting those leading all types of ensembles, orchestras and choirs.

This is not to say these artists they are not risk takers – they are, like all great leaders. But they recognise the need to build trust with their players first in order to make taking these risks possible. Mirga talks frequently about “reaching for the impossible”  for the CBSO but recognising the need to spend the time together with the orchestra, analysing what is already working well and understanding where fresh impulses are required. 

These three conductors are also united in their demonstration of authenticity and consistency across a range of contexts whether that is conducting in the finest concert halls in the world, or leading a classroom of young people or a group of amateurs in rehearsal. I was struck by the serious of intent with which Sian approached conducting the Musical Chairs Orchestra – an amateur, scratch orchestra made up of young people and beginner adults which she led at my charity Orchestras for All’s fundraising day. Many of the musicians in the Musical Chairs orchestra had only been playing a few short weeks but she treated the orchestra like professionals, worked everyone extremely hard with total commitment and genuinely cared about the musical result produced in the concert at the end of the day. Similarly, a recent performance conducted by Marin of Bernstein’s Mass in the Royal Festival Hall with 500 young people and community musicians was striking in its integrity and commitment with which she approached it. “I don’t think creating an atmosphere of accessibility and inclusion takes away at all from one’s artistic excellence” Marin states. “In fact, I think it actually adds to it. I believe that diversity in every form and collaboration creates depths of experience and richness of experience” . Indeed, she regularly talks about the two goals of having a human experience and striving for perfection and the act of bringing those two goals together. As a young person in Marin’s OrchKids programme describes her “I thought she’d be uptight and stiff and square but then I saw her conducting and talking to everyone like they were her colleagues” .Leading on from this point, another common theme is the extent to which all three conductors place an emphasis on education and inclusivity.

As mentioned above, this paper is not about the struggle it took for these three maestras to reach where they are today, particularly given that Mirga and Sian deny that being female held them back. Nonetheless, it can be argued that being female has given them an acute sense of the barriers that do exist to participation in music and an equally strong determination to tear these down. They recognise the paths others have paved for them – “I’m aware there were many colleagues of mine fighting to achieve the openness in society”  says Mirga.

This is reflected strongly in their interest in public engagement with classical music. When Marin first took over the BSO, she took the orchestra to the city airport to announce the new season and gave passers by the chance to conduct. She has been known to buy donuts for everyone lining up for tickets on concert days. And she works hard to instil this approach in her players. Every player in the orchestra mentors a young person on the BSO’s OrchKids programme (in their own time and without re-muneration) and she is constantly encouraging them to expand their frame of reference when thinking about their role as an orchestral musician. “Sometimes it’s all in the way you open the doors – we should make it as open and fun and as comfortable as possible” . 

Mirga too talks of the importance of the role of the orchestra and conductor to bring music to others, with plans to take the orchestra to unusual locations around Birmingham. She is questioning and reflective – “what is our role in society, how can we move people? How can we find ways to reach the young people of Birmingham, how can we go out and fill Birmingham with music?”. “For all of us” she continues, “the things we experience in childhood make such an impact for our whole lives so if we find ways of having kids with us here in the symphony hall, talking to them, playing for them, definitely we will plant at least a little seed of desire for music for life” . 

A leadership blueprint? 

It is, of course, important not to caricature the differences between the ‘great maestro’, and the maestras discussed here. As mentioned above, leading male conductors such as Simon Rattle and Gustavo Dudamel have done much to develop the role of the conductor with outstanding artistic results. Nonetheless, it can be said that over the last 15 years there has been an identifiable change in the style of the role, away from the ‘great maestro’ and his all-powerful, top-down and sometimes abusive behaviour, towards a very different set of leadership traits, personified in the three maestras. I would like to conclude by suggesting that the leadership characteristics they have in common point to not just a new approach to conducting, but to arts leadership more generally. They have a high degree of expertise and skill in their chosen field but continue to learn. They are authoritative yet collaborative. They are decisive but reflective. They know that taking risks involves building trust. They are authentic, consistent, inclusive, and humble. 

Could this be a blueprint for an effective leadership style for others in other fields? As accusations of harassment, bullying, manipulation and exploitation by some of the previously most revered and respected leaders of society and the arts emerge, leaders (men in particular) are facing a crisis of confidence in terms of how they should act in a professional context especially when in positions of power. In spite of their rejection of a gendered role, perhaps the maestras can show men, as well as women, the way forward. As patriarchy slowly makes way for more democratic social structures, and men (and women) grapple with how to lead in this new, ever shifting paradigm, we could perhaps do worse than turning to these maestras as our new icons – as great conductors and but also as great leaders for the 21st century.

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