I’m going to get on my woman conductor soapbox for just a moment here. I try not to do this too often. I prefer to be regarded for my musicianship, upon which my gender has no bearing. Yet…
I have been intrigued by previews of the film “Tar,” and I’m gathering up courage to see it myself and form my own opinion. I’m hesitant, because I’m certain it will infuriate me. I am concerned that a film finally focusing on the phenomenon of a world-class woman conductor (which should not even be a phenomenon in the first place) evidently paints such a pathetically power-hungry portrait. Women have fought too long and hard for the precious little podium time we are afforded, and for which we are still fighting. This may be an interesting story to tell about any conductor of any gender, but its timing right now for women makes me wince. The first time I read about the film, I honestly thought to myself, “Ouch! That’s gonna hurt.”
This hits close to home for me, folks. Marin Alsop (who is quoted in Zachary Woolfe’s NY Times article) is a hero of mine, but she is not as rare and singular a talent as we’ve been led to believe, and she’d be the first to point that out. Many aspiring women my age chose a different path from Marin because the symphonic conducting world was unquestionably closed to us and we had families to feed, clothe, and shelter. I didn’t have the time or resources to blaze a new trail in my twenties and thirties. I just had to get on with my life – so, although it broke my heart (and infuriated one beloved mentor who desperately wanted me to be that trailblazer), I veered away from orchestral conducting for years and years. I’m happy the path is more open to younger non-males now, but I know in my heart those shoes could have been very capably filled by me and many others years ago. I sincerely hope this fictional story doesn’t become a damaging stereotype that sends us back to the dark ages of male-dominated symphonic conduction. On a broader scale, I hope it doesn’t undermine the art of conducting in general.
I know a lot of conductors, and they are truly special people. I can count on one hand the number I have encountered who are more focused on their own power trip than making great music and bringing people together through human empathy and beauty. This film is just not reality people.
By the time anyone achieves the level of musical mastery and synthesis necessary for the conducting of masterworks, everything has been stripped away except humility, grace, and gratefulness. It’s okay to acknowledge one’s own talent and erudition, and believe me – you need a little bit of hard-earned ego to get up there and wield that baton – or as I like to say: “drive the bus.” But, never fear. We get stripped of the ugly stuff pretty quickly in this particular art form. There’s nothing quite as daunting as a group of 50 or more seasoned, professional-level instrumentalists staring you down, knowing they can collectively squash you like a bug if you miss more than two or three cues or land too many tempos outside that acceptable 2-click margin of metronomic error. It’s not a game. It’s not meaningless “arm-flapping.” It’s not self-absorption. We must have the genuine goods, folks. We absolutely need to have our sh*t together or we will be eaten alive. Symphonic musicians are not interested in goofing around and having their time wasted, and rightfully so – they worked hard to get where they are, too. They will chew you up and spit you out long before the critics do. By natural selection, those conductors left standing at the end of the day are not what this film depicts.
This film is fiction. It is just old-fashioned story-telling. It’s probably compelling, artful, a cinematic triumph, and perhaps even symbolic – but it is still fiction. Please remember that.
Well, it’s time for me to hop off my soapbox now. I have scores to study and musicians to lead, lovingly, respectfully, and gratefully – always.