A female conductor joins the ranks of top U.S. orchestras

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A female conductor joins the ranks of top U.S. orchestras
Nathalie Stutzmann at Atlanta Symphony Hall, Oct. 10, 2021. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra announced on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, that it had chosen Stutzmann, a conductor and singer from France, as its next music director. Audra Melton/The New York Times.

by Javier C. Hernández

NEW YORK, NY.- The 25 largest orchestras in the United States have something in common: Not one is led by a woman.

But that is about to change. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra announced Wednesday that it had chosen Nathalie Stutzmann, a conductor and singer from France, as its next music director.

Stutzmann, 56, will be only the second woman in history to lead a top-tier U.S. orchestra when she takes the podium in Atlanta next year. She follows Marin Alsop, whose tenure as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra ended in August after 14 years.

Stutzmann said she hoped her selection would inspire other orchestras to appoint women.

“I’m not looking for a world dominated by women,” she said in a video call. “I’m just looking for equality — that we will one day not be considered as a minority, but as musicians, conductors and maestros.”

A renowned contralto known for performances of works by Mahler, Handel and Bach, Stutzmann began her conducting career only about a decade ago. She has rapidly risen in the field and last year was appointed principal guest conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. She also serves as chief conductor of the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra in Norway.

British conductor Simon Rattle, a longtime mentor of Stutzmann, said her background in singing would guide the sound of the Atlanta Symphony.

“What she will do is give them more colors and more daring and more shape,” Rattle said in an interview. “She’s a wonderfully warm and explosive personality.”

Conducting, a field long dominated by men, did not always seem like a viable career path for Stutzmann, the daughter of opera singers who grew up near Paris. As a 15-year-old studying at a French conservatory, she said her music teachers discouraged her from pursuing conducting because of her gender.

“It was very clear to me early on that there was no chance for me to achieve my dream as a conductor,” she said. “I knew it was a disaster. I couldn’t even learn, so it was so hard and so frustrating.”

Stutzmann instead focused on singing, winning major competitions and engagements. Her career took off in 1984, when, at 19, she substituted for the American soprano Jessye Norman in Paris. She became one of the industry’s best-known contraltos — the female singers with the lowest vocal range — touring widely and making more than 80 recordings.

“The contralto is not heading the way of the California condor just yet,” The New York Times wrote in 1995. “Hope is arriving in the form of Nathalie Stutzmann, a lanky young Parisian with eyes as deep and dusky as her voice.”

Even as her singing career flourished, Stutzmann made a point of studying conducting informally, closely observing the maestros she performed with. She eventually found mentors in Rattle and Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa, and began lessons with Jorma Panula, the eminent Finnish conductor and teacher.

Stutzmann loved singing. But she found conducting electrifying.

“When you sing you have only one line, one melody,” she said. “When you conduct you have a hundred lines in your hands. The repertoire is immense. The joy of mutual music-making for me was a revelation. It was exactly like my dreams — maybe it was even better than my dreams.”

Stutzmann, the fifth music director in the Atlanta Symphony’s 76-year history, will work to build on the legacy of Robert Spano, who recently stepped down to become the music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

During his 20-year tenure, Spano helped raise the orchestra’s profile and was a champion of music by living composers. But there were also challenges, including persistent deficits that resulted in steep pay cuts for the musicians in 2012, when they agreed to be paid for fewer than 52 weeks a year, and a pair of lockouts.

Stutzmann, who will begin an initial four-year contract starting with the 2022-23 season, said she would maintain the ensemble’s tradition of playing contemporary music. But she said she was also eager to bring in more French music, as well as Baroque works.

“In a way, the symphony orchestras don’t dare to play this repertoire,” she said of the Baroque. “But to play this music for a symphony orchestra is as important as playing Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich and Ravel — everything — because it’s very difficult, it’s very healthy, it’s very pure, it’s very imaginative.”

This week she will appear in Atlanta leading a program of Verdi, Tchaikovsky and American composer Missy Mazzoli.

Stutzmann said she hoped to find ways to bring the orchestra closer to the Atlanta community — with, for example, projects combining music and dance, including genres like hip-hop.

Jennifer Barlament, the Atlanta Symphony’s executive director, said the orchestra had considered more than 80 people in its search, which began in January 2018. But after three guest appearances, Stutzmann stood out for her chemistry with the players and her knowledge of choral works. (The orchestra has an acclaimed chorus from its time being led by Robert Shaw.)

“It’s clear that musicians love working with her,” Barlament said.

Stutzmann’s appointment comes amid a broader reckoning in classical music over a history of discrimination on the basis of gender and race. Some believe that change could be on the horizon: Roughly a third of the music directors at the 25 largest U.S. orchestras are planning to step down over the next several years. (And some smaller organizations, including the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic, currently have female music directors.)

Alsop, the first woman to lead a top-tier American ensemble, praised the selection of Stutzmann, describing her as a gifted musician.

“She’s worked very, very hard at her conducting,” Alsop said in an interview. “She’s a natural talent, but it’s clear that she’s really invested the time and the energy and brought her profound musical experience, artistic experience, to the podium.”

Alsop said she was hopeful that Stutzmann would be one of several women to win major posts in the coming years.

“I hope it starts a trend,” Alsop said. “It’s a start. Let’s go, people.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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