Women conductors are no longer the rarest form of musical Earthling

San Francisco Symphony hosts multiple leading talents this May

After centuries of gender discrimination and a terrible time until even the late 20th century, women conductors are no longer the rarest form of musical Earthling.

I followed the subject for decades during the bad old times, and have noticed that San Francisco tends to value ability more than gender. Indeed, today the San Francisco Opera has Eun Sun Kim as its music director and a third of San Francisco Symphony’s guest conductors are women. This is still not equality, but certainly progress.

It’s been a long, difficult journey from 1930 when Antonia Brico became the first woman to lead the S.F. Symphony in a summer concert in the Civic Auditorium. To understand how difficult those years were, consider that it took four decades after that 1930 event before Sarah Caldwell became the first woman to lead the San Francisco Symphony in a subscription concert in 1977.

So it’s all the more important to see what’s happening in Davies Hall this month:

– On May 5, 7-8, Xian Zhang conducts the San Francisco Symphony orchestra. She is music director of the New Jersey Symphony, and a veteran of decades of European appearances; she was associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Her programs include San Francisco premieres of Nokuthula Ngwenyama’s “Primal Message” and Florence Price’s Piano Concerto.

May 13-15 will return Karina Canellakis to the Davies Hall podium. The 41-year-old chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic leads the orchestra and cellist Alisa Weilerstein in a program of Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote,” Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, and the S.F. Symphony premiere of Lili Boulanger’s “D’un soir triste” (On a sad evening), written in 1917, a year before she died at age 24.

– On May 17, it’s Julia Bullock’s “History’s Persistent Voice” — she is not a conductor, but does everything else. This young, distinguished S.F. Symphony collaborative partner is a renowned singer, producer, director and organizer. For this program, she is bringing along her husband, the conductor Christian Reif, well-known here as the Symphony’s former resident conductor and music director of the SFS Youth Orchestra.

May 26-28 will have Nathalie Stutzmann lead concerts of works by Brahms and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. Just becoming the Atlanta Symphony’s music director, Stutzman is only the second woman in history to lead a major American orchestra (after Marin Alsop led the Baltimore Orchestra from 2007 to 2021). Stutzmann is also the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal guest conductor.

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