Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

When Classical Music Meets Reality TV

by sarah - September 18th, 2008

I suppose it was only a matter of time before television directors, perhaps desperate for a new idea, attempted an unorthodox and possibly fatal combination: classical music and popular culture. Enter Maestro, a British reality program that challenges celebrities to become orchestral conductors. The eight competitors included broadcaster Peter Snow, hip hop star Goldie, actress Jane Asher, actor David Soul and bassist for the band Blur, Alex James.


The show maintained a standard reality-show format. Each competitor had a mentor, practiced diligently, and was judged by experts, who included Sir Roger Norrington. I am, quite honestly, amazed at the popularity and success of the show, which first aired in early August and just broadcast its finale on Sept. 13 on BBC2. However, I do not believe that it is a show that American broadcasting companies are likely to suggest in the near future. However, far more interesting than its existence was the diligence that seemed to have been taken in the structure of the program. Unbelievably, the historic precedent of gendered bias that has pervaded the field of conducting was seemingly broken.

Of the eight celebrities competing for the prize (to lead the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms), there were three women. Thought not a perfect ratio, certainly, we must also recognize that two of the four judges were also women. (Simone Young, Music Director and General Manager of the State Opera Hamburg and Music Director of the Philharmonic State Orchestra Hamburg, and Zoe Martlew, cellist, composer, and performance artist.) The producers even demonstrated their effort by including two women in the group of eight mentors that the celebrities worked with throughout the competition. However, it can be duly noted that most of the pieces performed were written by dead, white men (except for some of the pieces from the film music episode that were written by still living, white men).

The impact of the show appeared to be far-reaching (at least with what I have been able to tell via the Internet), including dialogue about the lack of presence of women conductors. British conductor Madeleine Lovell, who prepared the BBC Symphony Chorus for an episode of Maestro, published a commentary in the Independent. Charlotte Higgins, blogger for the Guardian, also posted her commentary about the program, and invited readers to add their own thoughts via comments.

With all of the public conversation about the place of classical women in popular television, and the place of women in classical music at all, I think the best part was the winner: writer, comedian Sue Perkins. Ms. Perkins conducted Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, led soprano Lesley Garrett in “Merce dilette amiche” from Verdi’s The Sicilian Vespers and “The Impossible Dream” from The Man of La Mancha during the Sept. 13 finale. It makes me wonder as to how many other women have had the honor to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra, but I haven’t been able to find a complete history yet.

Though it doesn’t surprise me that I did not learn of the program until long after its completion, I am very sorry to have missed it, and to have missed living through it as it was happening in the UK – if only to overhear water-cooler conversation. (Imagine what the conversations would have been like if the controversy about the appointment of Marin Alsop to the Baltimore Orchestra was broadcast during prime time!) The show website is still up and running, though viewers from outside of the UK cannot access the videos. But, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you can still see some clips. Here’s one of Sue Perkins in action with the Bruch Violin Concerto:


And (one of my favorites) conducting the theme from The Simpsons:


Considering the success, perhaps we should keep our eyes and ears open for a second season next year. Till then, I’ll work on some brilliant ideas to convince the bigwigs on this side of the pond that American audiences are ready for its own version of Maestro, with a similar awareness to bridging the still all-too-present gender divide.