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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Editorial: CBC Classical music gender gap article poses new questions

By Michael Vincent on April 5, 2014

image: Rob Destrub
image: Rob Destrub

Last week I reported on a story regarding an article written by CBC music blogger Michael Morreale titled “Classical music’s shocking gender gap”.

It proved to be a controversial article and it prompted a number of very vocal responses by staff and supporters of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

VSO Conductor, Bramwell Tovey

No one was more outspoken than VSO conductor Bramwell Tovey, who alluded in a flurry of tweets that the article was inaccurate and unfairly pointed fingers at the VSO and other Canadian orchestras.

The article’s premise stated: “anywhere in Canada, you are statistically likely to see a male concerto soloist onstage.”

The hypothesis was backed up by data suggesting orchestras in Canada’s four largest cities (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa) have a disproportionately lower number of females performing concertos in the 2014-2015 season.

The kicker: “It’s a shocking gender gap among classical music’s soloists and conductors, and talented women are being prevented from having the successful careers they deserve.”

The article then presented a graphic that showed males had dominated concerto performances over the 2014-15 season in four Canadian orchestras (VSO, NACO, TSO and OSM).

The question is: a.) was the data correct  b.) was it enough to point fingers at the four named orchestras and  c.) was this fair editorial journalism?

He said she said and the unfortunate pie chart

Gender divisions are certainly a valid and important point of discussion in Canada’s classical music scene, but this story in particular has presented some problems as to how we can fairly assess these potential divisions without falsely directing blame at organisations. Organizations which are in many ways responsible for building a more balanced playing field for Canada’s talented female composers, performers, conductors and administrators.

In a follow-up interview with CBC music reporter Michael Morreale, I asked him to elaborate on why he decided to write the article in the first place.

Marin Alsop’s debut as the first female conductor of the Last Night, 2013

He stated that it began on the heels of an “international conversation which heated up this past September” with the American conductor, Marin Alsop who was selected as the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms.

With “It’s a girl” balloons floating about, Alsop spoke during the historic event, stating “a lot has been made of me being the first woman to conduct the last night of the Proms… but I have to say I’m still quite incredibly shocked that it could be 2013 and there can be firsts for women.”

Only one-week prior to Alsop’s historic gig, Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko had publicly suggested that “cute” female conductors on the podium were not a good idea because they posed a distraction to male orchestra musicians.

Many were shocked that in this day and age a world-class conductor could have made such an outrageously sexist comment. Beyond Petrenko, the main worry was that perhaps his comments were indicative of a more pervasive attitude towards the role of women in classical music.

The word is still out on that, but Morreale affirmed his intent was to continue the conversation “from a Canadian perspective.”

His article was in a two-part form, and reported on the female experience in classical music and attempted to localize that experience by framing it within the context of a series of statistics intended to support a claim that some of Canada’s largest orchestras were complicit in gender discrimination.

Over a series of furious tweets, VSO’s Bramwell Tovey held little back: “The VSO has been accused by CBCMusic of gender discrimination over its choice of soloists in an article by a journalist who has contrived a statistic in a false manner and failed to conduct a fact-check.”

I decided to do a little fact checking myself and I found Morreale’s statics were mostly accurate, with the exception of the VSO, which were originally reported as 30% female and 70% male and later revised at 33% female and 67% male. The CBC has since updated the article to reflect these updated numbers.

According to Alan Gove, Vice-President of Marketing and Sales at the VSO, “Whether the statistic used by the writer is correct or not… the fact is that it is utterly insufficient to support a serious allegation.” Gove adds, “…I can’t help but wonder […] what the headline would have been if this occurred to the writer three seasons ago and he took a single slice of datum then, when the ratio was skewed heavily toward female artists.”

Gove stated that the heart of VSO’s dispute is the language used in the article. “By choosing this language […] the central thesis of the article becomes an accusation that the VSO does this consciously and on purpose. This cannot be tolerated, and is an egregious example of irresponsible journalism.”

Morreale points out, “We do not accuse Mr. Tovey or the VSO of anything specific, rather we point out a broader issue within classical music. The conversation that has been taking place since the article proves that is an important issue.”

The problem I see with Morreale’s point is that by naming the VSO in the stats, it connects them with the idea of a “shocking gender gap”.

Gove actually went so far as to suggest this accusation constitutes libel. “…whether or not the CBC intended for this very serious accusation to be made against us is not relevant – the fact is that they tacitly support the blatant accusation, by the very fact that this article was given the green light by Mr. Morreale’s editor(s), who in turn represent the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.”

Morreale digs in his heels: “This was an opinion piece, based on facts, and it was not sensationalist” he responded. “This is an important discussion and we are encouraged to see that so many members of the Canadian classical music community are participating. This discourse and discussion reinforces our belief that this article adds value to the conversation […] Myself, Jonas Woost (Managing Editor, CBC Music) and Brad Frenette (Senior Producer, Editorial) continue to stand behind this article.”

In the comments section of the article, a few allude to the fact that by looking at such a small slice of data, (a single season of concerto performances) it inadequately represents the more important point that the presence of women are increasing and on well on their way, if not already, to becoming equals.

Morreale added, “It is important for us to paint the clearest possible picture so that our readers can have a fair discussion about gender equality in classical music.”

The clearest possible picture is certainly not found in an isolated stratum of data, that at best takes the reader down a hall of mirrors, which distorts the true state of gender equality in Canada’s orchestras.

Gove and Tovey both expressed that discrimination is a very serious allegation, and they were disappointed that they were not given the opportunity to respond to the statistics during the research phase of the article.

Morreale disputed that, by stating “To be clear, on March 20, Brad Frenette (Senior Producer, Editorial at CBC Music) responded to Tovey’s tweet and also emailed him that day, unfortunately Brad had the wrong e-mail which led to a delay in communication.”

Tovey denies that, and provided proof that on January 6th, 2014, Michael Morreale had sent him an email to him, which confirms that the CBC did in fact have his correct email address.

That aside, I think it is important to mention one disconcerting response made by Tovey via twitter on March 20th, that accused Morreale of plagiarism in the article.

On the record, Morreale defended the accusation vehemently, “all quotes that aren’t from my own interviews link back to the original source and there is no other writing that has been copied from other publications.”

Representatives at the CBC have since dismissed Tovey’s accusation, and confirmed that there is absolutely no evidence of plagiarism found in the article.

There is no question that gender divisions are a valid and important point of discussion in Canada’s classical music industry.

That said, the question then becomes if the single season data is sufficient in this article to suggest any kind of systemic gender bias in Canada’s professional orchestras. Ethical journalism is the standard we set for ourselves in this business, and by following the process, we establish media efficacy. This means stories must be accurate, and not be indicative of rumour, innuendo or gossip. However, this does allow for fair-comment and criticism, especially in editorial coverage, which Morreale’s article appears to be.

Cultural issues are never as simple as a pie chart, and the incredible complexity involved hardly lays these issues at the feet of Mr. Tovey, the VSO or anyone else for that matter. These go well beyond Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Vancouver, and even Canada.

“Bruckner or Stravinsky will not do, but Debussy is OK” – Jorma Panula


Women have attained notoriety in almost every area of classical music, and to even mention this seems patronizing. We can find female performers ubiquitously across Canadian orchestras.

Even Morreale points out that most university music departments show roughly half of composition students these days are women. “At the University of British Columbia’s School of Music, 67 per cent of first-year students this year were female, while at McGill’s Schulich School of Music, 48 per cent of this year’s first-year students were female.”

The composition world is filled with female “stars” that easily hold their own with the best of them. They include Jennifer Higdon, Kaija Saariaho, Judith Weir, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Joan Tower, Augusta Read Thomas and Chen Yi. In Canada, some of our most prominent composers are females, and include Jean Coulthard and Ann Southam, as well as newcomers, Nicole Lizée, and Jocelyn Morlock. (Of course, many more could be added to this list).

Yet in regards to female conductors, it is a very narrow list. When we look at the New York Philharmonic, since 1842, and a total of 483 conductors, just 11 of them have been women. At the Metropolitan Opera there have been a total of 336 conductors, with just 2 of them women. This seems to point the finger in the direction of conducting.

violinist, Nicola Benedetti

In an article published on April 1st in The Telegraph, violinist Nicola Benedetti went on the record to state that she feels classical music still “lags behind” when it comes to female conductors, but she also pointed out that sexism is a worldwide problem and certainly not specific to the classical music industry.

The article goes on to quote her interview with the Radio Times where she stated how much the classical world’s so called gender gap has actually improved a great deal.

“Sixty years ago the world’s top violinists were overwhelmingly male. Today, we have Julia Fischer, Janine Jansen, Lisa Batiashvili, Vilde Frang, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Alina Ibragimova… in fact I could possibly list more top female violinists than males.”

When pressed if she believed women are unfairly discriminated against in classical music, she said: “If women have long enough to gain authority, experience and expertise, they’ll excel in any profession.”

Benedetti continued that she believed sexism to be a “worldwide problem, but I think that classical music can be prouder of its integrity than many industries.”

“People are basically chosen for their ability – though I concede that we still lag behind when it comes to conductors.”

Benedetti makes a fair comment, and one that I think most who are intimately familiar with Canada’s classical music industry know is inherently true.

Despite the statistics from the CBC article, women are performing at the highest possible levels, and participating as soloists in orchestral concertos across the globe. Those numbers might not yet point to a fifty-fifty ratio, but that doesn’t necessary mean there is a “shocking gender gap”.

The real issue may not be orchestra concertos as Morreale frames it, but the male dominated world of conducting.

Jorma Panula

Just this week the famous conducting pedagogue Jorma Panula, voted one of the 60 most powerful people in music by BBC Music Magazine, was quoted while responding to a question on Finish TV regarding how he felt about women entering the profession as conductors.

His response was “No! What the hell, we have men already. It is such a limited profession… They can try, but it is a completely different deal. I can’t comment on media or public opinion. But women… Of course they are trying! Some of them are making faces, sweating and fussing, but it is not getting any better – only worse! They can come [to my masterclasses] and try. It’s not a problem – if they choose the right pieces. If they take more feminine music. Bruckner or Stravinsky will not do, but Debussy is OK. This is a purely biological question.”

Here we go again, another androcentric statement by a well-known conductor who should know better. It boggles the mind.

In a 2013 September interview with the Guardian, Marin Alsop stated, “There is no logical reason to stop women from conducting. The baton isn’t heavy. It weighs about an ounce. No superhuman strength is required. Good musicianship is all that counts. As a society we have a lack of comfort in seeing women in these ultimate authority roles. Still none of the “big five” orchestras has had a female music director.”

In regards to the VSO and other Canadian orchestras, and despite what Morreale’s article suggests, we do seem to be improving on our record of female conductors.

Saskatchewan-born Tania Miller, who leads the Victoria Symphony, has served as Associate Conductor of the Vancouver Symphony. She also conducted the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Toronto Symphony, Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montreal, Winnipeg Symphony, and the Calgary Philharmonic. She was also a regular guest conductor with Opera McGill’s esteemed opera program in 2000 and 2001 in Montreal.

We also have Rei Hotada, who made her debut with the Toronto Symphony Orchetsra, and from 2006-2009 was the Assistant Conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, before going on to a successful international career.

To quote, and un-named commentator: “Classical music has always been a pillion of the establishment. It’s greatest flaw is its own history.”

This is a wise statement, and with any culturally ingrained notion, they take a long time to change. The only thing we can do is engender social change, and track that change to gage its improvement.

During Alsop’s speech, she called out sexism in classical music, but she was also careful to announce that things are moving “towards more inclusion in classical music”.

“It was difficult for me,” Alsop says, “so it could be easier for you.”


Michael Vincent

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