11 great LGBTQ+ conductors you should know
16 June 2021, 15:09 | Updated: 16 June 2021, 16:31
The conductors, past and present, who’ve waved the metaphorical pride flag loud and proud with every gesture of their baton.
Many classical music performers, composers, and conductors – from history, and living today – are on the queer spectrum, but some prefer not to come out as openly LGBTQ+ in their public lives.
As well as it being important to come out on your own terms, it’s clear that work isn’t the natural forum for talking about private lives anyway, and some may feel no need to pigeonhole themselves under a particular banner, or fly the flag for a whole vast community as part of their professional oeuvre.
But there are some figures in classical music who have been openly LGBTQ+, balancing an acceptance and honesty about their sexuality or partners in a way that has not distracted from their work making beautiful music at the podium.
Here are some of the prominent LGBTQ+ conductors in classical music you should know.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin (1975-)
Canadian conductor and pianist Yannick Nézet-Séguin is currently music director of the Metropolitan Opera, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal. His partner is violist Pierre Tourville.
“We can be examples, in a way, to inspire young musicians who fear that this is going to be a problem in their profession and career advancement,” Nézet-Séguin said, speaking to The New York Times about being an openly gay conductor. “I want to embrace that role more and more.”
Marin Alsop (1956-)
Marin Alsop is the trailblazing music director of the Baltimore Symphony (until August 2021) and São Paulo State Symphony Orchestras, chief conductor of ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, and at the helm of several festivals and artist residencies. An incredibly successful and inspiring woman in a still-male-dominated field, her long-term partner is Kristin Jurkscheit, who currently runs the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship. They have been together since 1990.
Speaking in the Bloomberg Business Week podcast recently, Marin Alsop describes Leonard Bernstein, who is a fellow LGBTQ+ conductor (see below), as her inspiration for becoming a conductor. He was a mentor and good friend of Alsop’s, and she says, “He was my hero, and he exceeded all of my hopes and dreams. He was a wonderful human being, very generous, very giving and a great citizen of the world.”
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
The great composer-conductor Bernstein’s sexuality remains shrouded in mystery, but mainly because history had him down as married to a woman.
He had a relationship with actor Felicia Cohn Montealegre, who he did eventually marry, but he was openly gay. Montealegre recounted the fact in The Bernstein Letters, stating, “you are a homosexual and may never change – you don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern what can you do?”.
And Arthur Laurents, who collaborated with Bernstein on West Side Story, clarified that Bernstein was “a gay man who got married” who “wasn't conflicted about it at all. He was just gay.”
Michael Tilson Thomas (1944-)
Michael Tilson Thomas is the founder and artistic director of the New World Symphony, music director laureate of San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and conductor laureate of London Symphony Orchestra, Classic FM’s Orchestra in the City of London.
The eleven-time Grammy winner is openly gay, and married to orchestral manager Joshua Mark Robison since 2014.
Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960)
Dimitri Mitropoulos was a remarkable conductor who debuted with the world-famous Berlin Philharmonic in the 1930s and was known for conducting very physically and intensely, without a score or a baton. He led top orchestras, including Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.
He never married, and was known to be homosexual, with rumours that he had a relationship with Leonard Bernstein (see above).
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Copland found unrivalled success with his compositions, which marked him out as ‘the Dean of American Composers’. But he was a conductor in his own right too.
He studied conducting in Paris in 1921, and conducted major orchestras in his own works and those of others. He was a famously private individual, but letters have been unearthed which reveal his close relationships, cohabitation and travels with other men, including photographer Victor Kraft and artist Alvin Ross.
Thomas Schippers (1930-1977)
Thomas Schippers was an American conductor, particularly revered for his operatic interpretations.
He was married to shipping heiress, Elaine Phipps, but he was known to be gay and is thought to have had a relationship with composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who was the partner of fellow composer Samuel Barber.
Frieda Belinfante (1904-1995)
Born into a musical family, Frieda Belinfante was a Dutch immigrant to the United States who, after being a ‘prominent lesbian’ and member of the Dutch Resistance during World War Two, established and conducted the Orange County Philharmonic.
Before her move to America, she had been a prolific conductor, and was invited to form the chamber orchestra Het Klein Orkest at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, in 1937. She was artistic director and conductor there until 1941. She had also guest conducted the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande among other major orchestras. She also played the cello.
Kay Gardner (1940-2002)
Gardner was a spiritual musician, and a flautist, composer and choir director, known for her pioneering work in music dedicated to healing.
She is famous for championing ‘Women’s Music’ as a genre, and for being one of the first musicians to sue an orchestra (the Bangor Symphony Orchestra in Maine) on the grounds of sex discrimination after the powers that be there asked would you “tolerate a woman” as a conductor in their search for a new one.
Her partner was Colleen Fitzgerald.
Jeffrey Tate (1943-2017)
Jeffrey Tate was an English conductor, who honed his conducting skills under the legendary Georg Solti at the Royal Opera House in London before making his debut at The Met in New York, and pursuing a distinguished career conducting orchestras like the English Chamber Orchestra, Rotterdam Philharmonic and the Hamburg Symphony.
Tate was born with spina bifida, and initially studied medicine, before dedicating his life to music. He met his partner, geomorphologist Klaus Kuhlemann, in 1977 and was knighted in 2017.
Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)
As well as being a leading composer, suffragist Dame Ethel Smyth conducted prolifically, including taking to the podium to premiere her own works, and conducting the Metropolitan Police Band at the unveiling of the statue to Emmeline Pankhurst in London in 1930.
Smyth was gay, and at the age of 71 she met and was very taken with Virginia Woolf. Woolf herself described it as “like being caught by a giant crab.”