A prominent critic has stood up for the fragile ‘tyrannical male maestro’. Here’s why he’s missing the point.

12 November 2020, 12:14 | Updated: 16 November 2020, 08:57

Conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
Conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. Picture: Getty

By Rosie Pentreath

‘A display of egoism and power from a conductor is often necessary for a good performance’ – not necessarily, we argue, especially if they come with oft-cited bullying and inappropriate behaviour...

A prominent critic has used the coveted page space of a weekly national magazine to stand up for The Male Maestro.

Of all the things there are to talk about in wonderful classical music, The Spectator has come to the “tyrannical” conductor’s rescue in a piece entitled ‘In defence of the tyrannical male maestro’.

The article is, luckily, more balanced than its headline and statement that accompanies it – “a display of egoism and power from a conductor is often necessary for a good performance, hiring female conductors will not change a thing.”

But it’s all nevertheless missing the point. Here’s why...

Read more: This music meme is all over social media, and it’s wrong in every way >

Conductor Han-Na Chang
Conductor Han-Na Chang. Picture: Luciano Romano

The headline

Think about how this headline reads outside our (mostly) beautiful classical music bubble.

“In defence of the tyrannical male film director.”

“In defence of the tyrannical male CEO.”

These headlines wouldn’t run in respected national publications about any other industry, so why do we allow them to go unchallenged in ours? Music should be about beauty, passion and powerful performances – not about cranking up tired arguments to prop up the status quo and stick up for “tyrannical” behaviour.

Read more: Women can’t be conductors and here are all the reasons why >

The whole is the sum of its parts

After this deliberately eye-catching headline and statement, writer Ivan Hewett lists three main “crimes” that male conductors are essentially accused of by history, and widely associated with – two of them unquestionably despicable – and yet he still defends the “tyranny” that allows them – here’s why we’re calling that out.

Naming Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Georg Solti, he writes, “These days if anyone mentions their names it’s only to list their crimes: tyrannising long-suffering orchestral players, commanding colossal fees, and in many cases looking on any female musician who comes within groping distance as fair game.”

Hewett roundly condemns bullying, and sexual assault. Good. And he defends high pay checks – a big earner for a label, is a big earner overall, and should be rewarded. That’s generally how capitalism works and it’s a good point.

But you can’t stand up for the whole – “in defence of the male maestro”, remember – and conveniently ignore the parts you have condemned. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place and see orchestral members bullied and musicians sexually harassed.

If something truly great can only be so with abhorrent side effects, it must cease to be supported, and must be eradicated. Nothing’s that great if it comes with suffering.

Reputation is earned

Hewett fairly surmises that call-out culture can result in a group of individuals being tarred with the same brush, as it were.

Just because some great and powerful maestros exhibited questionable behaviours – or “appalling” and “abhorrent” ones, to use Hewett’s language – other brilliant conductors surely must not bare the reputation, male or otherwide.

But a reputation that one trait, e.g. dominance and ego, may well come with another, e.g. bullying orchestral players, has in the past been fairly earned, and it doesn’t hurt for us to be wary of potentially destructive behaviour tropes – so that they can be eradicated.

Conductor Anu Dirigent
Conductor Anu Dirigent. Picture: Kadri Tali

Women conductors aren’t being hired to eradicate the ‘tyrannical maestro’

Hewett’s argument centres around the idea that the increase hiring of women to direct the world’s great orchestras is to try and solve the three crimes attributed to male maestros.


Women are being hired as the imbalance of history that held women to their homes and the status of The Wife is being righted.

Women are finally training. Women are finally getting to fulfil great careers. And these women you see are the very best at what they do.

Conductor Herbert von Karajan
Conductor Herbert von Karajan. Picture: Getty

“How much better, and safer, to have a conciliatory woman on the podium,” Hewett writes before he unpicks it.

He goes on to name check greats like City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Elim Chan, and others, but says he’s sceptical that females will change the orchestra-conductor relationship – they will still have powerful egos. It’s the kind of people conducting draws.

And he says “sparks will still fly in rehearsals” with women leading them.

We say yes, let them fly. The sparks were always fine – and crucial – but it’s the other stuff that means defending “tyrannical male maestros” must not fly.

Look, no one’s saying that on-the-podium relationship of strong leader producing spectacular sounds from respectful colleagues needs to disappear – they’re saying the “tyrant” has to go, the “maestro” must no longer be the sum of despicable parts, and having more women reflects the society – pretty much half men, half women – that we live.

Now, can we get back to the job of making and sharing the most wonderful music ever made, please? Maybe that can be the next thing one of us writes about in the coveted space rarely offered to classical music in a widely-read weekly magazine.