FEMALE CONDUCTORS AT 31st MBZ
Conducter Yalda Zamani
Ivo Malec: Sigma
Sanda Majurec: Springs
Matko Brekalo: Gaul*
Michelle Agnes Magalhaes: After Spring
Raphaël Cendo: Denkklänge
The Symphony Orchestra of the Croatian Radiotelevision
Yalda Zamani, conductor
Yalda Zamani, one of the leading interpreters of contemporary music in her generation, was born in Algeria, raised in Tehran, and currently lives and works in Berlin. Passionate about promoting new music, she collaborates with composers from around the world on a regular basis. Infinitely curious and fascinated by science and technology, Yalda Zamani – in addition to conducting and occasionally composing – is also interested in the production of electronic music, algorithmic compositions, and the use of artificial intelligence in music. On the eve of the Music Biennale Zagreb, she answered our questions about her focus on contemporary music, musical influences, and the position of women in the world of conducting.
You won a scholarship to study composition in the USA, but instead you have chosen a different career, as a conductor. How did that happen? Do you ever compose?
True. I can answer this with two parallel stories: I was indeed admitted to the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati (USA) to start my bachelor’s degree in composition with Joel Hoffman in 2011, and prior to that, writing music was an inseparable part of my engagement with music since early childhood. My first composition was a short piece for piano I wrote when I was 10, which later I dedicated to my father who showed great excitement for my pursuit of music since those early days. Later, I wrote several pieces for choir and piano or small ensembles for my music projects at school where I was regularly singing, playing piano and recorder flute, and composing for various school events. In my spare time, I enjoyed improvising on piano while watching silent films by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin or even
Alfred Hitchcock which we used to watch quite often at home, and I vividly remember a phase in which I became obsessed with musicals, and after watching The West Side Story and discovering Leonard Bernstein’s music, It became clear for me that I need to start taking my passion for composition more seriously. In 2009 I took private music theory, harmony, counterpoint, form, and composition lessons with two of the most prominent composers, pedagogues and music scholars in Iran, Mehran Rouhani and Houshang Ostovar.
It was however, in 2010 that I met Vijay Upadhyaya, an Austrian/Indian conductor who was leading the orchestra, the choir and the opera coaching sessions at the Austrian Cultural Forum in Tehran, where I was singing in his choir. He quickly discovered my curiosity for orchestral timbres and the way the orchestra functions, and one day asked me to assist him, and made me stand in front of an orchestra for the very first time to conduct! It was Schubert's 5th Symphony. After a year of assisting him, I realized that there is no better way for me to learn about composition than to learn it from the masters by diving into the centuries of musical creation.
The complicated nature of the relationship between the conductor and the orchestra, the possibility of collaboratively reaching an artistic result, and also the personal challenges which I had to overcome to become qualified for this job, made me convinced to choose this career path. After successfully passing the entrance exam for the conducting class of Georg Mark in Vienna in 2011, I had little doubt about giving up my place at the CCM university in the USA.
Composition is still a passion that I privately pursue, I have however gradually developed an interest in electronic music production, algorithmic compositions and the use of artificial intelligence in music, and apart from my activities as a freelance conductor, I am currently a Ph.D. candidate at the music university in Hamburg (HfMT Hamburg), where I am developing projects with an interdisciplinary approach to contemporary music performance. So, I hope to be able to contribute not only as conductor, but also as composer and researcher in the near future.
In your work, you are strongly committed to contemporary music. When and how did you develop that interest? Can you mention anybody who inspired or influenced that passion of yours?
During my conducting studies, the primary focus of my education was on standard orchestral, choral and opera repertoire, but I also had the opportunity to closely work with the department of composition at the university, and to conduct rehearsals and concerts during the final presentations of composition students. After finishing my studies in Vienna, this interest led me to search for opportunities to develop my skills and expand my horizons, and in 2016 I was selected as scholarship holder of the Ensemble Modern Academy in Frankfurt, where I could work on a large body of modern/contemporary repertoire, and perform with the IEMA ensemble in various venues and festivals in Europe.
Later, with the support of the Ulysses Network/ IRCAM I received several invaluable experiences and opportunities to meet and to work with several contemporary composers, conductors, ensembles and musicians who are actively contributing to the classical contemporary music scene in Europe. Honestly, I quite enjoyed the process of working with living composers, where not only the conductor is not
necessarily required to present (or enforce) an already mature vision of the composition on the first rehearsal-day, but is actually encouraged to keep an open mind, open eyes, and open ears, to allow this vision to take shape during the course of a collaboration that also involves the musicians and the composer. I found the nature of such collaborations quite fulfilling in a way that helped me develop further not only as a conductor, but also both as a person, and as an artist. The dynamics of this process made me become a more sensitive listener, and cultivate a better understanding for what composers try to communicate. Knowing how the quality of the sounds, the energy of the performance and the curiosity of the musicians can contribute to the life of a composition, made me find big responsibility, but also great joy to contribute, and to devote myself to contemporary music performance.
During this journey, I encountered many inspiring artists, but my biggest admiration goes to three conductor/composers, with whom I had the opportunity to work, and from whom I have been greatly inspired
and influenced: Bas Wiegers, Enno Poppe and Susanna Mälkki.
What can you say about the women in musical leadership today? Have things changed a lot since the times of previous generations? Is there anything that is specific for female conductors?
I see nothing specific about female conductors, but rather about the way we perceive or evaluate their work. Due to existing double standards, there is very little faith in women that they can successfully carry out their job, especifically if this job has been traditionally defined within a male-dominated domain such as conducting, and therefore there’s very little support for those specifically at the beginning of their career. We do not tolerate “mediocre” female conductors while there are “mediocre” male conductors getting hired left and right, making progress by gaining more and more experiences, and rising to the top. So, I believe we need to ask ourselves how we feel about giving women the same chance to fail and develop further? As long as our answer to this question differs from the one that involves male conductors, we are not doing well.
At the moment, there are very few women or people from minority groups holding a leadership position, with the influence to take important decisions that can contribute to change, and also there is very little collective will or awareness even among our open-minded community to see this as a problem. I believe however, that those who are actively contributing to this change, are (unjustly) those who are invisible, trying to improve their skills, to gain experiences and do their jobs the best they can, by bypassing and even sometimes sadly ignoring the limitations and injustices they face along the way to stay concentrated and focused, and not with a hope to change the game, but with a wish to be taken seriously for what they are capable of doing, to finally have the same chances and opportunities to contribute, decide and to influence, which at the end could also lead to change.
This is a very long and slow process with no shortcuts, and we will see the results once those invisibles out there raise one by one to fill the leading and decision-making positions, where they would also have the power to influence and bring the change.
Can you tell us anything about the compositions you will perform in Zagreb? The program is very comprehensive. Except for premieres, are these the compositions you've performed before?
There is little I can say about this question at this moment, but I could share more once I was able to have a glimpse on the scores later on. What I can say for now: This is an exciting and diverse orchestral program, and I am very much looking forward to getting to know the musicians of the Croatian Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra, and the composers Michelle Agnes Malgalhaes, Raphael Cendo, Matko Brekalo and Sanda Majurec. And last but not least, it is my greatest pleasure to be part of the Music Biennale Zagreb. Thank you for this invitation!
Conductor Ariane Matiakh
Kaija Saariaho: L'Aile du songe, concert for flute and orchestra
Milko Kelemen: Grand jeu classique, concert for violin and orchestra
Alfred Schnittke: concert for piano and orchestra
Karl-Heinz Schütz, flute
Katarina Kutnar, violin
Maria Radutu, piano
Ariane Matiakh, conductor
French conductor Ariane Matiakh (1980) has been surrounded by music since childhood. She studied conducting at the University of Music in Vienna in the class of Leopold Hager and continued her studies with Seiji Ozawa. This versatile musician has confidently mastered musical styles and genres ranging from baroque to contemporary music, from operas to symphonies. On the eve of the MBZ, she answered our questions about her childhood, the pandemic and, of course, the position of women in the world dominated by male conductors.
You grew up in a musical environment, both your parents were musicians. When did you decide to become a conductor? Did anyone influence or inspire that decision?
I decided to become a conductor very early, at the age of 4 or 5 already!
My parents were opera singers and I had the great opportunity to grow up in a musical environment, not only at home but also backstage in every opera house where my parents sang. To accompany them and to be able to attend to elaboration of a composition developed my passion for music. As it was not always easy for me to see my parents in costumes, doing sometimes weird things on stage (e. g. my father dressed like a woman or my mother dying or going crazy at the end of her aria), I found a place where I could still enjoy the beautiful music without being hurt by the view of my parents on stage. It led me to the orchestra pit, where I was enveloped by the colors of the orchestra and where I still feel in peace but also right in the middle where music happens.
What can you say about the women in musical leadership today? Have the things changed a lot since the times of previous generations? Is there anything that is specific for female conductors?
The first word coming to me is 'trusting'. I think the society has still an effort to do to start trusting a woman like a man.
Even if the situation has made some big progress during the last decades, women have still to fight twice like men only to prove their value for the same kind of job, espacially for a job with high responsibilities. Regarding musical leadership, we can notice that a woman chief conductor is still a rarity, that's why, when a nomination happens, to the press it stills sounds like a surprise. I can't wait for the time where a woman conducting somewhere will appear so usual that we won't feel anymore the need to speak about gendre considerations but only about music, a passion which however should animate humanity without distinctions of gender.
In your work, you are very versatile. You perform everything - from Beethoven to contemporary authors. Is there any musical period for which you have a particular interest?
As you said I'm versatile because the music is like a river nourishing itself from all tributaries of music, time and style included. I really think that all styles in music are connected, and to have the better chance to interpret correctly we need to know and love all the existing influences. When I conduct Mahler I can't understand the music without knowing the influences that led to this music. The same thing stands for the contemporary music, even if in some case the deconstruction is the plan; we need to know where it comes from or from what it wants to extend or to free itself. I really feel the beauty in music is everywhere and I don't want to stop searching for new possibilities to interpret music the best way. It's why very often I have the feeling the music I'm working on is my favorite ever!
How do you cope with the pandemic? Do you miss live audiences or you easily go along with online performances?
Of course we all miss our audience very, very much. Not to be able to share music, energy, emotions directly with the public since one year is cruel. Playing music online is a comfort, especially because we musicians need the contact with other musicians to stay active, creative and inspired. But again, our mission is to share and bring the music directly to the hearts, which is currently not possible.
I wish the politics could take the problem of the culture seriously and finally undertake actions to bring back the public into our halls, that at the same time the people can feel safe with us and finally enjoy the benefit of the experiment of a live performance fully again.