Barbara Yahr may be one of few female orchestra conductors in the country, but it's her musical talent that sets her apart. 

Breaking the Ranks

When asked what she thought would be more likely to happen first — the appointment of a woman as music director of a major orchestra, or the election of a female president — Barbara Yahr exclaims that obviously the presidency would yield its way to a woman first. Undoubtedly. She laughs a bit as she reiterates that belief — definitely the president.

As Yahr climbs the ranks of today's up-and-coming young conductors, guesting with major ensembles such as the National Symphony, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and on Nov. 20 and 22, the Richmond Symphony, she has come to expect the inevitable questions about the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated field. She braces herself for "the question," but expresses audible relief when it's not the first and only topic of this interview. Our conversation flows freely from topics as diverse as Bob Dylan to the challenges of conducting new compositions to Elizabeth Dole's truncated run at the White House. We agree not to discuss what she wears while conducting, her hairstyles or how much makeup she uses.

Orchestral conducting remains one of the last careers whose ranks are filled almost entirely with men. According to the American Symphony Orchestra League, only 7 percent of orchestra conductors are female — in this elite class of classically trained musicians, that translates to just 64 women. In the music world and in the larger culture, the idea of the conductor remains a potent symbol of the supposedly masculine virtues of domination, control and power.

The special challenge of guest conducting involves encountering a new group of highly trained, opinionated professionals, and in only four rehearsals, swaying them over to your vision of a cherished work of art. "We all have standard ideas for the standard repertoire," she explains.

Yahr displays some bravado in claiming that she can communicate a new vision to an orchestra with electric speed: "Four minutes — you can do that in four minutes." But managing the different kinds of orchestras is only one ongoing challenge. Yahr adds that "learning the scores — to really know the scores ... is a life- long job." Her most important concern is the audience's experience of the music. When it is Yahr in the audience, on the other side of the looking glass, "I really look for someone who is going to give me a good experience of the music for that evening," she says. A guest conductor should perform alchemy, should be "startling from the first minute ... the energy, physicality ... everything about [guest conductors] affects the way the orchestra plays."

Guest conducting is clearly a way to gain experience and exposure in order to make the next leap. Yahr says that her immediate goals are to make music "wherever, whatever." But taking the reins of her own orchestra is inevitable — she has a profound education in philosophy and music, including degrees from the Manhattan School of Music and the Curtis Institute (where, incidentally, she studied with Richmond Symphony Conductor Mark Russell Smith). She served as assistant conductor to the legendary Lorin Maazel; and she's on fire. When she talks about music, her thoughts race excitedly. She doesn't "have an image of exactly what podium I want to be on," but she knows she wants to helm a symphony orchestra.

Like it or not, Yahr still will have to contend with continuing cultural resistance to the idea of female conductors. When orchestra boards are frustrated in their efforts to find a candidate, Yahr has picked up on the sentiment that "we may have to settle for a man no one really wants."

"No one's even thinking of anything but that," she says. " ... It's going to take a while before people envision a woman in that role."

Eager to be judged on the merits of her work, Yahr does not dwell on The Question, but exults in her good fortune. She will lead the Richmond Symphony in Rossini's "Overture to The Barber of Seville," Sibelius' ravishing Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43, and "Janus," by contemporary composer Samuel Jones. "Being a conductor is an amazing opportunity," she says. "... [otherwise] I'd have to work for a


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