Hidden from small

And a Woman Shall Lead Them: Nathalie Stutzmann's Road to Conducting

December 16, 2016

Nathalie Stutzmann was so determined to become a conductor, she embarked on a 30-year career as a celebrated globetrotting contralto.

Wait, what?

It’s true. As a young student, Stutzmann (making her Philadelphia Orchestra conducting debut this Sunday in Handel’s Messiah) was the only girl in her conducting class. “I got a really macho teacher. He never gave me the baton, which was very frustrating. It was clear to me that the time hadn’t yet come for a woman to take the podium. So I decided to wait and go for the singing, which was coming along very well. But I always conducted in my brain!”

Since her concert debut in Paris in 1985, Stutzmann’s singing career has taken her from La Scala to the Concertbebouw to Carnegie Hall, to The Philadelphia Orchestra, earning glowing reviews wherever she appears.

But that singing career was also a master class in conducting, as Stutzmann performed just a few feet away from the world’s top maestros. “It would be a dream for any conducting student, to appear for 30 years with the greatest conductors; it’s just the best school for a conductor.”

Two of those conductors were a whole lot more generous than that pedagogue from her student days. Seiji Ozawa and Simon Rattle became mentors, giving her crucial opportunities to prove herself on the podium.

Stutzmann now enjoys a double career: conducting leading orchestras and singing in concert halls all over the world. Any advice for young women today with a burning desire to conduct? “I think it’s easier to be a young woman with this dream than it was 30 years ago, fortunately. I think doors are opening, times are changing a little bit. It’s still very difficult but I have a positive feeling about it. You have to trust in your dreams and try to achieve them. Be yourself is the best advice.”

Still, Stutzmann cautions, conducting may not be for everyone. “Some great conductors believe that either you are born a conductor or you are not. You can learn a lot of things: how to rehearse, how to deal with group psychology. But if you don’t have this capacity for sharing your vision of the work with your body language and charisma, you should do something else I think. It’s a very mysterious profession actually!”

(Nathalie Stutzmann conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra this Sunday in Handel’s Messiah, with soprano Ying Fang, mezzo-soprano Angela Brower, tenor Lawrence Wiliford, and baritone Stephen Powell. This concert is sold out).

Photo by Simon Fowler