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Interview by Amber Read

Baton of the Sexes

APO’s concert A Woman’s Place celebrates the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. Amber Read talks with the concert’s conductor Tianyi Lu about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for conductors today. 

In some ways, gender doesn’t matter, says conductor Tianyi Lu. “I’m a conductor, who just happens to be a woman. It’s really not relevant. But at the same time it is relevant because of the fact that we are still a minority.” Even today, professional conductors of top tier orchestras are 93-95% male. Lu recently conducted the APO’s Discovery concert for high school students: “I never had the experience of seeing a woman conduct a professional orchestra when I was their age,” she says. And it’s not just conducting: the Vienna Philharmonic didn’t admit its first female member until 2003, and women composers have also been underrepresented on the concert stage. 

“If you cut out half the population, you lose out,” says Lu. “It’s time to keep an open mind, especially as classical musicians and classical music lovers. It’s time to listen to music not through the filter of ‘she’s a woman,’ but on its own artistic merit.” The APO’s upcoming concert A Woman’s Place gives the opportunity to hear numerous female composers and artists. “You’ll hear many interesting voices in this programme,” says Lu.

“The time we live in now is very exciting,” Lu says. “There are still many stereotypes, but I feel there’s an opportunity to be recognised for who you are. The more you can reveal the essence of who you are, the more brilliantly you’ll shine, and the more you can contribute to society.” Some of this societal shift is due to work done by older conductors, Lu says: “I’m grateful for people like Marin Alsop and Simone Young who have been trailblazers and have made it easier for the next generation. Without them, I don’t think I’d be able to do what I’m doing.”

Lu has always been drawn to orchestras: “When I was thirteen, I heard an orchestra (the APO!) for the first time. I fell in love with all the colours, with a group of people coming together to create something greater than themselves.” Inspired to join the orchestra, she started learning the flute. “The thought never crossed my mind that I could be a conductor,” she says, “I had never seen a professional female orchestral conductor…it wasn’t until a man, Eckehard Stier [APO Music Director at the time], said to me ‘you could do this’ that my mind was opened to the possibility.”

Not all male conductors have been encouraging of their female counterparts. “I know one conductor who said, ‘the essence of men is strength and essence of women is weakness; therefore they can’t conduct,’” recounts Lu. Her response? “I think if we define strength in a very narrow way, then yes, perhaps very generally, physically some men are more powerful. But if we remember that women live longer, women have to bear children...there’s other kinds of strength.”

Overall however, Lu avoids characterising by gender: “At the end of the day, it’s just energy. We are born with a particular tendency towards certain types of energies…I’m a conductor, I have to be whatever the music demands me to be. So if the music has a certain kind of energy, I have to embody that.”

“My vision for the future,” says Lu, “is that you will be recognised as an artist in your own right, for your skill, for what you bring to a performance, and people will not even notice that you are a woman, or black, or white or yellow or transgender or gay. People wouldn’t even remark on that. That would be my hope.”

Historically, the stereotype is for conductors to present a dictatorial model of leadership, but Lu is wanting to challenge that. “The idea of leadership as ‘you're the only one in charge,’ is limiting,” she says. “I am there to facilitate. I am there to coordinate, to bring out something exciting and if the musicians give me something that is different, and it’s great, I will run with it…. I really believe in a collaborative approach.” This has been true since the first time she stood on the podium. “I still remember the first time I conducted on stage…I felt so connected to everyone and that’s what drew me to this profession, this connection with other people in a way without words, a way which allows other people to shine.” 

“I think that’s the power of arts,” she explains. “They are compassion builders.” Through music, theatre, visual art and storytelling, “We’re able to tap into different cultures, different experiences, and different world views that help us become richer as human beings.” For example, if we’ve never experienced a Wellington rain shower, we can listen to Salina Fisher’s Rainphase to get a taste of the experience. We can listen to music from places and times we’ve never been to and hear some of their culture. “This is our humanity,” Lu says, “the ability to step into someone else’s shoes.”




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