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Finnish composer and conducting coach Jorma Panula has caused a storm in his home country by criticising women conductors in a television interview. In an interview published by the Finnish news broadcaster MTV, Panula was bluntly asked if it is a good thing that women conductors enter the profession. Panula replied with a firm “I do not!”
Jorma Panula, 83, is a highly regarded conductor and educator, and throughout the 60’s and 70’s served as the artistic director and chief conductor of the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Aarhus Symphony. He served as Professor of Conducting at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Royal College of Music in Stockholm, and the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen.
He has been credited as the teacher of a generation of Finland’s most successful conductors, and in 2000 Panula was listed in the BBC music Magazine league-table of the "60 most powerful people in music" for being instrumental “in bringing about a change in Finnish music and elevating it to the highest levels in Europe”.
However, for all the change Panula has brought about culturally for Finland, his attitude towards female composers smacks of old-world traditionalism. “What the hell, we have men already [in this profession],” explained Panula. “It is such a limited profession. They can try, but it is a completely different deal … some of them are making faces, sweating and fussing, but it is not getting any better – only worse!”
Panula went on to suggest that female conductor’s may be effective when conducting more feminine music. “They can come [to my masterclasses] and try,” said Panula. “It’s not a problem – if they choose the right pieces, if they take more feminine music. Bruckner or Stravinsky will not do, but Debussy is okay. This is purely an issue of biology.”
Fellow Finns were quick to hit back with Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and one of the first generation of conductors trained in Panula's conducting class tweeting out "Conducting is a matter of skill, not biology. There is no reason why women cannot do it equally well or better."
Panula is currently undertaking a masterclass in Vassa, Finland, where half of the participants are women hailing from all over Europe, suggesting that his views are not representative of the mainstream in his home country. “I was quite surprised when I came here to the course – there are a lot of women,” says Anna Hauner, a student of conducting from Germany who is participating in the masterclass. “Germany is very traditional, with many of the opportunities on offer favoring men.”
This is not the first time the abilities of women conductors has been called into question. Last year, Limelight reported on Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko stating that a female conductor’s sexuality could be detrimental to the performance of a professional orchestra. “Men often have less sexual energy and can focus more on the music,” he stated. “A sweet girl on the podium can make your thoughts drift towards something else.”
This story in turn prompted a response from Nicolette Fraillon, Chief Conductor of the Australian Ballet. “In terms of opportunities for conductors,” she concludes, “I don’t think there’s as much of a problem here as elsewhere in the world. But gender equality in any field isn’t an issue to shy away from; it needs to be discussed openly and tackled from within.”
But some simply attribute Panula’s comments as the product of an old world mentality, a mentality that is changing. “It is the tradition, a centuries-old tradition,” states masterclass participant Lower Leppilampi. “Throughout the ages men have been brought to light. And now, little by little, women will start to come. It will get easier.”