Yuri Temirkanov conducting the Baltimore Symphony in 2006

Yuri Temirkanov conducting the Baltimore Symphony in 2006 (JOHN MAKELY / Baltimore Sun / June 11, 2006)

Alex Ross has posted a column that addresses, among other things, persistent and stupid attitudes about women on the podium. Very dispiriting.

What really shook me up was what Alex found in a year-old interview given by Yuri Temirkanov to a Russian publication a year ago. It's enough to take a big chunk out of my enormous admiration for the conductor, one of the most inspiring musicians of our time, one whose tenure as Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director generated some unforgettable, viscerally involving performances.

Now I find out out that Temirkanov is, by his own words, even more of a sexist than his much younger countryman, Vasily Petrenko, head of the Royal Liverpool and Oslo philharmonics. Petrenko recently declared that orchestras simply play better for men. Women are so distracting, always giving men non-musical ideas, don't you know.

Petrenko's 19th-century views became big news in England (then elsewhere) just before BSO music director Marin Alsop made UK history last month as the first woman to conduct the high-profile Last Night of the Proms in its nearly 120-year history.

An earlier chapter of her career involved being principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony, and she has also guest-conducted London's leading orchestras, so Petrenko's remarks seemed extra-idiotic in the UK.

Marin used the occasion of her Proms podium speech to slap back at Petrenko and others of his ilk. If she had heard about Temirkanov's opinions, she might have made her comments even sharper.

You can get a translation of the Temirkanov interview in Alex's column on the New Yorker site. Read it and barf.

In a nutshell, the esteemed Russian artist views the mere idea of a female conductor as "counter to nature," since "the essence of the conductor’s profession is strength" and "the essence of a woman is weakness."

Like Petrenko, Temirkanov is also worried about the effect on an orchestra's attention span, since players facing a woman "will look at her and be distracted from the music." (I wonder if these two conductors, mindful of contemporary Russian sensibilities, are pretending that there could never be any gay guys in an ensemble.)

It's all so absurd, on every level. Is it possible we're misunderstanding some odd strain of Russian wit?  

I know that Temirkanov does have a pretty sneaky sense of humor, so, maybe, if that old interview catches up with him in the days ahead, he will tell everyone he was just being tongue-in-cheek. (It won't work, of course, but it might be an avenue.)

For his part, Petrenko tried to cover his tracks by saying he was really just talking about attitudes back in his homeland -- and, as the Temirkanov quotes confirm, those attitudes sure are rampant back there.

The saddest thing of all is that this is not a problem confined to a couple of myopic Russians. As Alex underlines so effectively in his column, there's still a thick glass ceiling, still a "stiflingly male atmosphere in the upper echelons of classical music." 

In my experience, it can be pretty bleak down below, too. I still meet people in Baltimore who say they just can't get used to a woman being up there in front of the BSO.

And I still meet patrons who, having adored Temirkanov while he was here, only go to BSO concerts now when Marin isn't conducting. If I believed that such folks have ever given her a chance, or could describe in detail the difference in music-making between the two conductors, I might take them more seriously. But I'm convinced that, deep down, they simply share the sexist opinions of their Russian hero.

To be sure, during the ugly fight over Marin's appointment to the BSO post, there were legitimate concerns among musicians and orchestra supporters about where the organization was going, and whether Marin measured up to somone of Temrikanov's international stature.

But Marin has been here long enough, has led the BSO in more than enough performances of exceptional quality to stake her claim as a worthy music director, certainly every bit as worthy as a male.

It is beyond pathetic that she, and all the other women who have dared enter this manly-strength-required profession, should still face ridiculous, insulting notions about proper places and roles for women.