Handing the baton to female conductors

Of the top 150 conductors in the world last year, just five were women.
Handing the baton to female conductors

BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS: The 12 participants in the National Concert Hall Female Conductor Programme, Raimonda Zalisauskaite, Lynsey Hannah Callaghan, Molly Burke, Hilda Chan, Emma-Jane Stoker Phelan, Raeghynya Zutshi, Grace Bergin, Síobhra Quinlan, Santa Ignace, Maebh Martin, Naoise Whearity, and Catriona Clarke. Pictures: Mark Stedman

A BALLINCOLLIG teenager is on her way to becoming a world class conductor as she prepares to take up the baton for the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra this summer.

Molly Rose Lucey Burke, 18, is one of just 12 young women selected to partake in the National Concert Hall’s inaugural Female Conductor Programme. The ten month programme, supported by Grant Thornton, features a schedule of workshops and tutorials designed to coach and promote talented female conductors beginning their careers.

Participants receive career advice and shadowing opportunities with renowned Irish conductor David Brophy, Los Angeles based video game score composer Eimear Noone, and renowned opera and orchestral conductor Fergus Sheil, as well as gaining hands-on practical experience on preparing and interpreting musical scores and leading rehearsals.

The programme will conclude this summer with a showcase concert with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra.

An accomplished flautist and accordion player, Molly Rose began her studies in flute with Maria Mulcahy at the County Cork School of Music, now the Cork ETB School of Music, when she was in fourth class.

“That same year I also started the button accordion as part of a programme my school set up which gave everybody in my class the chance to learn the accordion.

“I then went on to study both instruments, the accordion with Martin Power and the local Comhaltas and the flute with Maria Mulcahy.”

Maria quickly took to both instruments, honing her skills in the Ballincollig Concert Band, the Junior Cork Youth Orchestra and then later at the Cork Youth Orchestra.

TALENTED: Molly Rose Lucey Burke and Hilda Chan, who are taking part in the National Concert Hall Female Conductor Programme, designed to coach and promote talented female conductors beginning their careers. Picture by Mark Stedman
TALENTED: Molly Rose Lucey Burke and Hilda Chan, who are taking part in the National Concert Hall Female Conductor Programme, designed to coach and promote talented female conductors beginning their careers. Picture by Mark Stedman

“When I was in third year in Gaelcholáiste Choilm I was accepted into the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland (NYOI) and toured to Abu Dhabi with them for St Patrick’s Day and I also got a chance to play on the Late Late Toy Show with the Fluteenys Flute Quartet.

“I was then asked to join the Irish Youth Wind Ensemble (IYWE) and my teacher asked me to play the piccolo with the City of Cork Symphony Orchestra for their concert with Il Divo.”

She has played with various other ensembles including the SinfoNua Orchestra (an initiative of the National Concert Hall’s Education, Community and Outreach programme), the East Cork Choral Society and the Esker Festival Orchestra.

Academically she has also excelled, receiving a mark of over 90% in all of her flute exams from grade 1 to 8 and Distinction in her performance diploma. In 2016, she won the Under 17 woodwind competition, and was recently awarded Cork ETB senior student of the year for 2016-2017.

Molly Rose says that music is “in the blood”, with her mother also a classically trained flute player, and her grandfather an accomplished bagpiper.

“My mother completed grade 8 in the flute when she was in school so I wouldn’t be playing if it weren’t for her,” she says.

“My uncle is also a musician so there is music in the blood alright.”

It was early encouragement through her school years, however, that Molly Rose says allowed her talents and passion for music to truly flourish.

“I was fortunate enough to attend Gaelcholáiste Choilm for secondary school where music plays a huge role. The music teachers there were a huge inspiration, particularly my music teacher Catherine Frost.

“I was given so many different opportunities during my time in school such as conducting the school choir and string ensemble and being fortunate to sit in a class taught by Mrs Frost every week certainly played a huge part in me becoming the musician I am today. “

Family support has also been invaluable.

“They’ve attended every concert I’ve ever done,” says Molly Rose. “My flute teacher, Maria Mulcahy, was also a huge inspiration. She really goes above and beyond for her students and is always nothing but encouraging, so without a shadow of a doubt I would not be where I am today without her.”

Now pursuing a Bachelor in Music Education at Trinity College, she says that conducting is a particular passion.

“I am always fascinated by the power a conductor has — how one flick of a baton and you could have over 100 musicians sing or play in unison,” she says. “It’s incredible. There is much more to the job of a conductor than just beating beats like people think,” Molly Rose explains.

“It is about feeling the music and being expressive in your conducting so as the players can be expressive in their playing. It’s that side of things that interests me the most.

“I’ve always envied conductors, I can’t pinpoint exactly why I want to conduct, I just know I want to do it!”

STEPS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION: The Female Conductor Programme participants, Molly is pictured in the back row, in the black top.
STEPS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION: The Female Conductor Programme participants, Molly is pictured in the back row, in the black top.

The National Concert Hall Female Conductor Programme was developed in an effort to bolster numbers of professional female orchestra conductors internationally, an issue described by organisers as “the most enduring and unyielding glass ceilings for women in the world of classical music”.

While strides have been made in recent decades, figures remain stark. Music listings website Bachtrack reported at the end of 2014 that of the top 150 conductors of that year, only five were women, while across US orchestras in 2015, the ratio of male to female conductors was 80:20 and in the 22 highest budget orchestras, it was 21:1.

In Ireland the record is not much better. In fact, Autumn 2013 marked the first occasion in the National Concert Hall’s 122- year history, that a female conductor took to the podium on the Last Night of the Proms, sparking discussion on the issue.

It was against this canvass that the NCH and Grant Thornton decided that more needed to be done in this area to support and encourage women to take leadership of orchestras.

Speaking at the launch of the programme, Paul Jacobs, Partner of Forensics and Investigation Services at Grant Thornton, said; “The Grant Thornton Forensics Department are delighted to support the NCH and their new Female Conductor Programme.

“Diversity is a core initiative in Grant Thornton and as the Forensics Department are long-time supporters of the NCH, this new initiative really appealed to our firm values.

“It is important to us that the glass ceiling is broken across industry and the arts.

“This initiative is a real positive and progressive step forward for women in the arts.”

 While she is grateful to have received outstanding support in her career to date, Molly Rose feels that efforts to improve female numbers at the highest levels of professional conducting are important.

“Personally, I’ve never received anything but encouragement since saying I want to be a conductor.

Of course, the statistics show that there is a severe lack of females in the industry. It is something that people are being made aware of now and I think we are certainly on the right track to finding more of a balance with programmes like this.

“I look forward to the day where people aren’t surprised when a woman walks on stage to conduct.”

Molly Rose says that an opportunity of this kind was impossible to pass up, and that the short experience so far has been invaluable.

“This programme is the first of its kind in Ireland and it’s only in a few countries around the world so that in itself is quite exciting,” she says.

“Throughout the year we have workshops, we get to sit in on rehearsals, speak with conductors and work with some incredible musicians.

“We get to go and see concerts and watch visiting orchestras as well as the National Symphony Orchestra and it is by doing that that we see all of the different conducting styles and it’s really fascinating to see.

“Had you said to me last year that I would be conducting the National Symphony Orchestra, I would have just laughed, never thinking it would actually happen. It’s a dream come true really!”

With years of further education ahead of her, Molly Rose’s star is continuing to rise. For now, she is enjoying the ride.

“I’m not quite sure what the future holds for me after this programme just yet,” she admits.

“I do hope to continue conducting.

“It is such an important role in musicians’ lives and I would love to inspire people the way I was inspired by my conductors and teachers.

“I’m not sure what lies for me on the road ahead but mar a deir an seanfhocal, inseoidh an aimsir, time will tell!”

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