The 25 largest orchestras in the United States have one thing in common: none of them is led by a woman.
But that will change soon. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra announced Wednesday that it has selected Natalie Stutzmann, a conductor and singer from France, as its next music director.
Stutzmann, 56, will become the second woman in history to lead a top-tier American orchestra when she takes the podium in Atlanta next year. She follows Marina Alsop, whose tenure as Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra ended in August, 14 years later.
Stutzmann said she hopes her choice will inspire other orchestras to nominate women.
“I’m not looking for a world dominated by women,” she said during a video call. “I just strive for equality – that one day we will not be seen as a minority, but as musicians, conductors and maestros.”
The famous contralto, renowned for the performance of works by Mahler, Handel and Bach, Stutzmann began her career as a conductor only about ten years ago. She made rapid progress in her field and was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra last year. She is also Principal Conductor of the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra in Norway.
British conductor Simon Rattle, Stutzmann’s longtime mentor, said her singing would define the sound of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
“What she will do is give them more color, boldness and shape,” Rattle said in an interview. “She’s an amazingly warm and explosive personality.”
Conducting, a long-dominated male industry, did not always seem like a viable career for Stutzmann, the daughter of opera singers who grew up near Paris. When she was a 15-year-old student at the French Conservatory, she said that music teachers discouraged her from conducting because of her gender.
“From the very beginning it was very clear to me that I had no chance of fulfilling my dream as a conductor., “ she said. “I knew it was a disaster. I couldn’t even learn, so it was so difficult and so frustrating. “
Instead, Stutzmann focused on singing, winning major competitions and performances. Her career began in 1984 when, at the age of 19, she replaced the American soprano Jesse Norman in Paris. She became one of the most famous contralto in the industry – the singer with the lowest vocal range – she toured extensively and made over 80 recordings.
“Contralto is not yet on the path of the California condor,” wrote The New York Times in 1995. “Hope comes in the form of Natalie Stutzmann, a lanky young Parisian woman with eyes as deep and dark as her voice.”
Even as her singing career flourished, Stutzmann devoted particular attention to the informal study of conducting, closely observing the maestro with whom she performed. She eventually found mentors at Rattle and the Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa and began lessons with the distinguished Finnish conductor and teacher Jorma Panula.
Stutzmann loved to sing. But she found the conduction exciting.
“When you sing, you only have one line, one melody,” she said. “When you conduct, you have a hundred lines in your hands. The repertoire is huge. The joy of playing music together became a revelation for me. It was exactly like my dreams – maybe even better than my dreams. “
Stutzmann, the fifth Music Director in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s 76-year history, will build on the legacy of Robert Spano, who recently retired to become Music Director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.
During his 20 years in office, Spano helped raise the orchestra’s profile and became the champion of music among living composers. But there were also problems, including persistent shortages that led to a sharp cut in musicians’ wages in 2012, when they agreed to receive less than 52 weeks of pay per year, and a couple of lockouts.
Stutzmann, who will begin an initial four-year contract starting in the 2022-23 season, said she will preserve the ensemble’s tradition of performing contemporary music. But she said she would also like to bring in more French music as well as Baroque pieces.
“In a sense, symphony orchestras hesitate to play this repertoire,” she said of the baroque. “But playing this music for a symphony orchestra is just as important as playing Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Ravel – all – because it’s very difficult, it’s very cool, it’s very clean, it’s very creative.”
This week she will perform in Atlanta with a program by Verdi, Tchaikovsky and American composer Missi Mazzoli.
Stutzmann said she also hopes to find ways to bring the orchestra closer to the Atlanta community, for example through projects that combine music and dance, including genres such as hip-hop.
Jennifer Barlament, executive director of the Atlanta Symphony, said the orchestra looked at more than 80 people in its quest, which began in January 2018. But after three guest appearances, Stutzmann stood out for her chemistry with the players and her knowledge of the choral work. (The orchestra has a famous choir since Robert Shaw’s lead.)
“It’s clear that the musicians like to work with her,” Barlament said.
Stutzmann’s appointment came against the backdrop of a broader understanding of classical music and the history of gender and race discrimination. Some believe that change may be on the horizon: about a third of the music directors of the 25 largest orchestras in the country plan to retire within the next few years. (And some of the smaller organizations, including the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic, currently have female music directors.)
Alsop, the first woman to lead a top-level American ensemble, praised Stutzmann’s choice, describing her as a gifted musician.
“She worked very, very hard on her conducting,” Alsop said in an interview. “She is naturally talented, but it is clear that she really put in the time and energy and brought her deep musical experience, artistic experience to the catwalk.”
Alsop said she hoped Stutzmann would be one of several women to take important positions in the coming years.
“I hope this starts a trend,” Alsop said. “This is the beginning. Come on, people. “