The word maestro has some baggage. For many, the term conjures an image of old-fashioned luxe, of a well-seasoned gentleman whose musical knowledge leaves little room for questioning and whose leadership style tends to the hierarchical, even authoritarian. To be a maestro, in this image, is to belong to a close-knit club, as exclusive as it is a little out of date.
Small wonder, then, that in a moment when many rising conductors are taking a more collaborative, down-to-earth approach to leading an orchestra, the term maestro has lost some of its allure. And yet this shift in ethos is not the only change afoot in the conducting world; the gendered barriers to leading an orchestra are being broken down. As the field shifts towards gender parity, a certain tension arises: Should eminent female conductors be called maestra, or should that term be left behind, regardless of gender? Is the goal to diversify the clubhouse, or dismantle it altogether?
At a time when the word “master” is under scrutiny, do terms like “maestra” and “maestro” also require reconsideration?
Like so many musical terms, maestro comes from Italian, a language with masculine and feminine grammatical genders. Outside of classical music, the term most commonly means teacher, a sense it shares with its Latin origin, magister. (The same Latin term, in English, gives us mister, mastery, and magistrate.) But dry etymological facts don’t capture the texture of how a word is used in a social context rife with unstated norms and powerful assumptions. In some places, the word is a grave honorific that carries the weight of centuries of tradition; in others, it is an almost familial term of endearment. And in other places, it has all but disappeared—in all my years as a music student, the only conductor who anyone called maestro or maestra was an exacting taskmaster prone to exploding with rage at high school students for playing Tchaikovsky with insufficient sensitivity. Everyone else just went by their first names.
Nevertheless, in professional ensembles, the terms persist, to mixed reviews. I interviewed several women who lead orchestras for this article, and some were quick to express a distaste for the word maestra. Mélisse Brunet, the French-born music director of two American orchestras—the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic in Wilkes-Barre and Kentucky’s Lexington Philharmonic—was emphatic and explicit: “I don’t think maestro and maestra are good words.” Brunet understands that the terms are commonplace in classical music culture, but still feels that they’re “very nineteenth century” and wishes for titles that are “more accurate and less dictatorial.” (Brunet participated in the League of American Orchestras’ 2018 Bruno Walter National Conductor Preview.)
Every conductor I spoke with described their artistic process as deeply collaborative—they see their role not as imposing their own vision on an ensemble but as helping bring music to life through a constructive dialogue with the other musicians. A word that implies a top-down style where the conductor’s vision overrules all others is a poor fit for such an approach.
Different places expect this top-down style to different degrees. Mei-Ann Chen, the music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, has conducted extensively in both Europe and the U.S. after beginning her career as a violinist in Taiwan. “In general, American orchestras are not big on titles; I hear them much more in Europe,” she says. “In the States, we don’t have the same expectation [of a conductor’s authority]. In Germany and Austria, people are almost afraid to call conductors by their first name.”
This fear can stem from simple respect, but it can also have more negative origins. Classical music is not different from any other field; we have our share of those who use their authority to abuse those below them in their institutions’ hierarchies. To date, the highest-profile such cases in our field have been men, but this is not exclusively the fault of gender: Such abuse is only possible from a position of power, and to date, such positions have been overwhelmingly reserved for men alone. Achieving gender parity will not stop abuse; only dismantling the systems of that lend impunity to the powerful will do that.
A title with a hierarchical legacy might serve to reinforce a worldview that sets conductors up beyond reproach, but Alexandra Enyart—a freelance conductor in Chicago who serves on American Opera Projects’ Artistic Advisory Council—sees it as a potential cautionary tale as well. “As a conductor, you have power, you can’t not have it,” she says, “so the question is, what are you going to do with it? And I think there’s something about [the title maestra] that serves as a reminder—first, do no harm. We would be better for it if we remembered that, from the podium, you do have the ability to do harm to people.”
If maestra can be a cautionary reminder, it can also have a gentler side. Naima Burrs, the Music Director of the Petersburg Symphony Orchestra (in Petersburg, VA), is regularly called maestra by the board and president of the symphony she leads. “For them, it’s a term of endearment,” she says. “I have a lot of family history here in Petersburg, and I think that calling me maestra is a way for some of these people who come from an older generation to acknowledge what they feel is an accomplishment. They’re proud of me and proud of what I’ve done, and they’re encouraging me to embrace that term as a way of embracing that accomplishment.”
This gentler side can build community, too. Enyart likened going by maestra to publicly embracing the fact that she is transgender. “Transgender can be a very helpful word for letting other trans people find you, find hope,” she says. “And I think that’s really true as a woman conductor, too, that maestra can help other women find hope, find community with one another.” Still, she expresses concern about being pigeonholed: “Being a woman conductor is fantastic, and it’s so powerful, but at the same time, there are moments where I’m like, ‘Why can’t I just make art? Do we have to analyze every moment of my career when we don’t do the same for some of my colleagues who are men?’ ”
Here, we start to run up against the limits of linguistic change. Marin Alsop—the first woman to be named music director of a major American orchestra and perhaps the most famous female conductor in the U.S. today—declined to be interviewed for this article but offered the following statement through her publicist: “I don’t think that what women are called is as important as that women are called.”
All of my interviewees echoed this sentiment. Language is important, and the words we use can have a profound impact on how we understand the world, but language change alone will not bring about complete equality in the world of conducting. Doing that takes the long, patient work of supporting new artists from historically excluded backgrounds and removing the obstacles to their full participation in this world. “Part of what will shift these terms is just being more inclusive all around,” Burrs said. “More women, more Black people, a more diverse group on the podium and in the orchestra. You can use whatever words you want; the most important thing is the human relationships involved.”