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A female conductor joins the ranks of America’s best orchestras

The 25 largest orchestras in the United States have one thing in common: none are conducted by a woman.

But that is about to change. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra announced Wednesday that it has chosen Nathalie Stutzmann, French conductor and singer, as its next musical director.

Stutzmann, 56, will only be the second woman in history to lead a top US orchestra when she steps onto the podium in Atlanta next year. It follows Marin Alsop, whose tenure as Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra ended in August after 14 years.

Stutzmann said she hoped her selection would inspire other orchestras to nominate women.

“I’m not looking for a world dominated by women,” she said on a video call. “I’m just looking for equality – that one day we won’t be seen as a minority, but as musicians, conductors and maestros.”

Renowned contralto known for his interpretations of works by Mahler, Handel and Bach, Stutzmann began his career as a conductor only ten years ago. She quickly progressed in the field and was named last year as Principal Guest Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. She is also the conductor of the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra in Norway.

British conductor Simon Rattle, Stutzmann’s longtime mentor, said his singing experience will guide the sound of the Atlanta Symphony.

“What she’s going to do is give them more color, more daring and more shape,” Rattle said in an interview. “He’s a wonderfully warm and explosive personality.

Conducting, a field long dominated by men, did not always seem like a viable career for Stutzmann, the daughter of opera singers who grew up near Paris. As a 15-year-old studying at a French conservatory, she said her music teachers discouraged her from pursuing conducting because of her gender.

“It was very clear to me from the start that there was no way for me to realize 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.

Rather, Stutzmann focused on vocals, winning major competitions and engagements. Her career took off in 1984, when, at age 19, she replaced American soprano Jessye Norman in Paris. She became one of the best-known contraltos in the industry – the singers with the lowest vocal range – touring extensively and making over 80 recordings.

“The contralto is not yet heading for the California condor,” wrote the New York Times in 1995. “Hope comes in the form of Nathalie Stutzmann, a gangly young Parisian with eyes as deep and dark as her voice.

Even as her singing career flourished, Stutzmann made a point of studying conducting informally, observing closely the maestros she performed with. She eventually found mentors at Rattle and Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa, and began classes with prominent Finnish conductor and teacher Jorma Panula.

Stutzmann loved to sing. But she found the driving electrifying.

“When you sing, you only have one line, one melody,” she said. “When you drive, you have a hundred lines in your hands. The repertoire is immense. The joy of making mutual music has been a revelation to me. It was just like my dreams – maybe it was even better than my dreams.

Stutzmann, the fifth musical director in the 76-year history of the Atlanta Symphony, will strive to build on the legacy of Robert Spano, who recently resigned to become musical director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra .

During his 20-year tenure, Spano helped raise the profile of the orchestra and was a champion of the music of living composers. But there were also challenges, including persistent deficits that led to significant pay cuts for musicians in 2012, when they agreed to be paid less than 52 weeks a year, and a pair of lockouts.

Stutzmann, who will begin an initial four-year contract starting with the 2022-2023 season, said she will maintain the ensemble’s tradition of playing contemporary music. But she said she was also keen to bring in more French music, as well as Baroque works.

“In a way, symphony orchestras do not dare to play this repertoire,” she says of the baroque. “But playing this music for a symphony orchestra is as important as playing Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Ravel – everything – because it’s very difficult, it’s very healthy, it’s very pure, it’s very imaginative.”

This week, she will perform in Atlanta leading a program by Verdi, Tchaikovsky and American composer Missy Mazzoli.

Stutzmann said she also hopes to find ways to bring the orchestra closer to the Atlanta community – with, for example, projects that combine music and dance, including genres like hip-hop.

Jennifer Barlament, executive director of the Atlanta Symphony, said the orchestra considered more than 80 people in its research, which began in January 2018. But after three guest appearances, Stutzmann stood out with his chemistry with musicians and his knowledge of choral works. (The orchestra has had an acclaimed choir since being conducted by Robert Shaw.)

“It’s clear that musicians love to work with her,” said Barlament.

Stutzmann’s appointment comes in a larger classical music context on a history of discrimination based on gender and race. Some believe that a change could be on the horizon: around a third of the music directors of the 25 largest orchestras in the country plan to step down in the next few years. (And some smaller organizations, including the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic, currently have female musical directors.)

Alsop, the first woman to lead a prominent American ensemble, praised Stutzmann’s selection, describing her as a gifted musician.

“She’s worked very, very hard at her leadership,” Alsop said in an interview. “She’s a natural talent, but it’s clear that she really invested time and energy and brought her deep musical experience, her artistic experience, to the podium.”

Alsop said she hopes Stutzmann will be one of the many women to win prominent positions in the years to come.

“Hopefully this will start a trend,” Alsop said. “It’s a start. Let’s go.”