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Cate Blanchett’s riveting performance in Tár has put female conductors in the spotlight

Music, maestra! Cate Blanchett’s riveting performance in Tár has put female conductors in the spotlight. But is its portrayal of power and passion true to life? Charlotte Vossen meets Brit Alice Farnham to find out

This time last year nobody had much of an opinion on female orchestra conductors. This year everybody seems to have one. Tár, Todd Field’s psychological drama starring Cate Blanchett as conductor Lydia Tár, has been making headlines since its release in January. Reviews have praised Blanchett’s captivating performance as the lesbian conductor accused of sexual abuse at the height of her career, while critics have slammed the film as ‘anti-women’ and her character as a ‘monster’. Nominated for six Oscars, including best picture and best actress (the winners hadn’t been announced at the time of going to press), Tár has made conducting feel edgy. 

‘I’ve seen it twice,’ says Alice Farnham, one of Britain’s leading conductors and author of In Good Hands, a portrait of what it means to be a classical conductor. ‘Cate Blanchett wrote to me last summer and invited me to a screening. Her character [who isn’t based on a real person] doesn’t behave like any of the female conductors I know, but I think it’s interesting that even fictional women are expected to behave better than men.’ 

At 52, Farnham has been waving the baton for more than three decades. Born in Cromer, Norfolk, she was surrounded by music from an early age. Her father was a clergyman who played the guitar and flute, her mother a primary school teacher who played the piano and directed a children’s choir. By the age of 16, Farnham had mastered the trumpet, organ and piano. She went to St Hugh’s College Oxford on an organ scholarship and later studied in St Petersburg under the legendary Soviet conductor Ilya Musin. 

Charlotte Vossen speaks to female conductor Alice Farnham (pictured) who explains the complex visual language of conducting 

Conducting, Farnham explains, is a complex visual language. Conductors beat time with their dominant hand. An up-anddown motion indicates two beats per bar; a triangle, three beats and an upside-down ‘T’ with an extra triangle, four. The other hand cues instruments and shapes sound – bigger gestures usually signalling louder and more aggressive performances. 

You’ll rarely see a conductor without their baton and I presume this crucial tool of the trade must be carefully sourced and jealously guarded. ‘Oh no, they’re thin so they break all the time,’ she says. ‘I buy them at JP Guivier, a shop off Regent Street. They only cost £15.50.’ 

It’s a grey morning as we make our way to London’s St Mark’s Church, where she is rehearsing Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (which will be performed at the Royal Academy of Music this week). 

People think I don’t look like a conductor because I’m not an old man 

During the rehearsal I can see that conducting requires serious multitasking. ‘Are you happy with this tempo?’ Farnham asks a singer as she beats time with a grey pencil. Meanwhile, she’s flicking through a hardback book of The Marriage of Figaro sheet music, sticky notes peeking out (‘it’s about 900 pages long – I label the different parts so they’re easier to find’). Occasionally, she makes a note of when singers breathe and what speed they sing at. It all appears very physical. ‘Conductors live a long time,’ she confirms. ‘It’s apparently a combination of brain stimulation and cardiovascular exercise. She points at the Apple Watch on her left wrist. ‘As soon as I start conducting it asks me if I want to record an indoor run!’ 

With more than 30 operas under her belt, does she have a favourite? ‘Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia in the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg in 2013. When I was a student in Russia I saw so many performances. I never thought I’d perform in the same theatre where the famous Tchaikovsky ballets premiered.’ 

Gender inequality is still a problem. At the Royal Philharmonic Society’s last count, only two UK orchestras had a female principal conductor, only five female conductors had titled roles at these orchestras and only 11 per cent of conductors represented by British agents were women. ‘People think that I don’t look like a conductor. It’s because I don’t look like an old man,’ says Farnham. Male conductors usually wear tails. Some female conductors do too, but Farnham doesn’t want to dress like a man to do the job. ‘I’d rather look feminine and strong.’ Her outfit of choice? Smart silver shoes and a black velvet jacket her mum found in a shop in Sheringham, Norfolk. ‘I’ve never been able to find anything as good, so I’ve had copies made.’ 

Farnham also points out that good conducting-wear is all about the rear view, as that’s what the audience sees, so she’s careful about her hair. ‘My hairdresser says I’m the only person who looks properly when she shows me the back of my head with a mirror.’

  • Alice Farnham’s book In Good Hands is published by Faber, price £16.99* 


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