BY Kreeta-Maria Kentala
I began my career as a professional musician playing violin with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1989. At that time, there were numerous elderly gentlemen in the ranks and only a few women, and I almost tripped over my feet in amazement when a senior colleague politely opened the door for me and tipped his hat as I arrived at work at the House of Culture one day.
The same gentleman also gave me valuable advice for my first foreign tour with the orchestra: “Everything will be fine if you remember to remove your shoes every night before going to bed. If you leave your shoes on, you will have the most terrible headache.” The handful of us young women in the orchestra at the time were under the “protection” of our older colleagues, and I still recall this useful advice fondly whenever I return to my hotel room after post-concert parties.
After only one year with the orchestra, I decided to go to Cologne to study early music. I played with an ensemble with several women in it, but there was no hope of equality, let alone a protective attitude. Women were second-class citizens, and that was that. At one rehearsal, the conductor of the ensemble went so far as to ask us all out loud whether it was not after all the “truth” that men are better musicians than women. Our always verbose harpsichord player tried to venture some sort of vague defence – mentioning the name of Anne-Sophie Mutter, I believe – but otherwise this utterance was met with a stunned silence.
I realised that this was the cue for my exit and return to Finland. Up until that moment the expert training and excellent concerts had weighed more in the balance than misogynistic comments, but enough was enough.
Having returned to Finland after a couple of years studying Baroque music abroad, I found myself transformed into one of Finland’s leading Baroque specialists, much to my surprise. I was invited to join small professional orchestras as leader for Baroque concerts, and of course I put on a brave face and took the gigs, though I was terrified. My self-confidence had not been boosted at all by my studies abroad – quite the opposite.
My first guest conductor gig did not begin well. I noticed to my horror that a recently retired colleague with a reputation for being a crank was playing with the orchestra in that programme. Just before the first rehearsal began, this tall man came and stood in front of me, looking me in the eye from a great height and said: “I’ve played at concerts for dozens of years, but never have I performed under a woman conductor, so this is the very first time.”
His tone of voice left no doubt that he would have preferred to spend the rest of his life without such a first time. This comment destroyed what was left of the self-confidence I had mustered for the occasion, and my knees trembled as I progressed towards the scaffold, the front of the church where the rehearsal was to take place.
Admittedly a small, plump woman not yet turned thirty, with curly hair pointing every which way and violin in hand, is not the most confidence-inspiring figure to step up on the conductor’s podium, which at the time was still the province of venerable maestros.
It did not help that my guest appearance featured Baroque music, which in the 1990s lay far beyond the comfort zone of most musicians. By then, musicians’ training had not included any instruction in the styles of early music at all. In order to get the dance rhythms swinging and articulations loosened, we had to engage in some purely physical exercises. If looks could kill, I would have died many times over when I had the string players raising their bows towards the ceiling.
In retrospect, it is something of a miracle that I survived those days with my sanity more or less intact. My self-confidence began slowly to build up once more, as successful concerts resulted in a rising reputation.
And then the old-fashioned thing happened in the middle of this career uplift: I got married and had the child I had wanted for quite some time. When my son was little, I could not bear long trips away from home and instead focused on my teaching work. I suppose every woman faces such choices between home and career. There is no single correct answer: everyone must do what they consider best at the time.
Just now, I am beginning a new chapter in my life, as I was awarded a five-year artist grant by the government and can focus on my own musical projects. My son is in upper secondary school, and I suspect that these days he is only glad to see the back of me if I go on tour.
Being a woman and a conductor has changed hugely since the 1990s. Today, so many different personalities may be found on the podium – women and men – that the days of me feeling like a freak up there are, fortunately, over.
At the same time, my speciality, Baroque music, has changed from an alien monster to a standard accessory in musicians’ toolkits, thanks to improved basic training and visits by competent specialist instructors. Conducting an orchestra from the leader’s seat has become more common, and musicians today play in a more reactive manner reminiscent of chamber music than in my early days in the profession. Indeed, in Baroque instrumental music a conductor mostly just gets in the way. It is more versatile to be part of the performing ensemble; one phrase played with gusto can convey more information than any amount of talking about it.
I now find it much easier to open a score in front of an unknown ensemble than I did back in the day, and more often than not someone will approach me before the first rehearsal to say they’d been looking forward to that week so that they can play their favourite music.
:: comes from a long line of fiddlers and has been playing folk music since childhood
:: studied the violin and Baroque music at the Central Ostrobothnia School of Music, the Sibelius Academy, the Edsberg Music Institute and the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Hilversum
:: has played in the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Musica Antiqua Köln ensemble
:: teaches musicians specialising in Baroque music at Novia, the Pietarsaari University of Applied Sciences
:: is a member of the Rantatie String Quartet, the Jouheva ensemble, the folk Baroque ensemble SAMA, the Jones Band and the Barocco Boreale ensemble
:: has received two Emma Awards, a Janne Award from the Finnish AV producers and a Record of the Year award from the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle
See also the review of Kentala’s new album.
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Related readings from FMQ Autumn/2016:
Anna Pulkkis: Are we really still talking about this?
Amanda Kauranne: Conquering the tradition
Liisamaija Hautsalo: Kaija Saariaho – Deep in sound, deep in soul
Heidi Horila: Conceptions of gender in music education