Conductor Jessica Bejarano founded the San Francisco Philharmonic, which she aims to fill with accomplished, diverse musicians. The orchestra performed its first concert in February 2020.
When San Francisco Opera opened its 2021–22 season in August of last year, there was more than one reason to celebrate. The organization’s production of Puccini’s Tosca marked its return to the War Memorial Opera House for in-person live performances after a year-and-a-half hiatus due to the pandemic. Tosca was also S.F. Opera’s debut production under the helm of its new music director, Eun Sun Kim, the first woman to lead a major U.S. opera company.
Kim is a powerful conductor with an ear for detail. During the company’s Tosca run, she accompanied the opera’s ill-fated namesake diva with swells of sumptuous sound from the orchestra and enlivened Puccini’s melodramatic turn-of-the-20th-century score.
On one hand, it doesn’t matter at all that Kim is a woman. She is an astute artist and musician. That’s why she got the S.F. Opera job and why she is in high demand as a conductor around the world.
On the other hand, it matters very much that Kim is a woman. It matters because, quite disappointingly, she is the single exception to a very tired rule. At every other major opera house in the United States, a man holds the position of music director. Following Marin Alsop’s summer 2021 departure from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the same is now also true for every one of the country’s 25 largest symphony orchestras.
This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Strides have been made, of course. Women are appearing more and more frequently as guest and assistant conductors, and several women lead smaller U.S. orchestras. When French conductor Nathalie Stutzmann joins the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as music director this fall, there will again be one woman leading a top-tier U.S. symphony. But numbers don’t lie, and top positions at major institutions remain stubbornly homogeneous. In short: Women in classical music are making progress, but not nearly enough. And the women making that progress are often white—but not always.
“The field of conducting has existed for over 250 years,” says Bay Area conductor Jessica Bejarano. “Marin Alsop was named conductor of a tier-one orchestra—the Baltimore Symphony—on September 27, 2007. I’ll never forget the date.… She can’t be our token and our only token. Like, come on. Break the ceiling. It’s shattered, but it’s not broken.”
For Bejarano, statistics about the underrepresentation of women in classical music aren’t just numbers; they’re reflective of a lived reality. A 41-year-old tattooed Latina lesbian from East Los Angeles who excels in competitive billiards, Bejarano stands out in a field crowded mostly with white men.
Late last August, Bejarano and I meet at an Italian restaurant down the street from the War Memorial Opera House for dinner before a Saturday-evening performance of S.F. Opera’s Tosca. Over pasta and wine, Bejarano tells me her life story.
Bejarano’s mother immigrated from Mexico to Southern California before she was born. “I come from a very large Mexican family,” she says. “[My family] looks at me, and they’re just like, ‘How in the world did you become a conductor?’ We didn’t grow up with classical music whatsoever.”
In Bell Gardens, a few miles south of East L.A., the public schools Bejarano attended were underfunded and plagued by gun violence. “There was a lot of gangs. There was a lot of drugs. There was a lot of violence. There was a lot of crime. There was a lot of immigrants. It was my norm,” she says. “It was very common for someone to bring a gun and shoot in the classroom.”
But even at a tough school with high teacher turnover, music education changed Bejarano’s life. Her older brother joined his middle school band, brought home a trumpet, and told his little sister not to touch it. But when he was out of the house, Bejarano gravitated toward the shiny object, pulling it out of its case, attaching the mouthpiece, and making noise. When she entered fifth grade, she enthusiastically signed up for band.
At Bell Gardens High School, as Bejarano remembers it, the marching band went through five or six directors. As the ensemble’s drum major, she says, she “kind of led the students through the four years that [she] was there,” stepping up to fill gaps created by teacher vacancies.
After high school, Bejarano toured the country with Drum Corps International and studied music education. By the time she finished college, she’d fallen in love with the art of conducting. Determined to follow her passion, she enrolled in a conducting master’s degree program at UC Davis.
There, Bejarano found herself studying under a conducting professor whose actions toward her and others, she says, were racist, misogynistic, and abusive. The professor, who, after his retirement, faced allegations of sexual assault from a former student, made Bejarano’s life miserable. His verbal and emotional abuse was so abhorrent during orchestral rehearsals that students would come up to her afterward and tell her they were sorry for how she was being treated. One day, in the professor’s office during a private lesson, Bejarano says, he told her to “go back to [her] country” because her desire to become a conductor “was not going to happen in [his],” before screaming, “Get the fuck out of [his] office.”
In a written statement, a UC Davis spokesperson confirmed that the school was “prepared to investigate allegations made against the professor in 2017, when he agreed to step down from his emeritus position at UC Davis and give up his affiliation with the university.” The spokesperson declined to comment on the incidents described by Bejarano, writing, “Abusive behavior is unacceptable” and adding, “Our protocols and processes have improved greatly over the years.”
Bejarano remembers going home and staring at the wall, thinking, “What the hell just happened? If this is the way I’m being treated in academia, what is the real world going to treat me like? I give up. I can’t. This is too much abuse.” But then, “just like that,” she says, something shifted. “No, absolutely not,” she thought. “This is my career. This is what I want to do with my life. No one is going to take it away from me. Especially not him.”
As Bejarano tells me about her experiences in the UC Davis music department, my heart sinks with recognition. As a graduate student at a different university studying classical music around the same time that Bejarano was in school, I experienced and witnessed my own fair share of emotional abuse and misogyny. Our dinner conversation shifts from interview to commiseration sesh. We talk about how the #MeToo movement sparked some change—bringing to light the egregious behaviors of professors. And we talk about how people who exhibit similar behaviors still hold tenured positions and still must be rooted out. We talk about the resilience it takes to complete a degree when your own professors are determined to see you fail. And I sit in awe of the grit and determination of the woman across the table from me.
Words and actions like that professor’s can crush and defeat. But instead, they fueled and focused Bejarano’s passion. For the rest of her time in the UC Davis music department, she held her head high when conducting the university orchestra or working with that professor. “I came back with a fire,” she says. “I conducted that orchestra, and I went into those lessons very upright, like, ‘I do belong here, and I’m not going to let you squash me.’ ”
Bejarano earned her degree and went on to study conducting in Russia (she’s a Tchaikovsky enthusiast and scholar) and Europe before returning to work in the Bay Area as a music educator and a conductor. She’s led a variety of local ensembles—the Peninsula Symphony, the West County Winds in the East Bay, the Community Women’s Orchestra, the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony, and the San Francisco Civic Symphony.
As she looked to advance her career, she struggled to find a meaningful mentor. And in interviews for conducting positions, she consistently bumped up against board members who couldn’t see past an outdated vision of what a conductor should look like—white, male, conservative in appearance, possibly European. At many institutions, she says, board members who often have no musical experience have the ultimate say in whom the organization hires. “Sometimes who they want doesn’t have to necessarily do with talent,” she says. “It might have to do with where you studied, who you know, where you’ve been.”
By 2019, Bejarano says, she had reached a point in her career where she was tired of placing her future in the hands of others. “I wanted to take that back and build my own orchestra,” she says. “And so that’s why I came up with the idea of the San Francisco Philharmonic.”
Around the same time, in the spring of that year, a colleague suggested that Bejarano attend an Alta Journal event at Books Inc.’s Opera Plaza location titled “The Past, Present, and Future of Women in Classical Music.” On the panel that evening were conductor and music director Nicole Paiement of Opera Parallèle, San Francisco Ballet Orchestra concertmaster Cordula Merks, and Melissa Kleinbart, first violin and Katharine Hanrahan Chair of the San Francisco Symphony.
“I was starstruck seeing all these women,” Bejarano recalls. “Everything they talked about was absolutely resonating with me and things that I’ve been through that they’ve been through. And they were giving these wonderful pearls of advice and wisdom about their careers in music. I was just blown away because we all have something in common.”
After the talk concluded, Bejarano introduced herself to some of the members of the panel. Paiement was impressed by her courage. “I love honesty in people,” Paiement says. “I kept her name, and then when [Opera Parallèle was preparing to produce an opera about] Harvey Milk, I thought of her. She’s from the LGBTQ community, and I thought it would be great to have [her as] an assistant conductor.”
The Harvey Milk opera was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic and has yet to be rescheduled. Nonetheless, last summer, Opera Parallèle announced that Bejarano would join the company as an assistant conductor.
Bejarano worked closely with Paiement on Opera Parallèle’s groundbreaking 2021 digital graphic novel production of Joby Talbot’s Everest, and she is assisting Paiement again in the company’s upcoming production of composer Lembit Beecher’s 65-minute chamber work, Sophia’s Forest. That opera, which will be performed at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco from February 24 to 26, features a “forest” of nine sound sculptures made from elements like bicycle wheels and water-filled wineglasses that are electronically manipulated to blend with acoustic strings and percussion. Paiement says the sculptures “create a sound world that is exquisite” while doubling as set pieces that mimic trees in a forest.
Through the sound sculptures and a specially made music box, Sophia’s Forest explores the intersection of technology and opera. With a libretto by Hannah Moscovitch, it tells the story of a nine-year-old girl who has immigrated to the United States, delving into her interior world and imagination as she deals with the trauma of her experiences. It’s a narrative to which Bejarano will most certainly bring valuable insight. And, Paiement says, “it’s a very beautiful opera.”
SHARE THE BATON
Nicole Paiement is one of many classical musicians who have been working consistently and persistently to change things. She knows from personal experience what it feels like to stand out as a “first.” In the late 1980s, when she attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, the petite French Canadian was that institution’s first-ever female conducting student.
After graduating from Eastman, Paiement didn’t feel like she could call up a top-tier conductor and ask him to mentor her like many of her male colleagues did. She didn’t see a path forward for her career in New York (the only state in the U.S. she’d ever visited) and was considering moving to France or back home to Montreal. An adviser at Eastman suggested she try to advance her career in California, get some university teaching experience, and practice her English. So she took a job at UC Santa Cruz. There, she found fertile ground not only to teach but to study, perform, conduct, and grow. She founded a music group—Ensemble Parallèle—which eventually morphed into Opera Parallèle in San Francisco. Over the years, she’s made a name for herself as a precise and passionate interpreter of contemporary and obscure opera.
In 2012, the Dallas Opera invited Paiement to conduct performances of Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse. I was working on my graduate studies in Dallas at the time and had never written a word for a newspaper or magazine. But an arts editor at the local alt-weekly thought it was interesting that a woman was conducting and invited me, a local community college adjunct music history professor, to review the production.
Paiement was the first woman I’d ever seen conduct a professional orchestra and the first conductor I’d ever interviewed. I will never forget her generosity of spirit. As a young female writer covering classical music, I would experience plenty of male artists belittling me and trying to make me feel small in interviews. Paiement made me feel seen and treated me—at the time an inexperienced writer in her 20s—with respect and dignity.
When I meet with Paiement in August to interview her for this story, I ask her where she gets that generous spirit. Is it because her mother was a music educator? Does it just come with being a charming and friendly French Canadian?
“I think that I’m really a person that believes that there is room for a lot of talent on this planet and a lot of ideas and a lot of success,” she tells me. “It’s about helping. I feel that I’ve had that in my life. I’ve had people that believed in me and [who] have that generosity of spirit in letting me experiment. So I want to give it back in that way. I think it’s very important. That’s just how my personality is.”
Paiement continues to work with the Dallas Opera as its principal guest conductor, and she serves as a mentor for the company’s Hart Institute, a seven-year-old annual program that seeks to address gender imbalance at the podium through training, mentorship, and support of female conductors. It is one of a few similar programs, including Marin Alsop’s famous Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship in Baltimore.
Less formally, back home in San Francisco, Paiement is a fierce ally for the underrepresented and consistently uses Opera Parallèle to provide mentorship to young conductors and amplify the work of female, LGBTQ, and BIPOC composers.
“The most important thing, as an artist—for me, anyway—is that [mentorship] has to be authentic, and it has to be long-lasting,” Paiement says. “It can’t just be that I’m going to hire Jessica because she happens to be Mexican American and that looks good on our folder. No, I’m going to stay with Jessica until Jessica has the job she wants. I’m going to help her out.”
A NETWORK EFFECT
Violinist Cordula Merks of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra also came through for Bejarano after that Alta panel. Throughout 2019, Bejarano worked to make her dream of the San Francisco Philharmonic a reality, finding partners to donate food and provide rehearsal space at a discount; using social media to connect with a talented group of diverse, accomplished musicians; and self-funding the group’s debut concert in February 2020, at which Merks performed Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola alongside San Francisco Symphony principal viola Jonathan Vinocour.
When Bejarano talks about that inaugural event, her face lights up and her pride is palpable. “My goal was always to become a tier-one conductor,” she says. “But now that I’ve founded the San Francisco Philharmonic, my goal is to turn the San Francisco Philharmonic into a top-notch professional orchestra. I want to build this baby of mine. And I want to continue to guest-conduct around the world.”
Bejarano says she wants the musicians in her orchestra to be of an extremely high caliber. Equally important to her is that everything about the San Francisco Philharmonic, from its board to its musicians to its audience, is diverse.
The San Francisco Philharmonic’s work has been put on hold during the pandemic, but Bejarano is busy planning its next performances. She points to that sold-out inaugural concert as a solid success worth building on. And, she says, it is proof that to make your dreams come true, sometimes you have to just go for it, whether that means introducing yourself to your heroes after a panel discussion at a bookstore or building your own orchestra.
THE FUTURE IS INCLUSIVE
Last August, after dinner, as Bejarano and I walked into the lobby of the War Memorial Opera House for Tosca, an older white audience member approached us and asked Bejarano for a program, apparently assuming that a Latina woman dressed in black slacks, a black vest, and a white shirt was an usher, not an audience member herself, let alone the founder of a new symphony. I was shocked. Bejarano laughed. She is used to it, she said. As we settled into our seats, she told me a story about once being denied entrance to the backstage of a hall before a concert she was conducting. Bejarano had to open the concert program and point to her own picture and name to be granted access.
Any discussion of the “why” behind the persistent dominance of white men in top positions in classical music must consider all the barriers that prevent change, so many of which are evident in Bejarano’s story: underfunded music education programs in public schools that serve immigrant populations and students of color, persistently toxic and abusive environments at conservatories and university music schools, and arts organizations’ board members who often seem attached to the way things used to be.
Both consciously and unconsciously, biases and prejudices run deep. There is still much work to be done. True. And progress is being made. Also true.
As Eun Sun Kim took the podium to conduct Tosca, the San Francisco Opera audience applauded with enthusiasm for its new, groundbreaking music director. Bejarano and I looked at each other and shared a knowing smile. It’s thrilling to watch an enormous crack appear in a thick glass ceiling. But it will feel even better when the ceiling is gone.•