Serena Benedetti is the mastermind and founder of Valissima Institute, the only program of its kind training young women to be orchestra conductors; to date, those cherished and authoritative posts has been held almost exclusively by men. At the Institute, however, leading faculty teach highly advanced pre-college female instrumentalists with a strong interest in conducting. The Institute’s curriculum is one that promotes leadership.
GENA RAPS: Before the pandemic, I went to a concert of the Juilliard Orchestra conducted by Barbara Hannigan. She came to the podium sleeveless. My jaw dropped seeing a woman with bare arms leading an orchestra. To this day, I still have that image in my mind’s eye. What was your inspiration to start Valissima?
Serena Benedetti: I just love your example, and it leads to many discussions about what this project means, especially to those of us who have been thinking about issues around women and representation for such a long time. My inspiration for Valissima was my own daughter, who is a young musician. She has been playing cello since she was very young, and I think when we’re raising daughters, we see again that girls don’t need to be taught to be leaders. They just are.
Anybody who has seen a young girl growing up has seen the strength, the decisiveness, all that vigor. For my daughter, when I realized that she wasn’t just a musician but somebody with a strong musical personality, I wondered where the opportunities were to develop those qualities. For me as a singer, naturally my mind went to the idea of the conductor’s podium. I wondered where the opportunities were for young girls, young women, to explore being on the podium. I saw that there were none.
In the summer educational programs where she was participating, occasionally if there was a camp orchestra, a student might be called onto the podium. It caught my attention that it was boys who were being invited to come up to the podium to try conducting the orchestra. Whether or not that was coincidental, or whether or not my perception was based on my own personal bias to begin with, it really got me thinking that perhaps there was a way to identify people even younger than anybody realizes, and tap them on the shoulder literally or proverbially, to say: you know, you’re a good violinist, but have you ever thought about conducting?
Even planting the seed in a young person’s mind can lead to trajectories in their musical life. Again, whether or not I was seeing something, or whether or not I was myself connecting dots from my own personal experience, it occurred to me that there need to be meaningful attempts to identify girls before the world has gotten a chance to tell them what they can and can’t consider for their own future.
GR: Do you know the work of Carol Gilligan?
SB: Yes. She saw the boys volunteering while girls would hang back at an early age. That’s in my consciousness. In the ‘90s I was an English major at Swarthmore College, and I took a concentration in what was then called women’s studies. It’s likely now called gender studies. We read a lot of texts and had conversations that were primed in me because of those early educational experiences.
GR: What is the history of women as conductors?
SB: I know a little bit of it, and mostly I’m absorbing it by osmosis as I go along this journey. As far as the European tradition of being a music director of a major orchestra, I’m not aware that there have ever been any women to hold those positions. Have there been women that have conducted and led orchestras? To be sure. Nadia Boulanger is one that a lot of people look to as an example. Certainly there have been other noteworthy women who have conducted through the years; we in our business can name a number of them.
But I am not aware that women have been privy to the sort of received wisdom, like the guild way that the craft is handed down from one man to the next. I’m not aware that there have been prominent women in that chain.
GR: A few years ago, when Alan Gilbert was appointed to the New York Philharmonic, they interviewed and invited a few people to conduct as guest conductors. One was Susanna Malkki, whom the Philharmonic loved. The New York Times wrote an article expressing chagrin that she was not considered for the position. She had fantastic reviews.
Years ago Sarah Caldwell conducted regularly. The reviewer would usually mention what she wore and what she looked like. I have not seen men’s appearance on the podium described in reviews.
What are the goals of the Valissima Institute?
SB: It’s really simple. Our sights are aimed upward. We would like to catalyze and train young women who have significant potential so that they will be conducting professionally within the next five to ten years. Additionally, we would like them to be music directors of major orchestras.
GR: I was at the first year’s final concert of Valissima. You had people from the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra playing. How do you do it? It must be magic. These people are busy. How do you get them to play and be led under the baton of a teenager?
SB: One person whom I want to acknowledge, who has put this group together and found people with generosity of spirit and, as you say, enthusiasm for playing for young women, is Katherine Fong, violinist. She plays with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and is the personnel manager of Apex Ensemble — formerly the Montclair Orchestra. Katherine is our principal second violinist, and her husband, Dov Scheindlin, is our principal violist. It took somebody with her character and vision, but also her standing as a respected contractor in the New York area.
That’s another one of our core values, to empower these young women, to erase any potential idea they may have that you have to be something bigger and better than what you are to get on the podium. We want to lay that to rest right from the beginning and say, whatever your musical instincts are, whatever your point of entry is, you simply take the baton, you take the podium, you get up there, and you watch how what you’re doing is responded to by these other people in the room.
There was a magical moment from the beginning. One of the things that we do at Valissima is put the young women on the podium the first full day of the institute. From the very beginning, the atmosphere in the room was indescribable. It was electric, it was loving, it was delight! You could see the expressions on these players’ faces that I’ve never seen, honestly, myself, as a professional musician. It was a look of wonderment and joy. Our young women are frankly so full and brimming with musical ideas that it was a revelation.
How do we get these stellar orchestra members to play for us in the first place? It was a a big effort! We met with a number of orchestras and contractors before finding this arrangement, and we got the strong message that it would be considered condescending. Players would resent playing for a girl. Even though we are not asking for people to donate their time. This is a professional engagement. We’re offering meaningful professional work of exceptional high quality. The objection was, you can’t expect me to have my players play for them. We had to persevere through two of those negotiations that ultimately broke down as a result of that attitude.
When we did find the Apex Ensemble with this spirit, through Katherine, it resulted in what you saw, which is just an amazing musical product, full of freshness and vitality, and yet, you know, musically absolutely on point, because these players are at such a high level.
GR: Where do you get the money? It’s an expensive proposition to pay a professional orchestra.
SB: It’s a big investment in each student, but we believe that for people this age, for whom this is so new and potentially overwhelming, we want it to be as comfortable and affirming an experience as possible. You know, time in front of an orchestra is the most expensive commodity in classical music. Anybody will tell you that. And anything that is scarce in that way tends to lend itself to biases.
We see this system where there is so much inequality; all you have to do is look at whether resources are plentiful or scarce. In the case of time in front of an orchestra, it’s practically impossible to come by in this business. We make it our point to provide enough podium time that we can comfortably say we take a student who’s 14 or 15 or 16, and in two weeks move her from her first time on the podium all the way to a public concert of a major work of the repertoire.
That’s a very tall order for somebody who’s never done it before. We’ve been lucky to have a number of individual donors who have been our champions for the past two years. I will say that we are not in as strong a financial position as I would feel comfortable with, and a program like this is always in danger of not getting the oxygen it needs to continue to grow and thrive.
I have looked at the past two years as an opportunity to prove our concept, because what we’re doing is, in a way, so far ahead of just about everything else in classical music that there have been a number of hypotheses that we’ve needed to test. We’ve needed to find out whether this program is going to have the potential to have the kind of impact that would justify all of the resources needed to continue it.
We have assured ourselves that that’s the case. The next phase is going to be greatly expanding our fundraising effort, growing our base of support, and finding a group of people who view this as essential and vital and the shortest direct path to producing meaningful change.
GR: It seems to me that this is the last glass ceiling that has to be broken. It’s a must-see image for young women to see a woman in a prominent public leadership role in music.
You’ve had a lot of support from the professional community as well. You’ve had major conductors coach your young girls.
SB: Alan Gilbert, Karina Canellakis, Leonard Slatkin, and Daniela Candillari have mentored in our first two years. These conductors, all except for Leonard Slatkin, came in person and taught master classes for the students. Alan Gilbert spent the entire day teaching, and Karina did a three-hour master class with the ensemble, as did Daniela. Maestro Slatkin gave a virtual master class. We had a collaborative pianist, and we set everything up in a recording studio in a way that worked.
If you’re looking to make change, you need the audacity to expect that people who are currently in power, and who have been the beneficiaries of the patriarchal system that has disproportionately rewarded them, are going to want to look for ways to use some of that privilege on behalf of the next generation.
One of the goals of Valissima is to develop these young women in a way that will allow them simply to be as competitive and professionally viable as anybody. It’s important to me that they learn from the leading exponents in the field. Very important to me! We would like over time to be able to say that we have had the Simon Rattles, the Yannick Nezet-Seguins, Riccardo Mutis, and Daniel Barenboims too.
We would like our group of guest faculty to be a list of the world’s leading maestros. We want that tradition to then get passed down, even in some small way, to our students. You know, it’s not easy to get high level professionals to show up for young girls, let’s face it.
We feel lucky that in two years we’ve been able to have the kind of buy-in that we have, and it’s encouraging to think that we’re providing a musical environment for these very high-level people that they want to be part of, and that they can respond to. They can do serious teaching. And they all have! They’ve all come and just taught the way they would teach anybody. It’s been exciting to watch!!
GR: The first year of Valissima, I sent two pianists from my studio at Mannes to the program. They were 15 and 16. The 16-year-old young woman had lost her mother the year before. Can you describe the changes from her first day on the podium to the final concert?
SB: That was a moving experience. She showed up withdrawn, timid, clearly with so much in her heart that was waiting to be expressed, but was covered under a veil of sadness, as you would expect. Over the two weeks, you could see the change in her aura. She started laughing, and smiling, and became just one of the girls. That’s another thing that we are so proud of at Valissima; these young women come in and bond and have so much fun together. They’re all in it together for this enormous challenge.
When she got up to conduct on the final concert, you could feel the tragedy she had gone through, combined with the joy of coming out of that and connecting, not just with other young women but with music. Her performance was so moving, nuanced, and deep. It was a joy to see what could happen in such a short time.
GR: From whom have you gotten advice, and who has been your sounding board?
SB: I get advice from Evangeline Benedetti, my fantastic mother and another pioneer in advancing women’s contributions to music at the highest level of the profession. Michael Gilbert, who is on our board, is a wonderful source of advice and support, and deep knowledge. Weston Sprott at Juilliard has been a champion and a great sounding board. He’s one of the first people whom I talked to about the program. He has been just an angel when it comes to helping get it off the ground, and giving me professional advice.
GR: Where do you get your talent, the young girls?
SB: We look within the pre-college programs that are developing instrumentalists, such as Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, and Mannes. There are wonderful programs at Curtis, New England Conservatory, and in San Francisco. We need to identify young women who have already invested the time and effort in becoming highly developed classical musicians, and we leverage off that knowledge base in order to take them to the next level of conducting.
GR: I think trailblazing is in your blood! Your mother was first cellist in the New York Philharmonic and the second woman to be admitted to the Philharmonic. She was also the first person to have a child while working in the orchestra. You witnessed her triumphs and struggles.
What it was like being a child of a professional mother who came home late at night after concerts and was often touring with the orchestra?
SB: My mother raised my sister and me by herself. My parents’ marriage split up when I was very young. My mother’s musical career provided everything for us. There were a lot of babysitters in the evenings. But there also were wonderful times spent together because, you know, my mother’s schedule was the schedule of an orchestra musician, which is not the same as, say, going to an office and working a nine-to-five job.
There was always a lot of time together before school hours, and then in late afternoons when we would get home and have dinner together. I think that it was both inspiring and exciting, and we were so proud. I am still so proud of her. Yet also, you understood very acutely the vulnerability and the power system in the orchestra world that meant my mom had very little flexibility in her professional life. And there was an acute awareness that she had to meet the demands of her job, and that that’s what our family depended on.
I think witnessing firsthand the overt sexism that my mother encountered, overt discrimination, overt misogyny, time and again, and seeing how she had to handle it and face it and do it for myself and my younger sister, and still maintain her integrity as an artist and assert her right to be there, makes a deep, deep impression. It’s fueling my passion for Valissima.
I think my mother could have been an incredible conductor. It makes me wonder about all the women that we’ve missed out on for many generations, whose musical potential was never fully realized even if they’ve had success in their career, because that crucial element of being the decision maker and the leader was not possible in a professional setting.
I think about the women who have come before, who still today remind us why having bodily autonomy and basic rights is essential, why we can’t even take one minute to get distracted from the idea that we still haven’t attained equality, and who are fearlessly still putting out there the same kinds of ideals that we’ve been fighting for many years now.
A program like Valissima would not be possible, and a consciousness like mine would not be possible, if it weren’t for the generation of women who remember what life was like before Roe v. Wade; who remember what really wasn’t possible at one time, and continue to remind us that the battle is far from won. To the extent that this conversation is a reflection on the Dobbs decision, or to the extent that that’s the subliminal subtext of this project, I view a woman on the podium as the ultimate expression of a woman’s leadership and basic right to make decisions.
One Comment on “Musical Trailblazing
An Interview with Serena Benedetti”
Fascinating and Inspiring. And the many wonderful clips of these young women are an especial treat. Thanks for brightening my day.