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First Woman Interview with Odaline de la Martinez

In 1984, Odaline de la Martinez made history: the first woman ever to conduct a complete BBC Prom. It had taken nearly 100 years for this to happen – and still there endures a notable gap between opportunities and status for men and women in the world of conducting and composing.
Yet Odaline is enthusiastic: ‘we can record music now,’ she says. ‘So there is a large archive of music composed and conducted by women. Evidence of women’s work! There is something everlasting for the next generation to look to and be inspired by.’ First Women UK chats with Odaline about her own experiences as conductor and as a composer over six decades in classical music.

Nobody in my family was musical at all

…But in Cuba you don’t have to go very far to find music and dancing! It is a country where people don’t need much inspiration to dance, they just do.
Where I lived as a child, there was a big Afro-Cuban population. I went to sleep most nights hearing that exciting Afro-Cuban drumming. If you have never heard it, you just cannot believe what it is like. When I was older, it inspired my compositions, which have a lot of rhythm. I also like the music of JS Bach – he too has a lot of rhythm in his music. Later, I moved to the United States and it was my aunt who inspired me to be myself and believe in myself. She once gave a party for the pianist, Alicia de la Rocha who I had heard play with the Tucson Symphony. She was a tiny little lady with huge hands – she was a big inspiration to me as a girl.

From the age of three I was sent to study in a little music conservatory in Cuba

I would hear music in my head and just write it out. I have even had a piece that came to me in a dream – I woke up and wrote it down. As a professional composer now, I start writing and it simply opens out. That doesn’t mean I don’t go back and edit and improve, but the original ideas just arrive.

Conducting as a woman is one of the hardest things I have ever faced

It was a long struggle for many years. The BBC orchestras gave me my big breaks in the 1980s. The producers stood up for me and gave me the chance to conduct when some orchestra members were very negative. I remember some guy in the cello section saying, ‘I’m not going to listen to a woman. Why should I listen to her?’ Or sometimes they would complain about me and cause trouble. They said things to me that they would never say to a male conductor. And you simply had to swallow it. You couldn’t challenge them or argue. All you could do was focus on the music – otherwise you wouldn’t have a hope in hell of surviving.


I was 34 years of age when the Proms happened

I remember contacting the BBC and suggesting I do a program there. They agreed, and it was only a few weeks before the performance that someone said to me, ‘do you realise that you are the first woman to conduct a performance at the
Albert Hall?’ So I rang the BBC and they confirmed it! I remember telling myself as I walked onto stage that day: ‘don’t you dare mess it up or get nervous!’ And I didn’t. I was truly shocked when I found out that the Proms had been going nearly 100 years and no woman had conducted there. But it’s a nice thing, people pay attention now when I say something [laughs].

Conducting is Communication

As a conductor, it is crucial that you listen. Even as leader, you must discern when to follow. In an orchestra, if there is a flute playing a solo you must listen so that you can ‘follow’ … and decide when it is time to take charge. There’s no point swimming against the current because you will drown.
Likewise with organisations you must communicate and listen in different ways. With male-run things – obviously with some exceptions – there is a lot of territoriality. For example, when you talk to an orchestra, male section leaders prefer you to address them, and then they tell the rest of the section. It is top down like a pyramid. On the other hand, if you have a woman leading a section, she is usually happy if you talk to the whole section at once. She communicates across the section, like a spiderweb. This is something I have seen time and again.

Trust your Gut – have no fear

My biggest mistake in the past has been not trusting my instinct. I get so angry at myself when I don’t do that! As a conductor, you also need patience, tenacity – and most of all, no fear of failure. Don’t be afraid of making a mistake – just get up, dust off and start again. And again. And again. If you do not keep going, nothing will happen for you.

What can men learn from women?

[Laughs] Humility, humility, humility! You know, instead of showing off in front of women they should learn to be more humble. And women could certainly learn to have more self-belief, as men do. Belief that they have something important to offer. Women over the centuries have been told that they are just wives and that they must stay at home. We must believe that we really have something to offer to move [the world] forward.

It is important to motivate others

When you tell others how excited you are by their work and what you are doing together, you can motivate them. Appreciate the people you work with and commend them when they do well. Make it clear that you know that what they are doing is good quality. And of course if it isn’t, you must tell them that as well. I think you have to be direct but diplomatic with difficult feedback. And be consistent. It doesn’t work if one day you’re gentle and the next you give a full dressing-down. My problem is that I say exactly what I think… I have a reputation for it. But I am more diplomatic than I was ten years ago. Living in this country for so many years has helped that somewhat! There is something in the UK which is called a shit sandwich – I think you will have heard of it? Good – bad – good. This works well when giving feedback.

I have a postive personality

I maybe get depressed one day a year. And even if things aren’t going well, you still have to focus on the job at hand. Remind yourself of your mission, your aim, and keep moving towards it. Don’t be diverted.

Despite all that has changed women composers are still in the background

There is still this mentality that, ‘women can’t write.’ It goes all the way back; Schuman’s wife, Mendelssohn’s sister. So many female composers were told that it was not a woman’s job to write music but to instead have babies. That is something we are still working hard to change. Women’s exposure in music is a sine curve: sometimes we are at the top, like now. And then inevitably – unfortunately – we begin to go down. You see it historically with moments of emancipation that then fade out: the 1920s, 1960s, the 1980s…In the wartime, the 1940s, the orchestras were full of women! But when the men came back, the women had to give up their jobs and go back to being housewives.
Even in the Middle Ages. Everyone has heard of the troubadours – but what about the trobairitz, the female troubadours? Who remembers them? Women players were everywhere in the Middle Ages and had a lot more equality – but they are not in the archives and therefore not remembered.

So much has changed and yet the power is still with the men

At some point there has to be some sharing of power but it hasn’t really happened yet. I’d like to close on a positive note however. There is a lot happening for the future of women and women composers. What makes a difference now – which didn’t exist before – is that there is an archive of music composed and conducted by women. Evidence of women’s work! This is something everlasting for the next generation to access and be inspired by. People will be able to look back for decades to come and see what women were capable of.’


Interview by Deborah Willimott



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