Dec 13, 2014

Fujimoto Blazes a Symphonic Trail in San Antonio

Reporting Texas

Akiko Fujimota is the first female conductor in the 75-year history of the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra. Photo courtesy Liz Garza Williams

Akiko Fujimoto is the first female conductor in the 75-year history of the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra. Photo courtesy of Liz Garza Williams


The San Antonio Symphony Orchestra grabbed headlines in October 2011 when it announced it would hire Akiko Fujimoto as its assistant conductor, the first woman to officially pick up a baton for the 75-year-old organization.

A Stanford graduate, Fujimoto earned masters degrees in conducting from both the Eastman School of Music, in 1999, and Boston University, in 2001. Today, as San Antonio’s associate conductor,  she directs some 40 public performances a year and works closely with Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing.

Fujimoto says she’s encountered no overt gender bias in her career, yet she’s playing a pioneering role in a field that is dominated by men.

According to the League of American Orchestras, only about 20 percent of its member conductors, assistant conductors and music directors are female. Only 76 of the 605 music directors, the top position, are women.

Said Rachelle Schlosser, the league’s director of media relations: “There is only one female music director at the 24 highest-budget U.S. orchestras: Marin Alsop at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.”

Peter Bay, music director and conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra, says the playing field is leveling, if slowly. “It used to be a stereotype that a conductor was the dictator of the orchestra, a figure that a female was not powerful enough to handle,” he said. “Now orchestras are more democratic, and the notion that females are not strong is disappearing.”

To find out what it’s like for a woman making her career in the field today, Reporting Texas spoke to Akiko Fujimoto from her office in San Antonio as she prepared to conduct the symphony’s holiday performance of “The Nutcracker.”

Q. Why do you think more women have chosen to pick up the baton in recent years?

A. This is a much bigger question of women entering the workforce… Our generation knows that with the same skills and education level, we can pursue the same occupation as a man.

Even if someone is a highly experienced conductor, an orchestra can be divided [over ] whether he or she is good. I would say the professionals are there because they cut it. Beyond the qualifications, a lot of things are subjective, and I think that gender is one of those things that make us different from another. Gender might play a bigger role in our profession than another career that relies less on a person’s personality.

But honestly, I don’t know any orchestra that would care whether they play under a male or female conductor anymore.

Q. Are there ample opportunities for female conductors?

A. I don’t think in this day and age anybody has been discouraged from entering the field because of gender. What I do know: It’s hard for everyone. There [are] so few job openings every year. And when there is one, 200 people apply.

The skills that you need in this field [are] not gender related. Gender might attract attention at the beginning and it might color your interactions with people who don’t know you. People have different expectations for any demographic that is underrepresented; that’s only natural.

But maybe the audience isn’t used to it yet. Some audience members have come up to me and said, “I don’t see that many female conductors” and “You’re the first one!” It can be a good thing because it differentiates you from the typical demographics of the industry. In their heads, I’m still a fresh face, and it attracts some attention, which can be beneficial for your career.

Q. Have you ever felt the need to act masculine as a conductor?

A. No, but I think I’ve neutralized my femininity without knowing it. Since I’m not a girly girl, this doesn’t require much of an effort. Maybe I’m feminine to some people, but that’s not the point. When I choose to program a certain piece, or how to play a certain phrase, or a particular articulation, that’s not male or female. It’s a musical choice.

Q. Have you faced any discrimination based on your gender?

A. I’ve never faced outright gender discrimination. And it’s dangerous in today’s climate anyway. It’s possible that people are more careful with me because of my race and gender.

Q. What made you decide to become a conductor?

A.  I studied music at Stanford University, and one of the classes was conducting. The instructor, Professor Steve Sano, encouraged me after seeing some of my work, and I began to realize that conducting was my instrument. At that time I was 20 or 21, studying hand gestures and basic orchestrations, and I wasn’t sure what else was involved in conducting. But I was committed enough for conducting to be my lifelong goal.

Q.  How important was his help as your mentor?

A. He would give me opportunities to conduct concerts and rehearsals while I was still a student and talk to me about the issues and questions I had with conducting — the music, the psychology behind it, the organizational and interpersonal issues one might face. Once I decided to make this my career goal, he was 100 percent behind me. [But he also] wanted me to be sure of my choice and not give me a false sense of reality.

Q. Were there people around you who were apprehensive?

A. My father was worried about me going into music performance as a career. He isn’t a musician, but he knows the time and investment that you put in doesn’t always pan out as you hoped. I know that when I got the job at San Antonio, both [of my parents] heaved a sigh of relief.

Q. What kind of personality does someone need to become a conductor?

A. Everyone needs a solid foundation and to be comfortable in their own skin when they are sitting in front of 70, 80, 90, 100 musicians… As a professional conductor, my job is to look at the whole score, or the whole orchestra, or the whole choir — listen to their needs and interpretations, but stand your ground as well.

If you aren’t truthful and sincere, people can detect that. Musicians are particularly sensitive, and extremely intelligent and well trained. So you have to be honest about what you want.