Updated: Apr 20, 2021
Romely Pfund on equality in classical music, being a female conductor in the GDR, the current challenges that classical music is facing, and the wild range of possibilities that young up and coming conductors are facing.
Born in Dresden, Romely Pfund is one of the top conductors in Germany. Even as a child it was clear that she, coming from a musical family, would do something with music. As the daughter of very musical parents, she realized that there was no way around a professional career in classical music. Romely Pfund completed her training with conductors such as Kurt Masur, Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa and Gennadi Roshdestwenski. From 1987 to 1996 she was General Music Director of the Neubrandenburg Philharmonic Orchestra. She has conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra, the Komische Oper Berlin and the Deutsche Oper am Rhein. We talked to her about equality in classical music and what young classical musicians should take to heart on their way to the top.
What are the biggest challenges in your professional life?
Discovering the special features of a piece of music anew each time and not following well-trodden paths.
How do you feel about gender relations in your personal working environment?
According to our research, after your studies at the Dresden University of Music, you attended various master classes exclusively with male composers and conductors. Is that correct? If not, by which female composer/conductor was you taught?
There were only a few female conductors at that time. I was guided by role models such as General Music Director Kurt Masur or my teacher, Professor Rudolf Neuhaus. Ilse Brehmer, with whom I had piano lessons at the conservatory, and my mother, who was ballet master at the Dresden State Operetta, also influenced me.
Would you have liked to have had more female composers among your masters back then?
Of course. But I have performed relatively many female composers in the concert hall, for example, Emilie Mayer, a composer from Friedland (Mecklenburg), who lived in Berlin from 1847. During her lifetime she was called female Beethoven. Also, Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) from Lods in Poland is an interesting composer. I have performed her Concerto for String Orchestra and the Concerto for Strings, Percussion, and Trumpets, among others.
"You can accuse this country of many things, but not in terms of equality, it was exemplary."
You received your first chief position as General Music Director of the Neubrandenburg Philharmonic Orchestra in 1987. Back then, times were much more patriarchal than they are today, did you feel like a pioneer?
The times in the GDR, where I lived and worked until I was 35, were not patriarchal at all. On the contrary. You can accuse this country of many things, but not in terms of equality, it was exemplary. When I took up my post as chief conductor in Neubrandenburg in 1987, I was one of five women in the city who held leading positions in cultural institutes, chamber theatre, literature house, and Reimann Museum, museum, library, all in the hands of women. And when three years later I went to the West as a full member of the Federal Republic of Germany for guest conductors, I believed I was transported back to times gone by. Not by the audience and musicians, but by a press that cultivated an incredibly old-fashioned image of women. "How do you get along with so many men?" was usually the question. Well, what else could I do?
In the 90s you were the only woman at the head of a professional orchestra in Germany, did you have the feeling back then that you were being treated differently from your male colleagues?
Well, first of all, I can't know how my colleagues are treated, I'm usually not present at their rehearsals. In addition, I basically have difficulties with this question. What is this idea of your own professional ethics? In my profession, it's all about putting yourself as closely as possible into the composer's world of imagination. This is a responsible task that requires total concentration.
What is special about women as conductors?
There is nothing special about women as conductors; each conductor is unique and sets different priorities. If you have a piece of music conducted by five people, you will hear five different sound results, no matter if man or woman.
"Security and leadership come from skill and experience, so both are possible for both men and women."
It seems to us that even today in the concert halls the works of established male composers predominate, do you feel the same way? If so, what do you think is the reason for this, and what should be changed so that the programs are more diverse in the future?
Those responsible must finally understand that a one-sided program design, whether according to age, focus, or even which soloists or conductors are in the lead, is misleading. I find this carousel of always the same, tried and tested, often photogenic-looking leaders boring, and it will lead to the audience slowly but surely dying out. Of course, I also know that concert halls and opera houses are under enormous economic pressure, but they should still dare more.
Do you personally attach importance to diversity when putting together a concert? Absolutely. A program with similar pieces is boring. The idea can be quite different, for example literarily: all the pieces from the "Zauberberg", politically: "revolutionaries in the concert hall", or by age: "Geniale Jugendwerke", plus soloists and conductors, male or female, who have enormous experience or are at the daredevil beginning of their career.
Is there a secret to becoming an unmistakable artistic voice as a young aspiring musician and developing an authentic relationship with the artistic self?
The secret is very real: 1% genius and 99% work.
Where do you find inspiration?
By engaging with the work again and again. I also find inspiration in going to the theatre, talking to my husband, reading, sports, etc.
In the course of your career, you have often left the terrain of classical music and conducted jazz concerts or ballet evenings. What were your experiences of diversity and inclusion in other genres?
Inclusion doesn't seem to be the right term to me, because I don't include anyone, but rather I look for artistic partners from other genres in order to get inspiration from them and create something new together. I have always found this form of collaboration very enriching, both from the ideas and from a human point of view, because there are very different types in the different fields.
"In society, everyone must have equal opportunities. But that doesn't mean that there is also the same number of artists."
You always manage to build a bridge between musical eras and cultures in an impressive way. What do you think we can learn from the past to make our future even more equal?
I approach things quite openly. In society, everyone must have equal opportunities. But that doesn't mean that there is also the same number of artists. What kind of a strange idea would that be? You can determine the number of female and male artists right away. You also have to know that a work of art does not necessarily correspond to the views of its creator. On the contrary. Art is not bound to any social system, or as they say, it is l'art pour l'art. Regardless of this, we should defend our enlightened system, in which every artist can develop freely.
You have been involved in numerous CD and DVD productions in the course of your career. Do you have the feeling that gender relations behind the scenes have developed more towards equality in recent years?
I think that today the conditions for equal opportunities in western countries are incomparably better. The differences between western countries and countries where women's rights are curtailed are huge.
What are the greatest challenges that classical music is currently facing?
Classical music is music from centuries-long past. You have to reinterpret it, combine it with surprising ideas or with music from other genres. Otherwise, this museum will only be visited by enthusiasts and specialists.
"At the moment, promoters and opera houses even seem to be desperately looking for suitable women for vacant positions. So, ladies and gentlemen, have the courage to go for it!"
What may change so that in the future even more women can become conductors?
The music academies are full of female students, but only a few of them manage to make the leap into professional life. So they have to become tougher. Conducting is not a feel-good cushion. On the other hand, a lot has changed in recent years. Today, there are a whole series of general music directors at major theatres, I would like to mention Mirga Grazinite Tyla, Principal Conductor of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Joana Mallwitz, GMD of the Nuremberg State Theatre, Anna Skryleva, GMD of the Magdeburg Theatre, as examples. They are usually marketed by large agencies. At the moment, promoters and opera houses even seem to be desperately looking for suitable women for vacant positions. So, ladies and gentlemen, have the courage to go for it!
You are acting as a conductor all over the world, would you say that there are countries where particular emphasis is placed on equality? If so, which ones?
The Scandinavian countries are at the forefront. However, they also attach great importance to placing their own people in the national cultural institutes. In these countries, and also in Germany, the idea has been around for some years now of preparing suitable applicants for management positions at the big institutions by mentoring them. In general, Germany is much further along today than it was in 1990.
Do you believe that we will experience a time when women and men will have equal rights in classical music?
Equal rights must be guaranteed by the state. But conducting is not an easy profession. The requirements are complex and you have to be able to take a beating.