Meet Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s groundbreaking 1st female conductor

·4 min read

A dream that began as a child is now a groundbreaking reality for Nathalie Stutzmann after she was named the first female music director in the 77-year history of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

The 56-year-old native of France spoke with Jenna Bush Hager on TODAY Monday about becoming just the second woman to be selected as music director of a top-tier U.S. orchestra. Stutzmann conducted her debut concert last week.

"Oh my gosh, I have no words," she said. "It was so moving, and the welcome of the audience, which I met actually yesterday night for the first time, was just amazing."

Stutzmann is the only woman to currently lead a major U.S. orchestra, following in the footsteps of Marin Alsop, 64, who was named music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007. Alsop was the first woman to hold the position at a major U.S. orchestra, and she concluded her historic 14-year tenure this year.

Stutzmann’s ascension to leading the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is the culmination of a dream she had as a young girl.

“I very much remember, I must have been 7 or 8, and I was in the orchestra pit and I watched the conductor,” she said. “And when he was taking his baton I thought he was Mickey Mouse in ‘Fantasia,’ because he was taking this baton and he was doing this.

“And the sound was coming there. For me, I couldn’t explain. I said, ‘How is it possible that this guy does this?’ And I say this guy, because it always was a guy. So I was dreaming to have a baton in my hands. And I must tell you, I have been conducting in my heart, in my soul, all through my life.”

Stutzmann is the daughter of two opera singers and studied music in school. When she was repeatedly passed over as a conductor in favor of men, she became a celebrated contralto (the lowest range of a classical female singing voice) while still harboring aspirations of breaking through as a conductor.

"It was so frustrating," she said. "It was so sad for me that after a couple of months it was clear to me that at that time, as a woman, forget it, because you will never make it (as a conductor)."

She performed as a contralto in some of the world's most prestigious opera houses while studying the maestros in the pit.

“I sang with all the greatest conductors in the greatest orchestras of the world, but I think my conducting dream was always there," she said.

“But of course, I was enjoying to watch all the greatest maestros and no young conductor can have a better teaching course than so many years of music making with the greatest people.”

When she decided to pursue a career as a conductor, she not only had to overcome skepticism of a singer making the transition, but also being the rare woman on the podium.

"I must admit that I spent many nights coming back to my hotel in tears, and thinking the next day I stop," she said. "Because if conducting is this, if I’m going to be treated so bad, I will stop. And the next morning I was going up again."

Stutuzmann described what has been so magnetic to her over the years about being a conductor.

"I must say, it’s probably the most addictive thing on Earth," she said. "Everything you do with your body language, with your eyes, with what you ask to the musicians, has an impact on the sound.

"And when you feel 100 people at the edge of your hands, of your body, of your soul, and everyone going in the same direction, it’s like when the birds are flying for the migration, and you are amazed to see them all flying in the same direction. It’s completely impossible to understand how it works. This is the same feeling. It’s heaven."

Now that she has reached a historic milestone, she takes pride in knowing she is helping pave the way for more women to conduct major U.S. orchestras.

"I dreamed about it, and it’s like that," she said. "Now it feels really natural to me.

"When I’m on the podium I feel this is where I should be. And this is a very special feeling."

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