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New Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Nathalie Stutzmann says it’s a good time for women on the podium. And yet...

The famous French contralto turned conductor talked to The Inquirer about her lifelong dream to conduct, and mentors who helped her achieve it.

New principal guest conductor Nathalie Stutzmann directs from the podium during a rehearsal for the Philadelphia Orchestra inside an empty Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on Saturday, Dec. 05, 2020. The Philadelphia Orchestra is performing virtually due to the coronavirus.
New principal guest conductor Nathalie Stutzmann directs from the podium during a rehearsal for the Philadelphia Orchestra inside an empty Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on Saturday, Dec. 05, 2020. The Philadelphia Orchestra is performing virtually due to the coronavirus.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

She is known as a contralto turned conductor, but in reality, conducting has been at the forefront of Nathalie Stutzmann’s thinking for decades. The French musician, newly named principal guest conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra starting with the 2021-22 season, stepped onto the podium early in her training, and found the atmosphere to be less than hospitable.

She is chief conductor of Norway’s Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra, and her appointment now to a U.S. major-orchestra post comes at a very different time for women conductors. Women have made headway in what has long been a man’s profession, but only to an extent, she says. Her plans in Philadelphia are still developing, but she expects to spend three weeks with the orchestra in town each year, plus appearances at its summer homes in Vail, Colo., and Saratoga Springs, N.Y., plus possible touring.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia Orchestra names Nathalie Stutzmann principal guest conductor

Stutzmann, 55, has appeared several times with the orchestra in recent years, and audiences will get their next glimpses of her in two programs this spring that are part of the orchestra’s Digital Stage series. Here, in an edited interview, the conductor explains how her field has progressed, how it hasn’t, and talks about her Philadelphia plans starting in 2021-22, a season which also brings her Metropolitan Opera conducting debut in Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride.

Why were you interested in this post? Where does it fall in terms of your career path and artistic development?

You know, I have been a couple of times already in Philly and the match with the orchestra from the first rehearsal was just fantastic, a very natural connection I would say. I grew up with the recordings of Philadelphia, Ormandy recordings, and of course the first time I came I was so nervous and was wondering if it was going to be a good interaction. And I was amazed by this famous sound.

It is so important with regular guests to respect this history and to cultivate it. I find it’s so rare to have an orchestra that has this, combined with an incredibly open mind. They love to be adaptable if you convince them and if you are passionate.

Every time I came I felt the relationship was growing in a very nice way. After one year I came back and after a few minutes it was like I left the day before. This is something you can’t explain with words. It’s kind of a love story, something which is chemical. You never know. You just can do the best and share the music together, and sometimes it works or it doesn’t work.

Everyone talks about the Philadelphia Sound. How do you define it?

Let’s say, you have at your option the biggest choice of colors, because this is one of the major things with a symphony orchestra, an infinite possibility of colors, and Philly has this. It can go from the most light one, but also to dark colors. You can have this rich sound in Brahms, for example, but sometimes with an orchestra you get a rich sound that is heavy. But here it is colorful, which is what I love.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Nathalie Stutzmann piles on the detail. A sense of awe follows.

What will you be doing here, what kind of repertoire?

It is still a work in progress. My core repertoire is large. Romantic German repertoire. Bruckner, Strauss, Wagner. But I also do a lot of Russian repertoire and French repertoire. I think I have enough possibilities in my repertoire to find my way.

I started to prepare some ideas for some famous works but also with some very rare ones. It has to touch me somewhere, otherwise I can’t give my best. And if I can’t give my best, I prefer to leave it. Choral works, which is one of my favorite things to do, as well. We would all love to hear a big chorus when the pandemic is over, because we miss singing and singers a lot.

What is the job of an orchestra now? Is it evolving in this time?

It’s very interesting what you say. What is happening is of course pushing us to think and rethink many things. We have to be very flexible and go to the evolution, but also see what we can do to do things better.

It’s also a revelation how much the place of the orchestra in the community is important, how much it is important to reach all kinds of audiences, how much music and art were our savior. For many people [during the pandemic], it was the savior for not getting totally desperate.

People need beauty. We are there to share those emotions and bring those genius scores into reality, and this beauty is even more in the light in this moment. That’s what I felt. Just imagine that you had no more concerts, no more books, no art — how can you survive such a moment?

People think of you as a singer and as new to conducting. But that’s not really the case, is it?

When I was growing up, I studied as a pianist, a bassoonist, I even played viola, and my parents were both opera singers. But for me, I really grew up as a musician first as a teenager conducting in class. It took two years for me to completely understand that it was a time when a woman on the podium was not yet possible.

Then I studied singing and won a national competition, so it was very obvious that the best course at that time was a singer’s life. But I always kept hope in my brain that if this second dream would one day be possible ... And then I did achieve quite a lot of things as a singer and felt the wind was turning a little bit toward talking about women on the podium.

So I talked to two people. Seiji Ozawa was first, I was performing with him, and he said, “I will offer you some concerts in Japan with my orchestra and we’ll see how it goes.” We talked after that, and he said, “I will take care of you.” At the time I was singing often with Seiji, and we studied scores together. I told him if I was talentless, please tell me. I don’t want to be one of those soloists who thinks they can be a conductor.

[About two years later], I said to Simon [Rattle], “I would love to do work on technique,” and he said to go to [Finnish teacher Jorma] Panula, so I took an audition with Panula, and the audition went really well and he kept me in his class. I went to Finland to do master classes with him. He doesn’t speak a lot, but if he speaks one phrase a day it’s an important one. I studied with him for two years.

One day Simon was watching. He wrote to me and said he thought I was the real thing and wanted to support me. And then I started to get some concerts.

How different are things now for women conductors?

It’s very clear that things have improved. There are countries where it is still difficult and almost impossible. What is wonderful is that the young women conductors now have much more opportunity than in the past. There are competitions, many possibilities for women to get a chance to show what they can do.

What is incredibly difficult still is for a woman to get a position. We see great orchestras always having women coming for a week to guest conduct. It’s very important to see in the next years more women in the crucial positions of music director and principal guest conductor at the head of important orchestras.