As she mounts the conductor’s podium and turns with a bright smile to greet her audience, I see first that Ruth Reinhardt is an angelically pretty blond, with the kind of face that in the old days would have meant she was seldom taken seriously.
But everything about her manner and her expertise express the talent and hard work and tenacity that have created opportunities for her all over the world—and now here in Santa Fe where she is kicking off our series with an all-Mendelssohn concert.
As she turns to face her orchestra, I notice her broad back and long arms encased in a beautifully tailored black jacket with a striped lining that shows, briefly, as she leans forward to cement the players’ attention. Her long-fingered hands, embracing and welcoming them, seem inexpressibly feminine to me, as though she is welcoming the players into her family.
Now, as she surges forward, urging them on, I see a strength that reminds me of the Bald Eagle released from captivity here yesterday, taking to the air without a backward glance. The great vigorous swoop of her long arms are like the eagle’s wings. And then, as the climax dies, she becomes almost still, her left hand dropping for a moment by her side with the sudden, unexpected relaxation that makes her surging possible.
But then she is exhorting them again with all the homely gestures—stirring, folding in—that I associate with cooking and thus with a female stereotype: but the music she is producing is not batter for brownies. I need a wider vocabulary.
At one moment, she pinches the fingers of her left hand as though measuring a pinch of salt but this is not stew she’s making.
As the orchestra heats up, it seems to respond to her like a single lover, its attention a powerful energy in itself as she leads them through the melancholy and gloom of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Op. 26, called “Fingal’s Cave” after the composer’s visit to Scotland in 1829. There, he saw the ruins of Holyrood chapel where Mary, Queen of Scots, was crowned. She would later lose her head after trying to stake her legitimate claim to the throne of England.
A violin concerto and a symphony by the same composer follows, the last highlighted by the singing of a young soprano whose name doesn’t seem to be listed in the program. She showed me something I found distinctly feminine in her performance: the anguished expression of a musician sunk deep in the terrible tragedy of the purely beautiful. I’ve never seen a male singer allow anguish to occupy his face.
After the performance, accented by the orchestra stamping their feet in acclimation, the singer came down into the audience and talked with two stunned little girls. I imagine what it would have meant to me to see the conductor and the singer when I was seven years old.
So what is the difference between a woman conducting and a man?
It is almost indescribable, but it seems to me to root in a passionate form of energy—the energy we might have read about that allows a woman to lift a truck off her child.
What is new to me is the degree of professionalism, talent and control. As a man in the audience observed after the concert, “Precision and balance,” adding, “They never played better.”
Today, as we vote for Women of Distinction running for political office all over the country we might reasonably feel that no matter the outcome of this particular election, our time has come.