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Female Conductors Are Rare — But They Were Almost Unheard of When Nan Washburn Got Her Start 25 Years Ago

Washburn reflects on what's changed since she first arrived in Plymouth

Sarah Bricker Hunt

As Michigan Philharmonic Music Director and Conductor Nan Washburn enters her 25th year at the helm of the Plymouth-based fine arts mainstay, she’s noticed something about her fellow directors across the country — many more of them are women. 

Twenty-five years ago, when Washburn was early in her career and splitting her work between two distinct American cultures (Plymouth and the West Hollywood Orchestra),  “there were very few women,” she remembers. This was true even though  “I didn’t start until I turned 30, so it was a very late start, and there weren’t that many women,” she adds. “Now, there are lots and lots.”

Despite a marked increase in women-led orchestras over the past several years, men still dominate the field. A 2016 report by the League of American Orchestras estimated that around 21% of orchestras across the country were conducted by women, and only around 9% had women directors. Demographics aren’t readily available to demonstrate how many of those women are part of the LGBTQ+ community, but as a gay woman, Washburn acknowledges she’s faced additional challenges. “It’s not that it’s rare,” she says. “It’s just that it makes it that much harder.” 

Washburn points to many potential reasons why the road toward gender equality in these elite fine arts roles has been so tough. One is quite simple: the male image of the conductor is deeply ingrained in the culture. “I’m just barely five feet tall,” she says, laughing. “I’m not an imposing figure. And so, it’s just a different mindset for people and audiences.” Washburn focuses much of her work on bringing more women into the field, serving as music director and conductor of the National Women’s Music Festival Orchestra each summer in Middletown, Wisconsin since 2016.

The community mindset in historically conservative Plymouth has shifted over the years when it comes to Washburn’s family, as well. “Once this community figured it out and met my partner of almost 37 years, Catherine [Byrd], they really embraced us,” she says. “They have been wonderful, and I can’t say that would have been possible in other parts of the country.”

Plymouth is no Ferndale or Ann Arbor, of course, but Washburn says progress toward LGBTQ+ acceptance has been steadily improving over the past two-and-a-half decades. “I notice it in terms of visibility — I feel like I see more people like me. It’s something I always hoped would happen here, even though Plymouth, for a long time, was very conservative. Now, there’s so much more going on, and I think there’s a lot more diversity in the population in general, and I love seeing that.”

Diversity-forward programming has been at the forefront of the Michigan Philharmonic Board of Directors' decision-making process, too. “It’s why I’ve stayed so long,” Washburn says. “The board has allowed me to program what I want, and that includes lots of diversity in the programming.” 

Washburn regularly seeks out LGBTQ+ composers and performers, including Miguel del Águila, who the orchestra will host later in September to premiere his new double concerto for oboe and clarinet, “Concierto con Brio,” featuring UM Oboe Professor Nancy Ambrose King and her son, Michigan Philharmonic clarinetist Ryan King. Del Águila has visited the Michigan Philharmonic a few times over the years, and while Washburn recalls him being a “little nervous” the first time he visited the area, “now he brings his partner, and everyone loves them.” 

Washburn’s leadership has invited national recognition for the Michigan Philharmonic. Since she’s been leading the organization, it has been awarded six American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Awards, multiple Knight Foundation grants and second-place honors in the prestigious American Prize competition in the professional orchestra division. She has also served as the artistic director and principal conductor for the Michigan Phil’s Youth Orchestra, which she established in 2003. 

Washburn's accomplishments include serving in leadership roles in the Camelia Symphony in Sacramento, the Channel Islands Symphony, the Acalanes Chamber Orchestra, the American Jazz Theater and director of the San Francisco State University Symphony Orchestra. In 2021, she was honored as one of Crain’s Notable LGBTQ in Business leaders. 

One challenge Washburn is constantly working to overcome is bridging the generational gap. As is the case across the country, most of Michigan Philharmonic’s audience skews older. To appeal to younger audiences, the organization offers strong pops programming, including holiday music, outdoor shows featuring smaller ensembles, and events like “Sci-Phonic,” a concert focused on popular anime, sci-fi and fantasy music. 

“I think people hear the word ‘symphony’ or ‘philharmonic’ and go, ‘I don’t like that,’” Washburn says. “They might think it’s too high-brow. And so we’re still trying to reach people who might love it if they just came out and tried it.” 

Washburn says she is intentional about making sure audiences realize she is approachable and that  “our musicians are also approachable and wonderful, wonderful players..”

“I just keep hoping we’re gonna get more people to experience us,” she adds. 

An upcoming Halloween-themed event offers an ideal entry point for the symphony-curious. Set for Oct. 21, “Philharmonic Phright Night” will feature vocalist and narrator Geff Phillips and a slew of familiar spooky pieces, including the “Jaws” theme, “The Time Warp” from “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and selections from “Corpse Bride.” Washburn is still working out her costume for the event. 

Learn more about the Michigan Philharmonic and the 2023-2024 season at michiganphil.org

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