IN China and the United States it happens frequently. In France and Poland it's absolutely normal. But in Italy, it never happens. At least it hadn't happened until this past holiday season, when a woman conducted a symphony orchestra in Italy for the first time. The place: Teatro Brancaccio in Rome. The conductor: Claire Gibault, music director of l'Orchestre de l'Op'era de Lyon. The ensemble: L'Orchestra del Teatro dell'Opera di Roma.
The concert, which was sponsored by the Italian National Commission for the Equality of Men and Women, was a long time coming. In the past, Italian custom has decreed that women conductors could not practice their profession in either concert hall or recording studio. The Commission for Equality, which had taken the first positive step toward women's equality with its ``Women's Vote'' campaign, decided to initiate a cycle of concerts to be called Podio Donna.
(The phrase Podio Donna loses its succinctness and its sly, ironic punch in translation. ``Woman and the Conductor's Podium'' perhaps suffices literally.)
The first concert in the cycle was scheduled for Oct. 9, with the well-known American conductor, Eve Quelar, on the podium. At the last minute, a strike by the orchestra for a wage increase canceled the event. But the second program in the series took place as scheduled, with Maestro Gibault conducting. Patrons preoccupied with trivia
As many people expected, Rome did not beat a path to the Teatro Brancaccio for what turned out to be an excellent concert. The 2,000-seat auditorium was only half full, and the conversation among the patrons before the concert started seemed to center on the trivial aspects of the event. Would the maestro wear a suit or a dress? Did the unusually large number of women arriving without male escorts - rather uncommon in Italy - indicate that a big portion of the audience would be made up of women ``activists'' rather than regular concert-goers? (For the record, let it be said that Mme. Gibault wore a dress.)
Characteristically, Gibault had chosen an all-French program for her Roman debut: Bizet's youthful Symphony in C, plus two works by Debussy, his mystical ``Pr'elude `a `L'Apr`es-midi d'un faune,''' and the fiery, Spanish-flavored ``Ib'eria.''
Claire Gibault is a name to remember, for she is a brilliant conductor. Though diminutive in stature, she was in complete control on the podium, the musicians responding with alacrity to her every gesture. In the Bizet one could have wished for a more sensuous sound from the woodwinds, for a string section that had fewer problems with intonation, and for a horn section that did not crack on crucial entrances. But then, the Rome opera orchestra - never known as one of Italy's better ensembles - performed as well as I have ever heard it play.
The Symphony in C, written when Bizet was a student, was crafted along the classical lines of Haydn and Mozart. Gibault correctly emphasized these classical elements of structure and line. Her reading of the second movement - at a slower tempo than I had ever heard before, but which seemed right on this occasion - was serene, each melody silhouetted against the orchestral tapestry. It was one of those performances that, once over, one wished to hear again. The scherzo was taken at a brisk tempo that kept it full of animation and life, while the finale, with its furiously-paced violin figures, sparkled.
Gibault's performance of Debussy's ``Pr'elude `a `L'Apr`es-midi d'un faune''' was the finest this writer has ever heard, its languid, haunting phrases exquisitely brought to life, its rapturous moments surging forth from the very depths of the orchestra.
``Iberia,'' on the other hand, was a mistake for the Rome orchestra. They had never played it before, and its fragmented melodic figures and tricky syncopated rhythms were of a style and idiom completely alien to this group. Gibault is no poseur
Gibault's gestures are sparse, but always to the point. There are no antics, no classic ``poses,'' no dancing on the platform. One could understand from this concert why she has been so widely accepted at this early stage of her career.
In addition to serving as music director of the opera orchestra in Lyon, Gibault has appeared in Britain, Belgium, Canada, Egypt, Poland, Switzerland, and the Soviet Union. She has also appeared as a guest conductor of most of the major orchestras in her native France. Her repertory of operas extends from the early classical works of Gluck, Haydn, and Mozart to the operas of Ravel and Debussy.
Over lunch at her hotel the day of the concert, I inquired if she had met with any antipathy from the members of the orchestra because a woman was on the podium.
``Not at all,'' she said. ``As soon as they realized that I knew exactly what I wanted and expected of them musically, they respected me. Then, as I patiently tried to infuse the rehearsal of ``Iberia'' ... with the brilliance Debussy intended, we became friends. Finally, during one of the breaks at the last rehearsal, a group of musicians approached me and wanted to know when I would be coming back to conduct them in an opera. ...''
Had she met resistance in France because she was a woman?
``Well, yes and no. When I decided at 14 to become a conductor, I was as naive as most young people. It never occurred to me that there would be any problem becoming a conductor. After all, three years later I won first prize in conducting at the Paris Conservatory of Music. But then came the challenge. There are never enough opportunities for all the young conductors who have talent and ability. I finally discovered that, as a woman, it was best to look either where the artistic director was not a conductor, or where the music director was of a younger generation which did not object to seeing a woman on the podium.''
Will these concerts change Italy's attitude toward women on the podium? Probably not. Men have been conducting music here for over 450 years; the appearance of a woman on the platform is now a ``tradition'' only a few weeks old.