Xian Zhang

TRAILBLAZER: “I try not to be too sensitive to the fact that I’m a woman,” says Xian Zhang, leading Milan’s Verdi Orchestra. The first female music director of an Italian orchestra, she is appearing with the L.A. Phil this weekend. (Pier Paolo Cito, Associated Press)

In March, Xian Zhang made history: The Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra in Milan appointed the 35-year-old conductor to the position of music director, making her the first woman to earn that title with an Italian symphony orchestra. Pope Benedict XVI attended her inaugural concert at the Vatican alongside Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, and afterward compared the music to prayer.

Zhang has been associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic, won awards and appeared with major orchestras around the world, including the L.A. Philharmonic at Disney Hall, where she is leading a program of works by Bartok and Prokofiev this weekend.

But opinions about Zhang's new role bouncing about the blogosphere most frequently commented upon her gender. Music aficionados even posted close-up photographs of the Chinese-born and educated Zhang's glitter-painted lips on the Web. It's hard to imagine Gustavo Dudamel receiving the same treatment.

The appointment of a female music director in a country as conservative as Italy has generated considerable buzz and again focused attention on the progress women have made toward taking their place on the podiums of major orchestras -- and the stubborn forces that prevent more of them from getting there.

Classical music institutions throughout the world are embracing the notion of female conductors more than ever. In addition to appearing regularly as guest conductors and in assistant conductor positions with top orchestras, women are now commonly in the running for -- and occasionally winning -- music directorships.

Recent appointments in North American orchestras include Joana Carneiro at the Berkeley Symphony, Laura Jackson at the Reno Philharmonic, Anne Manson at the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, Teresa Cheung at the Altoona Symphony, Elizabeth Schulze at the Flagstaff Symphony and Antonia Joy Wilson at the Midland Symphony.

The nation's most established female music directors are proving successful at their jobs. Over the course of JoAnn Falletta's 11-year directorship of the Buffalo Philharmonic, the orchestra's budget has grown from about $7.5 million to $10 million. The orchestra has won two Grammy Awards, made 14 recordings and boasts record subscription levels. Meanwhile, in 2008, the Baltimore Symphony announced its first balanced budget in five years, which observers attribute in part to enthusiasm surrounding the appointment of music director Marin Alsop in 2007.

It couldn't have been more different only a few decades ago. "It is safe to say that until the past 15 or so years, there simply was no woman with an important international conducting career," wrote Henry Fogel, the League of American Orchestras' former president, on his blog in 2007. Despite inroads by such early pioneers as Antonia Brico (1902-89), Sarah Caldwell (1924-2006) and Judith Somogi (1941-88), women rarely appeared on the podiums of major orchestras in the first half of the 20th century.

The 1980s saw a small surge in female conductors, with Alsop, Falletta and the composer-conductor Victoria Bond leading the pack.

These conductors had to fight hard for their success. When Bond was conducting the Pittsburgh Youth Orchestra early in her career, a doorman tried to prevent her from entering the rehearsal studio because he couldn't find her name on the orchestra's list of players. "I looked like a youth orchestra musician, not the conductor," recalls Bond, who is conducting the premiere of her own composition, "Frescoes and Ash," at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Monday evening.

"Then a newspaper guy got hold of the story and ran with it, saying, 'She's no bigger than a bass fiddle, but she's in charge of the orchestra,' " Bond said. "That was all very flattering, but it undermined my sense of authority."

Faletta has an alarming experience in her past as well. "When I was conducting a major symphony on the East Coast, one of the older members of the orchestra said he hoped he would die before seeing a woman on the podium."

The new generation of female conductors don't report the sort of skepticism encountered by their forebears. "I don't feel like I am being held back because of my gender," says Jackson. "I can continue to excel."

They are also reluctant to attribute professional difficulties to their gender.

"The chemistry between an orchestra and its conductor is very subtle. There are times where I feel that there is something not quite right, but I can't be sure why. Is it because I'm a woman or Asian or young or something else?" says Zhang. "I try not to be too sensitive to the fact that I'm a woman. The majority of my experiences have been very positive. I haven't felt any prejudice so far."

There seem to be several reasons for the growing self-confidence and prevalence of female conductors. Female instrumentalists are no longer a novelty in the country's top orchestras, which has helped audiences and industry insiders to accept that women are as capable of the highest levels of musicianship as their male counterparts. The increased visibility of women in leadership positions in politics and government as well as in key orchestral management positions, like L.A. Philharmonic President and Chief Executive Deborah Borda, also has had an impact.

"In the past, people saw leadership as a quality connected solely with men," says Boston Symphony assistant conductor Shi-Yeon Sung. "But now women like [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel hold very important positions, so people see that there is no limit to what women can do."

The increasing availability of training opportunities for women has also helped to attract more aspiring female conductors. Since its inception in 2002, the League of American Orchestras' Conducting Fellows Program has offered nine fellowships to up-and-coming conductors. Four of the recipients have been women.

The Taki Concordia Fellowship, founded by Alsop in 2003, exclusively supports the development of female conductors through mentorship and providing professional conducting opportunities with major orchestras alongside established musical directors such as Alsop.