Portraits of excellence, In the Eye of

Portrait of excellence – Claire Gibault, orchestra conductor

  • 18 October 2022

Reading time: 5 minutes

July 1969. At the same time as man first stepped on the moon, a woman first made her mark in a world that until then was exclusively reserved for men: orchestra conducting. That woman was Claire Gibault.

  • 13 years old

    Claire started conducting the pupils in the orchestra in which she was solo violinist

  • 23 years old

    Claire awarded first prize in conducting from the Paris Conservatory of Music

  • 27 years of work

    at the Lyon Opera, alongside Claudio Abbado – as his assistant in several musical productions and with whom she founded the Orchestra Mozart Bologna

  • 2011

    Claire decided to set up the Paris Mozart Orchestra

  • September 2020

    first competition reserved for women: La Maestra thanks to the financing obtained by Dominique Senequier in just four months

Creation of a talent

Originally from Le Mans in the French Department of Sarthe, she made the headlines at the age of 23 when she was awarded first prize in conducting from the Paris Conservatory of Music (Conservatoire supérieur national de Paris). This marked the beginning of a remarkable career, driven with passion, conviction, tenacity and, as this pioneer with a leader’s mindset likes to put it, a great deal of audacity.

 

Music, more than just a vocation

It took audacity at the age of 13 to begin conducting the pupils in the orchestra in which she was solo violinist and ask the director of the Le Mans Conservatory of Music to be trained in a profession which was still a male stronghold. But, at that time, this young nervous and passionate girl already saw her name in lights:

I quickly realized that I wasn’t cut out for a career as a concert artist. My passion for music was much greater.

Claire Gibault, orchestra conductor

Claire then received support from her father, a teacher of music theory and trumpet player, who always took her music talent very seriously and instilled her with vital self-confidence. It was this confidence, combined with an early and all-consuming passion for music, particularly symphonic works – Mozart, Haydn, Schumann, amongst others – that spurred Claire to pursue her vocation through thick and thin. At the Lyon Opera, where she worked for 27 years alongside Claudio Abbado – as his assistant in several musical productions and with whom she founded the Orchestra Mozart Bologna (l’Orchestra Mozart di Bologna) –  and in Milan, where she became the first woman to conduct at la Scala, Claire continuously devoted herself to the ”torment” of music:

Music demands true self-sacrifice. To give your best, you must work all the time. I didn’t take much respite during my career.

Claire Gibault, orchestra conductor

International success

Indeed, Claire seemed tireless: she conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the Fondazione Musica per Roma where she was musical director, the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra, the Antwerp Opera, the Orchestra of Tuscany, the Philharmonic Orchestra of Slovakia, the Bordeaux National Orchestra….everywhere she has experienced this “demanding, physical, sensual profession which uses the entire body.” A profession which demands “both composure and passion, charisma, a lot of energy, and a clear inclination for sharing, teaching and listening to others.” And a difficult profession, especially for women. For a long time, Claire Gibault encountered a lot of disdain, resistance, even hostility:

My presence and success as a woman was not self-evident in the eyes of certain colleague conductors, musicians, managers or event organizers. On the whole, I was of course held in high esteem by my peers and fans, but my career was nevertheless a struggle and a never-ending quest.

Claire Gibault, orchestra conductor

When she witnessed a clear case of discrimination at a conducting competition in September 2018, Claire Gibault confided her unease to her friend Dominique Senequier, President of Ardian, who has also made her mark in a very male-oriented environment, and with whom she shares her fight for equality. This discussion brought about the idea of a conducting competition reserved for women: La Maestra, which first took place in September 2020, thanks to the financing obtained by Dominique Senequier in just four months.

The idea behind La Maestra is to place female conductors in the spotlight and enable them to succeed and simply exist in an environment which traditionally leaves them little room.

Claire Gibault, orchestra conductor

After a long-standing career and international renown, she herself has become aware of a “glass ceiling” which hinders her advancement and prevents her from obtaining a permanent position as conductor of a symphonic orchestra. “In Europe, a woman who wishes to run a cultural institution has really no other choice but to create it herself”, notes the conductor, who decided to set up the Paris Mozart Orchestra in 2011. Sponsored by the Ardian Foundation, Claire has instilled her values and commitment in this musical, educational, social and humanitarian project: “Throughout my career, I dreamt of an orchestra that could play not only in prestigious concert halls but also in prisons, hospitals or even school canteens. An orchestra with zero discrimination, founded on fellowship and togetherness. An orchestra which would allow me to choose my programs and impose my style, while constantly exchanging with my musicians, who share my level of involvement in the performance. I created such an orchestra and it is one of my proudest achievements.”

When asked how long she wishes to continue conducting, Claire Gibault cheekily replies that strangely men are never asked that question and that she has no intention of stopping just yet:

As long as I have the energy, desire, strength and passion, I will continue to explore the infinite world of music, and share as much as possible its beauty.

Claire Gibault, orchestra conductor
  • © Maria Mosconi
    © Maria Mosconi
  • © Maria Mosconi
    © Maria Mosconi