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Anna Lapwood and the Art of Breaking Barriers

The brilliant young organist and conductor Anna Lapwood is also a conductor, broadcaster, Director of Music at Pembroke College (Cambridge), and a moving target. If you live in California or can make the trip, spare no effort to hear her.
  • March 28 at the First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto, CA: firstpaloalto.com
  • April 1 at the Renée and Hentry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, CA, with IMAG image magnification during the performance: pacificsymphony.org
  • April 21 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, CA: laphil.com


The gender barrier in classical music is more like a brick wall than a glass ceiling. Nowhere is this truer than in conducting and organ music. Which makes Anna Lapwood’s standing in these fields all the more remarkable.

Photo of Anna Lapwood
Anna Lapwood

The first of several times I was asked to write about classical music’s gender gap was in the 1990s for the PBS-Lincoln Center production Live From Lincoln Center, which produced fascinating intermission features and print materials in those days. My reporting on women orchestral conductors gave me a thousand-watt jolt: The obstacles were worse than you might imagine. They still are.

Among the eminent musicians I interviewed, more than one man—after denying any vestige of male chauvinism—cited a famous quotation from James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” The flip side of that coin is the famous quotation from Charlotte Whitton, a Canadian feminist who served as mayor of Ottawa: “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”

Two conductors I interviewed proved Whitton’s point: JoAnn Falletta and Marin Alsop, both superb conductors who also happen to excel at the art of connecting warmly yet authoritatively to performers and listeners. Historically, male conductors have gotten a pass when it comes to that part of their work. After all, the conductor’s job is to be the boss, and if a man accomplishes that by being tyrannical or cold—Reiner, Szell, and Karajan come to mind—it’s deemed admirable because they’re men.

Both Falletta and Alsop offhandedly recounted experiences of obstructionist gender-stereotyping I found hair-raising, but they refused to dwell on them. Falletta, for example, laughed about one instance when she was delayed at the airport upon arrival for a last-minute guest-conducting engagement. To save time, she was told to dress for the performance; the orchestra’s driver, expecting a kind of novelty act, looked for a woman costumed like a stripper. I hoped at least one of these women to quote Charlotte Whitton—getting a bit of their own back, as the British say—but neither one had time for resentment. They were both too busy with the matter at hand: the work of connecting diverse audiences to great music in an enjoyable, enriching way.

Which brings us nearly to the remarkable Anna Lapwood, who happens to be British. Historically, organ performance has been even more male-dominated than other artistic careers. As with all European music and art, traditional academic instruction was barred to girls. And pipe organ performance isn’t something you can study at home between loads of laundry.

Lapwood’s thoroughgoing virtuosity on the concert organ—virtually a mechanized orchestra—has equipped her for high achievement as a conductor, concert programmer, singer, arranger for organ, and soloist on a range of other instruments. Here in the U.S., we owe her a special debt for bringing us the organ suite of Florence Price, helping American listeners rediscover a remarkable composer who was the first African American woman to hear her own music played by a major American orchestra (the Chicago Symphony)—her beautiful and superbly crafted Symphony No. 1 in E minor. Despite winning the national Wanamaker Competition for the best new symphony, Price was unable to have this work published or to sustain a career as a classical composer. But being an accomplished organist enabled her to perform her own compositions. On her U.S. tour Lapwood also brings us music by Ghislaine Reece-Trapp and Kristina Arakelyan—like Lapwood herself, organists and conductors still in their twenties who have performed in the U.K. and internationally.