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A new documentary profiles a Paris competition for women conductors

 Image promoting 'Maestra' at the New York's Tribeca Film Festival
Maggie Contreras
Image promoting 'Maestra' at the New York's Tribeca Film Festival

The term ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ often applies to jobs held solely, or mostly, by men. One of those positions is that of orchestra conductor.

A new documentary screening in Lynchburg visits an international competition where women are trying to break that mold.

The director of Maestra, Maggie Contreras, said she first heard of the biennial La Maestra competition in Paris, when hearing an NPR story about the inaugural event in 2020.

"And I thought, this going to make a good film," Contreras said. "This has all the elements to be a good feature documentary. And that’s where it started.”

She said it took a while to gain access to the Paris Philharmonic before the 2022 event, what she called “a many, many months long process of explaining what my intentions were.” There were also issues with securing rights to using all the performed music in the film, a process Contreras says took about nine months.

La Maestra starts with about 200 applicants from all over the world – 14 of which are selected to compete. Her main focus, months before the competition itself, was talking with conductors, and what they did to prepare, or the "voyeuristic experience experience of this process."

This was Contreras' first time directing, but she thought it was important to step behind the camera this time, interviewing contestants in their homes.

“You have to ask people to open up,” she said. “And I had to gain a sense of relationship with them quickly in order to ask them pour their hearts out in front of my camera – that’s a huge ask for anybody. And that would have been made more difficult if there was a man behind that camera asking those questions.”

Shooting the film in 2021, Contreras knew she couldn’t talk to all of them, dealing not only with budget limitations, but COVID-19 travel restrictions.

“Whenever we got another chunk (of funding), then I could say ‘oh, okay, who’s available? Where is in the world is this person? Can I logistically get to them? Does there story make sense for this film? A lot of times, art is benefited by a limited palate.”

An ad for Maestra, showing the five women profiled by Maggie Contreras
Maggie Contreras
An ad for Maestra, showing the five women profiled by Maggie Contreras

She ended up working with 7 of those 14 women, and 5 are in the final film – from the US, France, Germany, Greece, and Poland. Its financiers included Worldwide Pants, the production company founded by David Letterman, who’s a fan of classical music.

“On surface, it does seem quite random,” she explained. “(But) Letterman is a fan of classic music, and he is wanting to use this part of his career to tell stories that he knows are important stories, and stories that are good for the world, and he agrees that Maestra is one of those stories.”

But Contreras still only learned weeks before La Maestra that she and her crew has secured enough funding to fly to Paris and film the competition itself. She also wants to teach a little about the art of conducting in the film’s 90-minute running time.

Contreras Interview.mp3
Jeff Bossert talks with filmmaker Maggie Contreras.

The women have about a year to prepare for the competition, choosing from all the scores that could possibly be performed, under their direction, by the Paris Philharmonic.

La Maestra consists of three rounds, going from 14 conductors, to six, to three, and finally, a winner in a matter of days. Those in the final rounds only learn within hours what piece they’ll be conducting.

Contreras was often as nervous as they were.

“When people I cared about were eliminated, I cried along with them," she exclaimed. "When people who I cared about were passed through, I felt joy along with them. Competition documentary is brutal – because you connect to these people.”

Saturday’s screening at Lynchburg's Academy Center of the Arts is a bit of homecoming for Contreras, who graduated from EC Glass High School in Lynchburg. She said it’s there she learned the arts is not just something you do after school.

“When I sat down to build this story, I was thinking about the kid that I was when I first saw a live performance, and was completely captivated, and desperately wanted to talk to the timpani player," she remarked. "I was waving my wooden spoon around, watching John Williams conduct the Boston Pops when they would play weekly on PBS.”

Last month, ‘Maestra’ took the second place documentary award at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. The screening in Lynchburg will be just the fourth time that ‘Maestra’ will be shown to an audience. Contreras will take questions after Saturday's 4 p.m. screening.

Contreras is still seeking a distributor, so it remains to be seen where else the film may show up in festivals, or available later for streaming.

A note of disclosure: The Academy Center of the Arts is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.

Jeff Bossert is Radio IQ's Morning Edition host.