Conductor Mélisse Brunet watches a colleague conduct a Paris orchestra and beams. “Girl, you’re so good,” she says.
Fictional conductor Lydia Tár, played by an exacting Cate Blanchett, might have set the last award season abuzz, but in the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival documentary Maestra, camaraderie is refreshingly key.
The feature directing debut by producer Maggie Contreras (Gilbert), Maestra follows five female conductors from around the world as they prepare for and compete in La Maestra, the world’s only competition for female conductors. Held at the Philharmonie de Paris, the contest whittles fourteen competitors from 202 applicants from fifty countries, reducing them further to six semifinalists, then three finalists and a winner.
The top cash prize aside, La Maestra provides critical exposure and validation for these women, some of whom travel the world as freelancers to support their families.
The film focuses on Brunet, a French native working in Iowa City, Iowa, as well as Tamara Dwortez of Atlanta, Georgia; Anna Sulkowska-Migoń of Poland; Zoe Zeniodi of Greece; and Ustina Dubitsky of the Ukraine. Through intimate footage at home, we see how they study and rehearse, some with spouses or children around. Dwortez lies on the floor, waving her baton in the air, while Zeniodi practices at a piano and scolds a barking dog from the street below. Her children later wave batons like wizard’s wands and liken her to Mickey Mouse as they watch The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
While Maestra doesn’t delve into what attracted them to conducting, it uses interviews from the contest judges to explain the job of a conductor. They set and keep the tempo, of course, but also interpret and convey the emotions of a piece of music.
“It’s about narrative,” one explains. “Their voice is in their hands.”
Their gestures instructing the different parts of an orchestra might be demonstrative or precise, soft or grand, even humorous. Contreras films them practicing in the zone and in competition in a flow of medium-wide shots, medium shots, and closeups, edited to their tempo. The effect is riveting, drawing the audience into the emotion of each piece and the rapt conductors, showing their artistry, focus, and joy.
Although the contest is the first time these women have met in person, Maestra shows them quickly finding common ground. For instance, Dwortez, who wants to start a family, asks Dubitsky and Zeniodi how they manage motherhood and ambition. Zeniodi shares she was once fired because she was pregnant.
Those eliminated before the finals share feedback from the judges, some of it infuriating. One hears she “created too much energy,” which she notes is great for a man but seen as a threat from a woman. Another says she was told, “Maybe you should smile a bit more.” Good grief.
An engrossing look at a select group of women at the top of their profession, Maestra soars not just on its music but in the details. There’s the sparkly blouse Sulkowska-Migoń buys in hopes of making it to the finals with long sleeves to cover her psoriasis. The way Brunet coaches a student to jump, crouch, and yell before getting on the podium, urging her explore her physicality, to take up space.
While the competition’s structure generates dramatic tension, it’s heartening to watch them admire each other, too. Observing Brunet, Dwortez can’t stop smiling before making a chef’s kiss—a gesture each of them deserves.