French conductor Zahia Ziouani fights inequality with classical music

The award-winning conductor talks to The Connexion’s Théophile Larcher about beating ‘boys club’ attitudes and the up-coming film about her life

French conductor Zahia Ziouani
‘When I started [my orchestra] Divertimento, I was told I would not succeed, I was told classical music was not for people living in rough estates’

Securing an interview with conductor Zahia Ziouani is not the easiest of tasks, thanks to a tight schedule that sees her juggle rehearsals and performances, guest appearances, and workshops throughout France.

Ziouani is among the 4% of French conductors that call themselves cheffe d’orchestre (the feminine version of chef d’orchestre).

She and her fellow 4% are demanding more inclusiveness in a profession widely known for its ‘boys club’ attitudes.

She conducts Divertimento, an orchestral ensemble she created and established in Paris, where her passion for classical music first took root.

“I wanted to create a musical project that would resemble me, a young woman called Zahia, living in Stains in Seine-Saint-Denis (Ile-de-France),” Ziouani told The Connexion.

Ziouani’s journey to success is the kind that the Republic wishes it could guarantee to all of its citizens, a pathway based on talent and opportunity which many politicians want to revive.

Her story has inspired the film industry and will be featured on screens by late 2022.

The Connexion spoke to her about her journey, what she hopes to embody, and her fight for better access to education and culture in underserved communities.

You call yourself a “beacon of light at the cultural crossroads.” Could you explain what you mean by this?

As a conductor, I have always wanted to make traditional musical repertoires accessible to younger generations.

I thought I would achieve this most effectively through contemporary events like the Olympic Games or the French presidential election, where French people ask themselves what it means to be French. This is what I’m doing with Divertimento.

Since June 3, I have been conducting Inspiration d’Orient, an orchestral collection of classical songs from the East.

The show takes the listeners on a trip from Camille Saint-Saëns and his Egyptian inspirations to Léo Delibes and his connection to India, a musical venture intended to show how the meeting of different cultures has produced some of the most beautiful French musical art.

I want to show classical music is not stuck in the past but is open to everything and everyone in the world.

I want to be the link that connects the past with the present, Europe and other cultures, all of which have nourished me on my musical journey.

Being a conductor is not only about conducting an orchestra. This is also a job for which you need to reflect on the current issues of our society.

Where does this passion come from?

From my family. My parents listened to a lot of music and were very involved in our education with my twin sister and brother.

They took us to concerts or individual instrument recitals. We were always surrounded by music.

When you were eight, your mother decided to enrol you and your sister at the Conservatoire de Pantin. But after learning that only one spot was available, they enrolled your brother instead. Is that correct?

My mother did not plan to enrol us at the Conservatoire.

She realised we had an interest in music because she noticed musical notes and clefs on our drawings. But when it came to there being only one place at the Conservatoire, she did not want to choose between my sister and I.

So she listed my brother, and went to the lessons with him, then returned home to teach us the content of the lessons. This is how we started.

My sister and I were able to enrol after several pupils left.

This kind of commitment from my mother transferred to me later on.

Growing up and seeing other kids like me in our small council estate failing their exams or not listening to any music, I understood how lucky we were to have been raised by curious and like-minded parents.

My role as an artist is to try to provide for others what my parents did for us, when school or family cannot. The commitment I show today comes from my childhood.

You started to learn the guitar and then moved to alto (similar to a viola but played vertically like a cello). What motivated that switch?

To be honest I can’t remember when I started the guitar.

When I was a kid, I didn’t realise that some instruments, including the guitar, were not part of an orchestra.

I envied my sister playing clarinet because it sounded like the music we listened to, and I wanted to play Mozart and Beethoven as well.

I took up the alto because I wanted to be part of an orchestra.

When you were 16 you met maestro Sergiu Celibidache, a conductor who appeared on the posters in your bedroom. How did that happen?

I used to attend public courses he gave. One of his assistants noticed me and proposed they get my sister and I on free courses for a week.

While there, during the maestro’s private lessons, I would stand at a distance and copy his moves.

Another assistant noticed me doing this and introduced me to him.

He watched me and asked who had taught me these skills, since he was very impressed.

He accepted me in his class but warned “no woman has lasted more than 15 days.” This was his way of warning me about the toughness of the industry toward women.

I kept going, and learned alongside him for a year before he died.

I told myself then that I had to create my own opportunities to pursue this career.

You then conducted your first orchestra and studied musical theory at Sorbonne University. You ticked every box needed to conduct an orchestra professionally. Is this when you started to realise it would be harder as a woman?

It happened more slowly than this.

I had read articles about Claire Gibault and how hard it was to carve her way into the musical industry.

I wanted to push the boundaries with my will and determination. I felt I had gained the trust of the industry and was ready to take on the challenge.

I had been scouted in an Eastern European programme and started working in an orchestra in Paris.

Everything went well when I was conducting during rehearsals, but then the conductor would come along and take over like nothing happened, as if he assumed I would be his assistant and that this was normal since I was a woman.

This was when I realised. I did not want people to decide my path for me. I wanted to be the main conductor, not the assistant. This is the reason I created Divertimento.

I knew it would be hard and that it would be a long project, but I felt it aligned better with my personality.

I wanted to create a musical project that would resemble me, a young woman called Zahia living in Stains, in Seine-Saint-Denis (Ile-de-France).

I wanted to change everything that felt narrow-minded to me.

Has this choice felt like an obligation you can’t ignore?

Yes it has felt like an obligation, but a positive one. When you are faced with difficulty, you can turn it into a strength.

If I had created the same kind of orchestra as everyone else, I would not have had the same chances of success.

Divertimento is the result of many deliberations about my approach to my profession.

This is how the orchestra burst onto France’s national musical stage. Because it was different.

Why have you chosen this name in particular?

One orchestra I conducted in Paris had different levels and I was in charge on a specific level that I named Divertimento.

The Divertimento is a specific musical form free from classical music theory’s specifics.

This is energetic, joyful and dynamic. It suits us well.

Last, it is an Italian word, and I felt it was a good reminder of the Mediterranean sea and Europe, both cradles of orchestral music.

Since then, you’ve been decorated with the Ordre national du mérite by the State. Your orchestra performed at the Elysée Palace and for the president last March, when commemorating the terrorist attacks of Toulouse. What do you feel you embody to the Republic?

I want to show how access to education and culture is the bedrock of our society.

You mentioned the March event, performing for the president. Of course it was meant to show the effort of the State to combat terrorist networks and the Islamic State, but it also had an underlying meaning.

It showed that extremist ideas in underserved places and communities could be fought through increasing funding and providing better access to culture.

I have been touring French territories for 20 years now. I have noticed some of the most socially fragile places were those with the least access to education and culture, the two features that have helped me accomplish what I wanted.

I want to bear that responsibility.

Does it embarrass you to be a poster child of meritocracy?

When I am awarded by presidents and they tell me I am the product of meritocracy, I tell them it is true.

But I always say that it comes from my parents. I am the product of multiple positive things.

Maybe I would not have succeeded if I had grown up in a wealthy suburb.

I’m not trying to suggest that everybody can succeed because I succeeded.

I leverage the access I have to presidents and ministers to remind them about the inequalities in France. And they know them all too well.

Ambitious, bold and proactive policies are needed, but culture demands time.

I am in a long-running battle, and partner with people who want to change their region or city.

Maybe I will take on a more political path 10 to 15 years from now.

When I started Divertimento, I was told I would not succeed, I was told classical music was not fit for people living in rough estates.

I always remained true to myself. I established my orchestra in Seine-Saint-Denis, and I played in rural, urban and prison environments.

This is not to showcase or be opportunistic. This is part of me.

What do you tell the school pupils you meet?

Most of them discover classical music for the first time through the talks I give.

I tell them to expect their discovery of classical music to fill them with joyful thoughts and help them be open to different things. This is essential.

Culture is the best tool to help them become more welcoming, curious and tolerant toward each other.

France talks a lot about vivre-ensemble (living together), but it is helpful to actually do things together.

Children need to be more self-confident in order to imagine their future self.

This is what culture provides. We live in a country that focuses too much on a few specific cities and places, a policy that does not encourage nationwide diffusion of the importance of culture.

I am part of the nationwide diffusion effort.

Divertimento is not only an orchestra but the title of an upcoming film focused on your life and rise to success. What does it feel like to see your life on screen?

It is nice to see it inspired the film industry. The movie shows darker aspects of my life, but it is also focused on music and the values of family and education.

I want to pass on a positive message of the hardships I have battled and encountered.Maybe other opportunities will come.

I have my nose to the grindstone so much that occasionally it is nice to look in the mirror just to contemplate all the things that I’ve accomplished.

This is the fuel I need to carry on.

Related articles

VIDEO: Pianist delayed by train strike puts on fun concert in Nice

‘France is a cultured country in a sense that Britain is not’

From poverty to glory: Life of legendary French singer Edith Piaf