Women's History Month: Valérie Sainte-Agathe

We begin our Women’s History Month celebration of trailblazing female conductors this week with our own amazing Music Director and Principal Conductor Valérie Sainte-Agathe. Photo of Valerie Sainte Agathe, director and principal conductor of the premiere ensemble and five time Grammy award winning San Francisco Girls Chorus

To those who know Maestro Sainte-Agathe, her passion and lifelong love of music are clear. She holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Choral Conducting, a Diplome d’Etudes Musicales in Piano, Chamber Music and Theory, and a Master’s degree in Cultural Project Management. Before coming to SFGC, she trained young singers age 6 to 25 as Music Director for the Junior Opera program for the Montpellier National Orchestra and Opera and the Radio France Festival. With the Montpellier National Orchestra she is the recipient of the Victoires de la musique award (equivalent of the Grammy award in France) and two Orphée d’or awards for Honneger’s Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher and Vincent d’Indy’s l’Étranger.

We are so fortunate to have Maestro Sainte-Agathe as our Music Director and are incredibly grateful for her artistry, talents, and passion for training young singers. We sat down with her this week to ask about what inspires her and what wisdom she would impart to young women looking to have a career in conducting.


SFGC: When did you know you wanted to be a conductor?

VSA: I was 12 years old, living in Martinique. I was studying piano and theory with a retired conductor – a wonderful musician. One day he gave me his baton and told me, “this is a career you could have.” Later, still living in Martinique, I was watching Verdi’s Aida on television, and I knew I would work with voices. When I arrived in France at 18 years old and studied conducting for choir, I felt it was the place where I belong.


SFGC: What advice do you have for young women looking to have a career in conducting?

VSA: If you want to be a conductor, study, keep learning, and just do it! Trust yourself, always ask when you don’t know, and be confident. I believe that authenticity, love for the piece you conduct, and respect for the musicians who are performing with you is the key to be respected and to succeed. You need to know what you really want to hear–don’t pretend. Twenty years ago when I tried to study orchestra conducting I was told it wasn’t possible for a woman. So I abandoned the idea at first and decided to conduct choirs. Because it is related to the voice, I think it was easier for people to see a woman in a choir director position. But the idea always stayed in my mind. There are now a lot of women conductors we can relate to, and institutions like universities or conservatories are helping much more, too. It is no longer something impossible for young women!


SFGC: Who was/is your biggest inspiration?

VSA: I have several. Leonard Bernstein, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Barbara Hannigan.


SFGC: What is your favorite piece of music to conduct, and why?

VSA: Stravinsky’s Les noces. There is such a strong sense of rhythm you find in this piece. There is something wild and physical, so powerful and almost hypnotic.