A Repertory Of Discord

Female musicians have long since mastered the piano, a machine from the Industrial Age. But even the greatest soloists haven't conquered a centuries-old legacy of stereotyping and sexism.

Cover Story

February 14, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,sun music critic

Olga Samaroff was the first great American-born female classical pianist. She created a sensation at her London debut in 1901 and was admired by such great musicians as Gustav Mahler, Ignace Paderewski and Teresa Carreno. Just after her debut, Carreno, perhaps the greatest female pianist of the time, gave the 21-year-old Samaroff this warning: "My child, the highest praise you will ever get in concert reviews is that you 'play like a man' -- and they don't mean it entirely as a compliment. Someday, before I die, I'd like to see a review of a man's concert in which a critic would write that he played with the delicacy and charm of a woman! But they'd never dare."

Years later, in her autobiography, Samaroff wrote, "It would ill beseem a woman pianist to discuss this matter on the basis of relative merit, but the fact remains that the female of the species invariably receives lower fees than a man with the same degree of success and reputation."

For these and other reasons, Samaroff, a single parent with a child to support, gave up life as a touring soloist in the 1920s for the security of a teaching position at the Juilliard School in New York City.

Gender shouldn't be a factor in determining pianistic worth -- Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto can be played equally well by either sex. But the reality of performing is that gender matters nearly as much as it did when Samaroff was young. "Being a woman conductor is even more difficult," says the San Francisco-based Mariedi Anders, one of the most admired concert managers in the classical music business. "But I've been in this business more than 40 years, and male pianists have always been able to make greater careers than women who are just as good, if not better."

Compared with men of similar gifts, Anders says, women still earn smaller fees, enjoy fewer opportunities in recording studios and experience more difficulty in finding management and in getting engagements.

"There are several women my age or younger who are fantastic," says Helene Grimaud, 28, whom Anders calls the only female pianist of her generation with an international career. "I can't understand why they don't play more and aren't better known," Grimaud says. "All I can think is that it's because they are women."

It's odd that the piano should still figure in the gender wars. In conservatories today, women studying the piano outnumber men -- just as they do on the violin. In fact, the number of prominent young female violinists far surpasses that of the men on rosters of the important concert agencies.

A short list of female violinists performing frequently with prestigious orchestras and recording for important labels includes: Anne-Sophie Mutter (35), Midori (27), Viktoria Mullova (39), Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (37), Sarah Chang (17), Hilary Hahn (18) and Leila Josefowicz (21).

Perhaps because of the success women enjoy on the violin, some people in the music business believe the kind of bias that once held back female instrumentalists is gone.

"There is no longer any difference between booking male or female pianists, whether for orchestras or for recitals," says Jenny Vogel, a senior vice president of ICM Artists, in New York, whose clients include Grimaud, conductor David Zinman and pianist Radu Lupu. "Everyone is looking for the next great pianist to emerge, and whether the next Evgeny Kissin is male or female doesn't seem to matter."

But others, including Van Cliburn International Piano Competition executive director Richard Rodzinski, say the number of female pianists is declining.

In 1985 and 1989, one of every three contestants at the Cliburn was a woman, Rodzinski says. Four years later, the ratio had shrunk to one in five. In 1997, it dropped again -- to about one in seven. And, he adds, these figures represent what's happening at other competitions.

"I don't think I've ever seen a woman in a competitive situation who was eliminated because she was a woman," he says. "But why do these dropouts occur among pianists and not violinists? That's something for which I don't have an answer."

'Written out of history'

If it's difficult for female pianists to make a reputation, it may be more difficult for them to preserve it for posterity.

The gargantuan 200-CD anthology "Great Pianists of the 20th Century," recently issued on Philips Classics, collects performances by 74 pianists, only nine of whom are women. The Brazilian Guiomar Novaes (1895-1979), the Russian Maria Grinberg (1908-1979) and the Hungarian Annie Fischer (1914-1995) are just a few of the great pianists whose recorded legacies were neglected.

"We don't have the same labels for remembering women that we have for men," says Judith Tick, professor of music history at Northeastern University in Boston. "We decide what we want to remember in terms of history. Clara Schumann was the first pianist to take a serious approach to the piano and its repertory. But she is remembered almost exclusively as Robert's wife.

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