Stepping up to lead from the conductor's podium

More women earning role dominated by men

July 20, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

When Nadia Boulanger, a noted French composer, was asked how it felt to be named the first female to guest conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra, she replied: "I've been a woman for a little over 50 years, and have gotten over my initial astonishment."

That was more than 65 years ago. And though Boulanger clearly had one of the qualities required of pioneers in any field - confidence - she may well have underestimated how unusual her achievement would prove to be. When the board of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra ratified the choice of Marin Alsop, 48, to be its new conductor and music director yesterday, she became the first woman selected for such a position at a major symphony orchestra in the United States.

Her hiring, expected to be formalized today, is a breakthrough in a job classification that, to put it mildly, has long disproportionately favored men.

"Whether it has been overt or covert, one would have to be a fool to try to deny that the prior situation was due to prejudice," said Henry Fogel, president and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League in New York. "It certainly wasn't a matter of talent or innate ability."

Before the past few decades, "this was a field seen as open only to men, and therefore was only open to men," he said. "That has been changing."

Among the 75 symphony orchestras in the United States that have annual budgets of $2 million or more, only four have women conductors. One, the critically acclaimed JoAnn Falletta, 51, holds two of those positions, conducting both the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony orchestras. Gisele Ben-Dor, 50, who served as music director for the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra between 1991 and 1997, conducts the Santa Barbara Symphony in California. Elizabeth Schulze, 47, is music director and conductor of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra in Hagerstown.

Before Alsop, no woman had cracked even America's second tier of top orchestras - a category into which the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with its estimated $30 million budget, easily fits. No woman has run a European orchestra of comparable size.

There has been "a huge glass ceiling in major orchestras, certainly," said Anne Harrigan, 54, the former music director of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra who now conducts the Lafayette Symphony Orchestra in Indiana and the Battle Creek Symphony Orchestra in Michigan. "Many women have been on the cusp and not gotten there. As a woman, I'm absolutely thrilled."

In an era in which women have long ago made their mark as leaders in corporate, academic and artistic fields, classical music's podium has long lagged behind in terms of gender equity.

Women have developed a stronger presence as musicians, particularly as violinists and pianists, and in the field of orchestral music management. Allison Vulgamore, president of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, are among a vanguard in the latter category. But conducting remained "kind of the last bastion," said Cindy Hubbard, former executive director of the Women's Philharmonic in San Francisco.

"For whatever reasons, the field has always been very male-dominated and male-oriented," Hubbard said. "This development means so much. I'll be dancing in the streets tonight."

To some, the appointment may simply be the most visible manifestation of a trend that has been developing, if quietly, over the past 20 years or so. Alsop, Falletta, the Australian conductor Simone Young and Anne Mason, formerly of the Kansas City Symphony, are among the women who have gained national and international acclaim either with midsized orchestras or as frequent guest conductors.

For Falletta, whom The New York Times has called "one of the finest conductors of her generation," the importance of the Alsop hiring may lie in the fact that it doesn't feel that earth-shattering.

"So many orchestras in our country are operating on such a high level artistically," she said during a break in rehearsals with the San Francisco Symphony, which she is guest-conducting this week. "Women have actually been working with very fine orchestras for years now. I think it says something that, to us, it doesn't seem that unusual."

Falletta, like Alsop and Harrigan, says she has faced little prejudice in her own career, particularly in the United States.

But Alsop's signing may be most important in its symbolic value. A dearth of role models has almost certainly hindered the progress of women conductors, and a high-profile conductor like Alsop may signal that, as Fogel put it, "this is a field for women after all."

"Many younger women are studying conducting [in conservatories] now," Falletta said. "There are still more men than women, but it's no longer seen as a shock.

"I've spoken to a lot of them. They're looking for mentors to help them develop. They'll probably find the road a little easier now."

Fogel's organization sponsors a conducting fellowship program which places promising conductors with American symphony orchestras, where they work with musicians and music directors. Of the five current fellows, two are women: Laura Jackson, with the Atlanta Symphony, and Joanna Carneiro, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

They're likely to join a generation of such promising talents as Sarah Hatsuko Hicks, the 34-year-old associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony, and Sarah Ioannides, 33, who recently took over as music director for both the Greater Spartanburg Philharmonic in South Carolina and the El Paso Symphony Orchestra in Texas, in making women conductors a more commonplace phenomenon - and getting orchestras past the issue of gender to that of musical vision.

"In the end," Falletta said with a laugh, "you have to be honest at the podium. That's the only way to work in a field as challenging as this. You have to be who you are as a human being."

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