Breaking the glass ceiling of the symphony hall

July 29, 2005|By Rachael Worby

I DON'T know that I can even remember the first time someone asked me what it was like to be a "woman conductor," but I can remember being a bit curious about the question. True, I am a conductor and a woman, but putting the two descriptions together rarely entered my consciousness.

I do remember very clearly, though, sometime in the late 1970s, attending a screening of Judy Collins' documentary tribute to her friend and mentor, conductor Antonia Brico, who died in 1989 at 87, and thinking, "It must have been tough in the old days."

So much in the world has changed since Ms. Brico's time. Billie Jean King came along, and Sandra Day O'Connor, and Geraldine Ferraro. A woman represents our country in foreign affairs. Women fight and die in Iraq. Annika Sorenson whacks the golf world. There are women who produce movies, run corporations, fly in space, race at Indianapolis and conduct orchestras.

I fall into the last category, where the ceiling is constructed of ferro-cement. I know, I've hit it a few times. One would think that in the business of conducting music, a female would be one of the least-offensive intrusions into the perceived order of society. But no. The world of classical music is steeped in tradition, and like so many Tevyes, we cling to it with faces reddened and knuckles white.

But let's try to face some facts. The world of classical music is the proverbial orchestra on the deck of the Titanic (hardly a metaphor). Bankruptcies abound, symphony orchestras fold, deficits rise and attendance dwindles. Recordings even by superstars in the classical field barely break even. Yet we play on.

How will this change if nothing can change? In 2000, I had an opportunity to reshape the musical experience with the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, a small orchestra flying well under the radar of those ossified traditionalists. We had freedom. Freedom to experiment and reinvent. Freedom from constraints of tradition. And a funny thing happened along the way: We grew. Our houses are sold out, and demand for our events has more than doubled. We are attracting new audiences, the baby boomers, the former MIAs of the classical music experience.

In Baltimore, the selection of Marin Alsop represents opportunity and a willingness to change, but fear not. Those of us in the microscopic world of "chicks with sticks" didn't get this far without having to be better and better and still better. I have seen and heard Ms. Alsop work, and she is extremely talented, charismatic and committed to community. She has earned her place on stage. She will be great for Baltimore, and that will be great for all of us who believe in this vital art form.

For those still quivering, rest easy. She will undoubtedly wear black. She will most likely walk onto the stage on two legs. Without question, she will shake the hand of the concertmaster, and with the same kind of baton every other conductor uses, she will offer an up beat.

As well as her position in Pasadena, Rachael Worby is the music director and conductor of the American Music Festival in Romania and conductor laureate of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra in Wheeling, W.Va.

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