Arts Commentary: Classical Musical Chairs

The controversy over the appointment of a woman to become the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra boils down to issues of power and gender.

By Mark Kroll

It’s been a tough year for conductors. In February, David Miller was in southern France conducting “Don Giovanni” with his Bulgarian orchestra when French police burst in and charged him with importing underpaid musicians without permission. Conductor and orchestra were sent packing on the next bus back to Bulgaria. Two weeks later French police arrested a second conductor for the same offense. Volker Hartung and his New Cologne Philharmonic were performing Ravel’s “Bolero” when Hartung was arrested, thrown in jail for several days and banned from conducting in France “until further notice.” Then came the firestorm engulfing Ricardo Muti, who was forced to resign as music director of La Scala when all but two of the 800 employees of the Opera House voted to oust him.

Marin Alsop is the latest conductor to occupy the hot seat. She was appointed the new conductor of the struggling Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in July, making her the first woman to serve as music director of a major American orchestra. But what should have been cause for celebration turned into a cause celebre when members of the orchestra protested the decision. Double-bass player Robert Barney claimed that the search committee on which he served had disbanded “without reaching a consensus. No vote was taken, because it was clear the musicians had a view that was different from the rest of the committee.”

The symphony’s Player’s Committee responded with the statement that: “approximately 90 percent of the orchestra musicians believe that ending the search process now, before we are sure the best candidate has been found, would be a disservice to the patrons of the BSO and all music lovers in Maryland.” The Board, however, insisted that the committee had indeed agreed on Ms. Alsop. They thought she was a good choice for the Baltimore Symphony, and so did some members of the orchestra. Horn player Mary Bisson, for example, said that she and other musicians “are strongly supportive of the prospect of having Marin Alsop as music director of the BSO.”

What is the real problem here? Ms. Alsop’s musical qualifications are certainly not in question. A well-respected conductor, Alsop currently serves as principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in England and has made guest appearances with some of the world’s major orchestras. Jane Marvine, English horn soloist and head of the Player’s Committee, assured the press that “it’s not about her,” but about “the process” and the lack of respect for “the legitimate artistic views of the musicians.”

“L’Affaire Alsop” was really ignited by two highly inflammable flash points. One involves the question of who is in charge — the professionals responsible for making a product or the people who manage it. This becomes particularly complicated when the expertise and egos of one hundred superbly trained musicians come into conflict with an equally confident management’s concerns about marketing, programming, and the economic survival of the orchestra.

The second flash point is even hotter — gender. It is a sad but undeniable fact that women have faced serious discrimination in symphony orchestras for centuries. One striking example is the venerable Vienna Philharmonic’s refusal, until recently, to admit women into their ranks. The overall situation has improved markedly ever since a screen was used for orchestral auditions, preventing people from seeing the candidate and making a decision on the basis of race or gender. This has resulted in such a dramatic turn-around that women now outnumber men in the violin sections of several major orchestras.

For example, the ratio at the Boston Symphony is 18 females to 13 males; at the New York Philharmonic it is 20:13. In fact, the reversal has been so complete that a male violinist recently accused the New York Philharmonic of sex discrimination because he was passed over for tenure at the same time seven other female candidates received it.

The position of the orchestral conductor, however, has remained resistant to change because of familiar stereotypes. The noted Julliard conducting teacher Jorge Mester once said that a major conducting career depended on “forceful personality and charisma,” attributes not normally associated with women. What is considered authoritative and powerful in a man often comes across as “aggressive” or even “bitchy” in a woman.

This has not prevented women from mounting the podium, however. They have done so since 1594, when a “Maestra” led an all-woman orchestra at the convent of San Vito in Ferrara. More females took up the baton in the 19th century, although they were usually forced to do so in private settings or with an all-woman ensemble. Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, the gifted sister of Felix, died leading a performance of her brother’s music. A few years later Josephine Weinlich and Caroline B. Nichols launched successful conducting careers, and Emma Roberto Steiner was such a fine opera conductor that the manager of the Metropolitan Opera wanted to hire her but couldn’t because of protests about her gender.

More recently, we have the Canadian Keri-Lynn Wilson, the English conductors Iona Brown and Jane Glover, the French Catherine Comet and the Estonian Anu Tali. In America, JoAnn Falletta serves as the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, Boston opera conductor Sarah Caldwell was once on the cover of Time Magazine, and Kate Tamarkin was described by the late and legendary choral conductor Margaret Hillis as “enormously gifted.” Hillis herself, when asked if women have something special to offer the musical world, said simply: “C major has no sex.” The Karpilova Society lists more than 300 female conductors active today, so progress has been made in this last bastion of male prerogative, although only a small percentage of females are actually employed as full-time music directors. In 1997, for example, only six out of 163 German orchestras employed a woman in that position.

Alsop’s appointment is therefore a major breakthrough, and the controversy has died enough for her to get on with the real business of leading the Baltimore Symphony. Now she can prove that a woman has enough charisma to lead an orchestra — as long as she has the musical skills to go along with it.

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