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Classical Notes

Is the Vienna Phil really a He-man Women-haters club?

Posted at 12:32 PM on December 28, 2006 by Alison Young

Is the Vienna Philharmonic a good-ole boy’s club or, in the spirit of Spanky and Alfafa, a He-man Women-haters club? A recent piece Tokenism and Firings takes a ten-year survey of the Vienna Philharmonic (which also serves as the orchestra for the Vienna State Opera) and their record on recruiting, hiring, and firing women.

And the record is not good. The male-dominated band nominally ended its long tradition of excluding women a decade ago when they quickly hired a female harpist only a day before the orchestra was to travel to New York for performances at Carnegie Hall. There was just a tad bit of pressure on them to change their ways from the International Alliance for Women in Music, The National Organization of Women, as well as the commensurate bad press.

I guess from this side of the pond with our highly enlightened stance on gender equality, it’s pretty easy to throw stones. But then I took off my rose-colored glasses and inspected our record. This coming new year, 2007, will be the first time a woman will take the helm of one of America’s major orchestras. (I use size and budget to make that determination of “major.” Anne Manson is in her fourth year as Music Director of the Kansas City Symphony and JoAnn Falletta is making fabulous recordings as the leader of the Buffalo Philharmonic.)

Notable in Marin Alsop’s rise to Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony is that she made it after several musician’s revolted over her appointment. The argument was not about Alsop’s qualifications, but that the search process was not exhausted. Was the almost premature ending of the process by the board a way to cut to the chase and finally push a woman forward?

Without being able to answer that for sure, I then took a look at our own society’s preparedness to be led by someone in a skirt. I had a laugh listening to All Things Considered the other day when the topic was Are U.S. Voters Ready to Elect a Woman President? Much of the conversation centered around what the leader would wear and how she would make herself look tough as the Commander-in-Chief. Someone commented, “Women are either Vogue models or an un-made bed.” Now that doesn’t leave much room for a gal to become the Leader of the Free World!

But back to music, Marin Alsop told Fred Child in a recent interview that she really doesn’t have much perspective on an orchestra’s relationship to a woman over a man. So she continues to work on what she does have perspective on: her conducting technique. She tries to de-genderize it, making her gestures not about being a man or a woman, but about music making.

That may be why thirty years ago, the groundbreaking woman in my field, Doriot Anthony Dwyer - who traces her lineage back to the suffragist Susan B. Anthony – was able to convince the all-male Boston Symphony Orchestra audition committee to grant her the honor of being the first woman to hold a principal chair in a major symphony orchestra. She was just the best at playing the flute, it turns out, and whether that meant her music had a feminine touch or not seemed beside the point.

Maybe those guys over in Vienna might take some more chances with women; maybe even hold a couple of blind auditions and see if what they’re hearing is good music making regardless of whose making the music. It might take them (and us it seems) some getting used to seeing a woman up there in action, but we’re a little over 50% of the population and we probably have something valuable to add to the mix!