In a world of old-boy bastions, classical music’s has been particularly entrenched. Even today, conductors are generally male, and female composers are chronically underrepresented on the orchestral stages of the world. The picture is brighter in administration, but even there the glass ceiling is not far behind us; the women who helped break it, like Deborah Borda, now the president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, are still active in the field. Catherine French, now a prominent headhunter for nonprofit organizations, remembers the New York Times headline in 1970 when she was picked for a prominent orchestra job: “Girl to Lead American Symphony.”
But in Washington, at least, women have taken over classical music’s traditional male network. In January, Francesca Zambello officially became the Washington National Opera’s artistic director; in April, Jenny Bilfield took over as president of the Washington Performing Arts Society. Add Rita Shapiro of the National Symphony Orchestra and you have the three major classical institutions in the city led by women — not to mention the Washington Chorus, the Choral Arts Society, the Fairfax Symphony and other smaller groups, as well as the presence of Marin Alsop, the country’s highest-ranking female conductor, down the road at the Baltimore Symphony.