Where Is the Ms. in Maestro?

(Courtesy Of Gregory Tucker)

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By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The board of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will meet this morning to decide whether to appoint Marin Alsop as the ensemble's 12th music director. Whatever decision is made, it is likely to leave bruised feelings within the orchestra and throughout the tightly knit world of classical music.

If Alsop is named, it will be against the express wishes of as many as 90 percent of the musicians in the BSO, who have asked for a continuation of the search to audition several other conductors.

If Alsop is rejected, it will be a huge setback for the management of the orchestra, which has backed her for the position and has suggested since late last week that board certification of her appointment was just a formality.

Complicating the matter is the fact that Alsop, if selected, would be the first woman to run a major American or European orchestra. Her appointment would therefore be of considerable historical importance and the word that she is the front-running -- and only current -- candidate has already been picked up by news organizations throughout the world.

There have been female conductors -- Antonia Brico led a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra as early as 1930 and Nadia Boulanger's mid-century appearances with the New York Philharmonic were legendary. In recent years, artists such as Anne Manson and JoAnn Falletta (the latter will lead the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap on July 28) have won appreciative followings as guest conductors -- and both have served as music directors of some well-regarded medium-size orchestras. But no female conductor has ever been selected to shape the overall direction of a group as significant as the Baltimore Symphony.

In an era when women commonly run everything from universities to Fortune 500 companies to entire countries, why has it taken so long for a single leading orchestra to take the step?

The fact is, classical music has been extraordinarily hidebound when it comes to gender issues. The Berlin Philharmonic admitted its first female player in 1980; the Vienna Philharmonic steadfastly refused to let women enjoy full membership status until, grudgingly, two harpists were hired in the late 1990s. (In a 1996 interview with West German State Radio, Helmut Zaertner, a violist with the Vienna Philharmonic, explained that because harpists were stationed so far at the edge of the orchestra, "it doesn't disturb our emotional unity, the unity I would strongly feel, for example, when the orchestra starts really cooking with a Mahler symphony.")

American orchestras have been far ahead of many of their European counterparts on this front, with women making up a third or more of the membership of several leading ensembles and regularly dominating the string section. (Brass remains mostly a male preserve, although the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has long featured Susan Slaughter on principal trumpet.) But things have been just as hard for female conductors in the United States as they are across the Atlantic.

Indeed, the late critic Harold C. Schonberg began his generally illuminating and entertaining history "The Great Conductors" (1967) with a grandiloquent definition of a "maestro" that would seem to rule out half of humanity:

"He is of commanding presence, infinite dignity, fabulous memory, vast experience, high temperament, and serene wisdom. He has been tempered in the crucible but he is still molten and he glows with a fierce inner light. He is many things: musician, administrator, executive, minister, psychologist, technician, philosopher and dispenser of wrath. . . . Above all, he is a leader of men. His subjects look to him for guidance. He is at once a father image, the great provider, the force of inspiration, the Teacher who knows all."

There were no profiles or photographs of women in Schonberg's book. They weren't on the radar.

Of course, 40 years ago the same might have been said of virtually all corporate leaders, who were simply expected to be men. The world has changed enormously since then -- but classical music has changed less than most fields.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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