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.
In part that is because it has come to seem a retrospective art form, with virtually all of its "greatest hits" written by male composers who are long dead. The last truly popular piece to enter the symphonic repertory was Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring," composed in 1944. For most of its history, classical music has been a man's world.
"The idea of a woman managing the performance of music remains anathema even in societies where women have achieved the highest office," the British critic Norman Lebrecht observed in his book "The Maestro Myth" (1991). "Committee wives in Middle America are said to abhor the notion of a female incumbent, while male commuters want the symphonies they hear while driving to work to be conducted by one of their own. Whether they act tough or soft, women conductors have been given a hard time by male-dominated orchestras."
But things have begun to improve somewhat in the past couple of decades. Attempts to reach Alsop at her New York apartment and on her cell phone have been unsuccessful; her management said that she would have no comment until after today's board meeting. But in the past, she has regularly startled interviewers with her opinion that, if anything, the fact that she is a woman had helped her career.
"In America, at least, I've found very little resistance to the idea of a woman conductor," she said in 1990. "It's still unusual enough that the orchestra might even get some publicity for engaging me." She has made other similar statements over the years.
Falletta concurs. "I've never felt any discrimination in the United States," she said yesterday. "Twenty years ago, at the beginning of my career, I'd find a certain coolness in other countries -- especially in Germany -- but even that has gotten a lot better. If anything, I'd say that there is more prejudice against American conductors in general, whether they are male or female. We're still sometimes treated as second-raters -- and that goes on here as well as in Europe, I'm sorry to say."
It is probable that a new generation of female conductors will arrive -- certainly, there are plentiful candidates now studying in conservatories. Young musicians growing up today no longer face the prejudices that were once accepted as a matter of course, and much of this is due to the example of artists such as Marin Alsop.
The BSO musicians' request that the search for a conductor continue did not mention Alsop's name, nor did it raise specific concerns about her qualifications for the job. But a letter dated April 21 from Anthony S. Brandon, a board member who has been outspoken in his opposition to Alsop's appointment, to Philip English, the chairman of the BSO board, is specific. It was drafted with the help of other board members, with input from a number of musicians, and copies have circulated freely in circles close to the BSO. English has previously refused to comment on the appointment and he did not return calls yesterday afternoon.
"The overriding justification for eliminating Alsop is that 90 percent of the BSO musicians oppose her appointment," the letter states. "In her appearances with the orchestra, the players say, Alsop has not produced inspired and nuanced performances of standard classical repertory. They cite 'dull,' even 'substandard,' performances of Brahms's Symphony No. 3, Mendelssohn's music for 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2.
"They say that she either does not hear problems or -- because her technical limitations prevent her from fixing them -- that she ignores them. Her musical sense is inhibited by her own lack of depth as a musician and she becomes frustrated when what she hears in her head does not come out from the players. Upon finding something wanting in rehearsal, she responds with vagaries such as 'I'm not feeling it' (Mendelssohn's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream') or exhorts them with abstractions such as 'make magic' (Brahms's Symphony No. 3).
"When an orchestra believes it is being pushed by unmusical ideas, tempos and phrasing and being told that the orchestra itself lacks imagination, musicians feel they are dealing with a conductor who lacks ideas, conviction and technical skill."
The current music director, Yuri Temirkanov, steps down at the end of the 2005-06 season. So, whether it is Alsop or someone else, the BSO must find a conductor soon.