Saturday, July 23, 2005

Gender and the Violin in the NY Philharmonic

July 23, 2005
In Violin Sections, Women Make Their Presence Heard

A male violinist's discrimination suit against the New York Philharmonic underscores a little-noted phenomenon: women have come to dominate the violin sections of some of the nation's leading orchestras, or at least hold their own. And their numbers among violin players have also helped raise their prominence as concertmasters, the most important orchestra jobs after the conductors.

But men still predominate in orchestras, and the testosterone level rises with the string instrument's size.

No matter why the male violinist, Anton Polezhayev, was ousted from the Philharmonic, the fact remains that women outnumber men in its violin section by 20 to 13. In the orchestra's only comment on the case, its director of public relations, Eric Latzky, said yesterday, "In the past several years, musicians of both genders have received tenure in the orchestra." He said there was "wide input" within the orchestra in making the decision but he declined to comment further.

The Philharmonic's violin gender breakdown signals how far women have come in orchestra ranks, or at least in some of those ranks, as a quick look at rosters confirms. According to the Philharmonic's Web site, women count for 7 of the 12 violists, 6 of 11 cellists and 2 of 9 double bass players. At the Boston Symphony Orchestra, men trail in the violins 13 to 18, and lead 7 to 5 in the violas, 9 to 1 in the cellos and 9 to 0 in the double basses. In Cleveland, women outnumber men by only one in the violins, and at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, men dominate that section, 18 to 10.

The proportion of women in the top 24 orchestras by budget rose from 28.7 percent in the 1994-95 season to 34.7 percent in 2003-4, said Julia Kirchhausen, a spokeswoman for the American Symphony Orchestra League. "When orchestras started, obviously the available players were all from Europe, and the orchestra tradition back then was all male," she said. "This is kind of a natural progression as women have entered the work force in all walks of life."

More glass ceilings crashed this week as Marin Alsop was appointed the music director at Baltimore, the first woman to lead a major American orchestra, and Pamela Rosenberg became the first female administrator to run the Berlin Philharmonic.

In at least four major orchestras - the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra - the concertmaster is a woman. The job has traditionally been a male preserve; its occupant is the link between conductor and players, transmitting technical directions from the podium, leading sectional rehearsals and playing solos.

When the National Symphony held auditions for a new concertmaster in 2001, all four finalists were women, said Rita Shapiro, the orchestra's executive director.

"Something is turning out a higher caliber of female artist," said Ms. Shapiro, one of the few women who are chief administrators of major orchestras.

Conversations with administrators and a glance at rosters bear out other gender generalities: brass players tend to be men, though more and more French horn players are female; woodwinds are more mixed. Men play percussion; women play harps. Exceptions exist, of course.

Much of this, naturally, reflects the influence of parents, who usually decide what instruments their children study. Stanley Drucker, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic for more than 50 years, has said his parents gave him a clarinet as a boy because they worshiped Benny Goodman.

Wendy Putnam, a violinist in the Boston orchestra, pointed out that in the first half of the 20th century, the lionized violin soloists were all men. They were the role models, but in recent years, prominent female soloists have emerged. "If you look at the conservatories, there's just way more women studying violin than men," Ms. Putnam said. "Just like anything else, women view it as something they can do as well as men."

This summer at the Tanglewood Music Center, run by the Boston Symphony, 23 of the 28 violin fellows - young musicians generally just out of conservatory - are women.

Other factors have led to the increase in women in orchestras.

One is the blind audition, which has made it tougher to exclude performers for nonmusical reasons. Now, most auditioners, at least in the early rounds, play behind a screen. The blind audition was partly a response to racial discrimination cases brought against major orchestras in the 1960's, said Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"It changed the entire face of American orchestras, in terms of gender," Ms. Borda said.

She recounted a bit of symphonic lore: When the Detroit Symphony was auditioning a concertmaster in 1988 and a woman stepped from behind the screen, several orchestra members on the committee expressed consternation. "The screen has spoken," Gunther Herbig, the music director, declared, and she was hired.

The sheer size of violin sections means there will be more turnover than in other sections, and hence more opportunity for women to audition. There are exceptions to the pattern. The Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, has 11 women in a violin section of 32, almost the opposite ratio of the New York Philharmonic. Joseph H. Kluger, the Philadelphia president, speculated that the reason might be a lower turnover rate there in recent years and hence fewer opportunities to replace male old-timers.

Ann Hobson Pilot, the Boston Symphony's principal harpist, said she could recall only one woman in the violin section when she joined in 1969. "Now I've totally lost count," she said. She suggested another reason for the increase: as competition for orchestra jobs grew tougher, men moved into more secure careers like law and business, while women, who may have breadwinning spouses, felt less of a risk.

As for the profusion of female violinists, she noted that the instrument was the smallest of the strings. "It's easy to carry," she said.

Ben Sisario contributed reporting for this article.

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