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Gender disharmony



Published: Sat, July 23, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Chicago Tribune: The controversy surrounding the appointment Tuesday by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra of Marin Alsop as conductor -- the first woman to lead a major-league orchestra -- was a reminder of classical music's long and sorry history of sexism.

There are numerous distinguished women composers today, including Shulamit Ran and Augusta Read Thomas. But from the time of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart until fairly recent times, few, if any, female composers rose to fame, largely because orchestras would not perform their works.

Not too long ago some symphony orchestras would not hire women as players.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra hired its first woman player, a harpist, in the 1890s, and a horn player in 1940. In 1957, Fritz Reiner asked Margaret Hillis to put together a symphony chorus, which she led until 1994. The CSO today uses screens during auditions so that nothing but the musical ability of the candidate influences the selection. About a third of the players are women.

Highest hurdle

But conducting is still the highest hurdle. As Shulamit Ran sees it, the issue may be one of power. The conductor stands on a podium, which is like a pulpit, literally towering over 100-odd highly trained performers -- the majority of them male -- sitting a few feet below. The conductor's job is to tell the performers what to do. No, that wasn't right, please play it again. And again.

As with any prejudice, there are rationalizations. The oddest one is credited to Leonard Bernstein, who is supposed to have said that women simply "looked funny" standing on a conductor's podium. Later he helped train aspiring female conductors, including Alsop.

All these tales and excuses sound as silly as the brouhaha in Baltimore over Alsop's appointment. After seven months, the orchestra's search committee came up with one of the best conductors available, who in this case happens to be a woman. But on the verge of making the appointment official, seven orchestra members on the search committee unanimously asked the orchestra board to keep looking. Search committee recommendations usually are final, so the musicians' strong opposition was surprising.




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