Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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Working for orchestral equality

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The Minnesota Orchestra. (Photo by Ann Marsden)
Marin Alsop made history this summer when she became the first female music director of a major American orchestra. When she took the job at the Baltimore Symphony, she said it was a sad reflection on the orchestral world that it took so long to happen.

Around the same time a male violinist with the New York Philharmonic filed a gender discrimination suit, saying the orchestra favored female violinists. These events are emblematic of changes in classical music over the past few decades, both nationally and locally with the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

St. Paul, Minn. — When violist Myrna Rian joined the Minnesota Orchestra in 1977, she was one of some 20 women among a total of about 95 musicians. The gender imbalance was such that when Orchestra Hall was built in 1974, the women's dressing room was much smaller than the men's.

"Later on, after I joined," Rian says, "They had to remodel and expand the women's locker room because we were crowded and there were more women hired."

Twenty-eight years after Myrna Rian joined the Minnesota Orchestra, there are still more men than women in the ranks, but Rian says the balance has definitely changed. Women outnumber men in the violin section and the orchestra has a female concertmaster, a traditionally male position.

Bob Neu, general manager of the Minnesota Orchestra, says gender discrimination hasn't been an issue for many years. The Minnesota Orchestra, like most major American symphonies, holds what are called blind auditions with musicians playing behind a screen.

"The screens are there more so that you don't know if it's an old friend from college, or if it's already someone in the orchestra who wants to move up in the section," Neu explains. "It certainly prevents against sexism or ageism, but it's more just to have a completely level playing field."

The competition for an orchestra opening is tough. When violist Eva Sheie auditioned for a position with the Minnesota Orchestra in 1999, she was one of 100 musicians competing for the same spot. Sheie, a Minnesota native who plays with the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, says even though she didn't win the audition, she thought the process was fair.

"The audition begins with everybody sitting around in the same area," Sheie says. "Then you're taken to a warmup room, and everyone's playing the same piece in the rooms up and down the hall. It's actually pretty nerve-wracking because you hear people playing really well, or you hear people playing really badly. And then someone comes and takes you to the audition room and gives you all of the instructions you need."

It takes more than technical proficiency for a musician to win a position with an orchestra. Barry Kempton, general manager of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, says there also needs to be chemistry. Finalists for a position with the SPCO play with the group for two or more weeks to make sure there's a good fit.

The number of men and women in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is nearly evenly split, with 15 women and 19 men.

Where women still lag behind men in symphony orchestras is as music directors. The attention Marin Alsop's appointment with the Baltimore Symphony has received demonstrates how unusual it still is for a woman to lead an orchestra.

The SPCO's Barry Kempton says that it's only a matter of time before that's no longer the case.

"I think there's no doubt that it's harder for a woman to succeed as a conductor," he says. "I think the situation is changing somewhat. But certainly if you look back in history, it's been a very white male-dominated position and it is still to some extent."

It may be a while, though, before a woman has a major conducting role with the Twin Cities' two main orchestras. The Minnesota Orchestra just signed a new contract with Osmo Vanska which runs through 2011. The SPCO currently has five artistic partners who share the conductor's role.

When asked about the fact that all five are currently men, Kempton says gender has never been an issue of conversation.

Nonetheless, Minnesota Orchestra violist Myrna Rian expects that Marin Alsop's appointment as music director in Baltimore will help create more opportunities for women in symphony orchestras.

"I hope that it's a successful career for her, and that attitudes can change even further regarding leadership of an orchestra," Rian says. "We're all in this together to make music."

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