Women Still Fight for Seat in Major Orchestras Worldwide
Despite gains, women remain the odd man out in the Vienna Philharmonic and some US orchestras
The Association of the Vienna Philharmonic has long been regarded as a boys’ club as evidenced by its membership, which to this day includes just three women out of 124 musicians. The Vienna Phil only began admitting female players in 1997. So, the Associated Press announcement in March that the 168-year-old ensemble appointed its first permanent female concertmaster arrived as a shocker. There was just one problem: the report wasn’t true, as Musical America’ Susan Elliott was the first to point out.
“In the words of the immortal Buddy Holly, ‘That’ll be the day,’” Elliott wrote in her blog.
Truth is, violinist Albena Danailova had been appointed permanent concertmaster of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra—not the Vienna Philharmonic.
While it appears to be an honest mistake by the AP, the misreported announcement highlighted the continued under-representation of women in the Vienna Philharmonic and elsewhere—further examination of US orchestras shows that imbalanced membership still exists even in organizations outside of the birthplace of the most revered classical composers.
Vienna Keeps with Tradition
The relationship between the Vienna Phil and the State Opera Orchestra is akin to major- and farm-league baseball teams. A violinist, for example, must audition for the State Opera Orchestra and enter into a three-year trial period before being considered for a spot in the elite Association of the Vienna Philharmonic—a founding tradition.
So, Danailova may have to wait . . . and wait.
Anna Lelkes, the association’s first-ever female member, was the orchestra’s unofficial harpist for 26 years before being granted membership in 1997. Lelkes’ confirmation came only after a tour by the Philharmonic was threatened with protests by the VPO Watch, a watchdog group that tracks hiring at the Vienna Phil. The project is backed by the International Alliance for Women in Music and former board member Monique Buzzarté. “That [part-time hiring of a harpist] was a pretty transparent effort to preempt the protest,” Buzzarté says. “I got involved because there wasn’t awareness, even in the classical-music community, of the exclusion of women of being even allowed to audition for the Vienna Philharmonic.”
Buzzarté was further pushed to action after connecting the dots: if the Vienna Phil doesn’t allow women, then the government-funded State Opera Orchestra must not allow women as well. “It’s very black and white when you have a state organization that does not abide by state laws,” she says.
Lelkes’ confirmation and retirement was followed by the appointments of harpist Charlotte Balzereit, violist Ursula Plaichinger, and first violinist Isabelle Ballot—hirings that left some males fearing for the sanctity of what they call the “Vienna Sound,” as well as other gender-related issues.
Interview requests with Vienna Phil chairman Clemens Hellsberg were turned down, however, concertmaster Rainer Küchl shared his views on the subject in the December 1997 issue of the Strad magazine. In that interview, the Strad noted that Küchl “ultimately feels it is far easier to stay all male and not have to worry about pregnancies on top of everything else. He feels women play differently—not worse but more softly, more flexibly. He claims to be able to tell a female violinist at once even if she is concealed by a curtain.”
Flash forward to August 2009. The Association of the Vienna Philharmonic announced its latest initiates who began their service with the State Opera Orchestra in 2006: four violinists and a cellist. All male.
Vienna Phil spokesperson Yvonne Katzenberger says: “Nothing has prevented the VPO from adding more women. In every contest, those who are playing better than the other candidates and in the way the jury believes that they are fitting best into the orchestra’s way of playing win the position. . . . If there is a vacant post, we are looking for musicians, male or female, who are able to play or to adopt the ‘Vienna Sound.’ This is the important criteria.”
Male Majority Rules at Big Orchestras in US
Stateside, gender imbalance also is a problem, if not so blatantly as in the Vienna Phil. “In America, the situation is much better,” says Hsia-Lan Wang, adjunct assistant professor of composition and music technology at Montana State University–Bozeman and president of the International Alliance for Women in Music. “When we go to concerts, we see a lot of women onstage—doesn’t matter if it’s strings, brass, woodwind, or percussion.”
For the most part, Wang is right. Thanks to screened auditions—in which candidates play behind a curtain before the judges to help prevent biased decisions based on gender or race—more women than ever have been able to land jobs in US orchestras. The latest available survey by the League of American Orchestras shows that across all US orchestras in the 2007–08 season, women accounted for 48.63 percent of the musicians. In smaller orchestras, women accounted for 78 percent.
However, in larger orchestras the share of women changed to 36.14 percent—or just a little more than a third. Upon hearing the figures and reflecting on her own experience as an orchestral musician, Buzzarté was able to tidily sum it up: “In general, the more elite the orchestra, the less women.”
Polly Kahn, the League’s vice president of Learning and Leadership Development, keeps it positive. She points out that as of April 2010, 70 principal players in “group-one orchestras” are women. “That is a very significant number and it speaks to the escalation of the critical role of women in major orchestras,” Kahn says.
But that level of hiring doesn’t always carry over to one of the highest-paid positions in the orchestra—the concertmaster seat. Orchestra consultant Drew McManus compiled a list of the highest-paid concertmaster positions from the 2007–08 season in his 2010 Compensation Report: Concertmasters, which is based on the latest available tax claims. The top ten were in Cleveland, New York, San Francisco, and several other metropolitan areas.
At the top of the list was Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Cecylia Arzewski, who earned $578,436 as part of a buyout. Her seat has since been filled by violinist David Coucheron.
When Strings cross-referenced the remaining top nine posts with those orchestras’ rosters as of the 2009–10 season, it was revealed that all of them are held by men.
The issue, according to Kahn, boils down to tenure. “When players get into our larger-budget orchestras, they tend to stay there for decades and decades,” she says.
Violinist Jorja Fleezanis spent two decades as concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra—the longest-tenured concertmaster in that ensemble’s history. When she was appointed in 1989 by then-music director Edo de Waart, she became only the second woman in the country with that coveted position in a major orchestra.
“I really have to applaud [de Waart],” Fleezanis says. “[He] had no issues with women whatsoever in the orchestra. In fact, he was militant about always saying things in favor of women simply because one had to because there were so few of them at the time he was growing up.”
But Fleezanis notes that not all conductors are as comfortable. “I have to say that was their discomfort and not mine,” she says. “I chose to just behave in such a way as to not bring that up by filling my boots, so to speak, and doing the job and being responsible and carrying on as a professional would—whether male or female—to get the job done and to get the job done well.
“You develop a kind of respect out of that handling of someone else’s inability to expand their horizons and look beyond gender. At some point, those particular individuals tend to get over it faster, but it takes the will of the person on the other side to make that a non-issue.”
Fleezanis left her post in 2009—the position is still open.
At press time, Danailova and three other women—violinist Olesya Kurylak, violist Daniela Ivanova, and cellist Ursula Wex—hold seats in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and do not yet belong to the Association of the Vienna Philharmonic.