Breaking Through the Musical Ceiling

Mike Lawson • Archives • December 29, 2006

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In the world of serious music one of the last bastions of male dominated functions is that of orchestral conductors. It’s curious that this field is still overwhelmingly male dominated, while women have reached parity in nearly all other segments of the performing world. This past September, the Minnesota Orchestra, one of the top symphonies in the United States, broke ranks and hired its first female assistant conductor, Ms. Sarah Hatsuko Hicks. There have been some very high profile women conductors in the past, including Sarah Caldwell – the famed director of the Opera Company of Boston and the first woman conductor of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. However, Ms. Hicks’ hiring represents the first time in the 103-year history of the Minnesota Orchestra that a woman has been chosen for a conducting position. As she joins the ranks of only four female conductors among the top 26 US orchestras (according to the American Symphony Orchestra League), including the highly acclaimed JoAnn Falletta – director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, she is bound to make her mark upon the orchestral world.

Twenty to thirty years ago, many of the orchestral players were predominantly male, especially in some of the older ensembles in Europe. Only 25 years ago, Herbert von Karajan, the director of the Berlin Philharmonic, hired a female principle clarinetist, Sabine Meyer who was the only female in the orchestra at the time. The male members, who were evidently resistant to change, gave Ms. Meyer an extremely difficult time to the point that many claim she quit after only one year (although the official story is that she left of her own accord, for other reasons). Her groundbreaking acceptance into that orchestra was a pivotal point in time as the orchestra has since come to balance at nearly 50 percent female. Subsequently, Ms. Meyer has gone on to become one of the most successful clarinet soloists in the latter part of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Curiously, according to the NY Times, January 22, 2006, “After a tortuous three-year search for a new general manager, the Berlin Philharmonic made an unexpected choice in July. Pamela Rosenberg, 60, will be the first woman and the first American to administer what is arguably the world’s most revered orchestra.”

These important changes are certainly a step in the right direction, although the pace of change has been slow. In school bands and orchestras women have reached top positions in virtually all arenas and there is no conceivable reason why more have not reached the highest levels in professional orchestras, except that the old-fashioned barriers and mindsets simply have not yet changed. Women have become CEOs of multi-national, billion dollar corporations, and leaders of major universities and hospitals, so we can only hope that the ceiling parts and allows women conductors to ascend and have their opportunities with the great orchestras of the world.

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