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More women take charge in orchestra offices and on podiums

More women take charge in orchestra offices and on podiums

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It’s not only women instrumentalists whose numbers have increased, says Polly Kahn, vice president for learning and leadership development at the League of American Orchestras, but women executives and conductors.

Once rare, she says, over the last generation women have taken half the top orchestra management jobs. “It’s kind of a nonissue now. I would say that it’s purely aptitude-based at this point.”

Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, agrees, although she notes that things changed more slowly in the front offices than behind the music stands. Borda started as a musician and became an administrator, working her way up.

A lot of talented women held the No. 2 position, the general managers, she says. After a while, they began networking. Once they were speaking regularly, “we noticed we were never interviewed for the top jobs. ‘What about the job at Orchestra X?’ — a male would get it. ‘Did you get called about that job? Did you get interviewed?’ We would all be amazed to find that none of us had been called. I had sort of an epiphany that I couldn’t just take for granted that it would happen; I would need to pursue it.”

Some of her success, and that of her peers (including Deborah Card of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Allison Vulgamore at the Philadelphia Orchestra), she says, is due to the fact that “people are apt to hire people who are more like themselves. Ten to 15 years ago, (orchestra) boards were mostly all male. Now they’re mixed. I think that has created a positive evolutionary change.”

More women are in the executive pipeline: “At the largest 10 orchestras, it’s close to 50 percent” women in management, Borda says.

Kahn says female conductors (and, particularly, music directors) are “the last frontier.” They’re still in short supply, but even that is changing.

The league divides orchestras into numbered categories, large to small by budget, “and while it’s true that there is only one female director of a Group 1 orchestra (Marin Alsop at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra) and one Group 2 (JoAnn Falletta of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Buffalo Symphony Orchestra), you’re seeing a lot more people ascending from the small-budget orchestras. That just makes sense. The career trajectory for a conductor is a long one.”

Amid skepticism and people who weren’t ready to see a woman on the podium, Falletta says it’s hard to tell if her progress has been slowed by her gender.

“I would have predicted that in 2014 we would have so many women on high level podiums that no one would refer to ‘woman conductors’ or make any distinctions of that sort any more,” Falletta says. “But we have not gotten there yet.” She doesn’t think that gender matters to players “if the conductor’s work is excellent.”

She sees hope for the future. While talking with high school students recently, Falletta asked them why they thought the screen was used for auditions. “They could not imagine any answer.” When she told them it was to prevent gender and racial discrimination, “they were astounded. Their reactions ranged from confusion to disbelief to ‘Well, that is stupid!’”

Maybe, she suggests, the time is coming when prejudice against women conductors will be unimaginable as well.

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Sarah Bryan Miller is the classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; she has also written on a variety of other topics.

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