Why Orchestras Have Had to Bring Gender-Bling Policies to the Fore
Symphony orchestras, which were once considered a protected male preserve, now are amongst the most gender-blind employers in the US. The St. Louis Symphony had 18 women out of 88 musicians in 1963-64. The numbers went to 51 women out of 96 in 2015-16.
During that same period, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went from 3 women out of 104 to 41 out of 102. And the New York Philharmonic went from no women out of 103 to 41 women out of 100.
Today, over 50 percent of the chairs in the top 250 US orchestras are filled by women.
Most experts credit ‘blind auditions’ –where aspiring candidates try out for vacant chairs behind a curtain-- for the increasing proportions of women in orchestras.
But that doesn’t explain why ‘blind auditions’ caught on in a business that heretofore had been a bastion of male supremacy and protection.
It is not coincidence that the rising use of ‘blind auditions’ accompanied a rise in the technical standard demanded by modern symphony orchestras of its musicians.
Forced by competition for skilled talent in a world of increasing technical standards of playing-- and widely available recordings that made it possible for people livinganywhere to hear what a good orchestra sounded like-- orchestras turned to ‘blind auditions’ and away from contacts, cronyism and personal recommendations as the preferred way for filling vacancies.
Fairness, feminism and affirmative action had little to do with it.
The big holdouts have been classical bands like the Vienna Philharmonic where the playing standard already was extraordinary high.
But while improved technical playing standards were forcing symphony orchestras into gender-blind policies for ordinary desk players, the same wasn’t true for highly visible orchestral leadership posts like conductors and principal desk jobs. There the old discrimination against women has remained very much as it always had been.
Only now are the doors opening up for women conductors and again not because of any delayed sense of fair play and political activism but for the simple reason that there are just not enough credible male candidates to go around.
The cost of gender discrimination rises as the pool of talented male conductors dries up.
The good news is that classical orchestras are starting to react to the current shortage of credible male candidates by hiring women. When Andris Nelsons left the City of Birmingham Orchestra (CBSO), he was replaced by the very talented 29-year old Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla.
More evidence is Susanna Malkki’s recent appointment as principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, only the third person in LA history to have held the post, the other two being Simon Rattle and Michael Tilson Thomas.
One wonders: Had there been male competitors with Rattle-Thomas type talent available, would Malkki have gotten the job? I am not so sure.
The Lucerne Festival in Switzerland is making female conductors and musicians the central focus of its prestigious one-month music festival this summer. Twelve top female conductors including Malkki, Grazinyte-Tyla and Marin Alsop, Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, are scheduled to perform. The festival runs from August 12th to September 11th.
Not only does the festival give female conductors a showcase for their talent, it also gives attendees a once in a lifetime opportunity to see and hear what we’ve been missing.