Prima Donnas Strut Their Stuff at the Lucerne Festival
It’s only right that Switzerland’s Lucerne Festival should be turning the spotlight on the role of women in classical music, making Prima Donna the central theme of the 2016 Summer Festival.
After all Lucerne is the world’s preeminent festival of classical orchestral music and it has been precisely in classical orchestras that discrimination against female musicians has been most intense.
There were precious few females in the orchestra (maybe two or three) when my father-in-law played in the Concertgebouworkest of Amsterdam from the 20’s to the 60s—which was typical for most symphonic orchestras in Europe and the United States at the time. Classical bands then were a protected male preserve.
Now with ‘blind auditions’ women are getting a fairer shake—today about 40 percent of the Concertgebouworkest are female --and the reason has less to do with affirmative action, feminism, worker’s rights or a delayed bout of fair play than with the steadily increasing technical standard demanded by modern symphony orchestras and managements.
So long as the technical playing standard in orchestras was relatively low as in my father-in-law’s day, discrimination against women was no big deal for a conservative society that sought to protect the jobs of men who were the sole breadwinners in the family.
But as musical standards rose, so did the costs of keeping talented women out. More sophisticated audiences demanded a better product and so did the managements--even the musicians wanted better colleagues to make music with. So the doors opened up.
The big holdouts were in classical bands like the Vienna Philharmonic where the playing standard already was extraordinarily high.
Numbers testify to the terrific progress made by women in US symphony orchestras over the past 50 years. The St. Louis Symphony went from 18 females out of 88 musicians in 1963-64 to 51 women out of 96 in 2015-15. In the same time period, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went from 3 women out of 104 to 41 women out of 102. The New York Philharmonic went from no women out of 103 to 44 women out of 100.
In the top 250 orchestras in the US today, women account for more than 50 percent of the chairs. That doesn’t look like a discrimination problem to me.
But female conductors and women players vying for principal desks jobs—visible leadership posts-- have had a much tougher row to hoe than ordinary orchestra members.
Only now are the doors opening for female conductors and again not because of any sense of fair play or political activism but for the simple reason that there are just not enough credible male candidates to go around.
The cost of discrimination rises as the male talent pool dries up.
The good news is that orchestras are starting to react to the current shortage of credible male candidates by hiring females. When Andris Nelsons left the City of Birmingham Orchestra (CBSO), he was replaced by the very talented 29-year old Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla who will be conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe at Lucerne this summer.
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.
Malkki also is appearing at Lucerne this summer.
In all, Lucerne has invited a total of 42 females to be a definitive part of this summer’s programming whether on the podium or as soloists. On August 21st, there will be a Special Events Day where you can hear five conductors, a violin virtuoso and a master pianist, all females—as part of an all day program. That promises to be interesting and fun.
Two great female virtuosos will be appearing at Lucerne this summer—the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Martha Argerich.
Virtuosos have been the arena of least discrimination against women in classical music. Even in the old days when there were few female players and no gals with a baton in their hand, there always were a good many women soloists and the reason for that is not surprising.
Virtuosity is a very scarce commodity and anyone who discriminates against it on the basis of gender--or religion as the Nazis did with the Jews during the Third Reich—shouldn’t be allowed in the concert hall.
Who wants to hear the Beethoven violin concerto played by a second rater just because he’s wearing pants?
With the problem of women in orchestras solved and that of virtuosic women essentially non-existent, the only real gender discrimination problem left in classical music is female conductors.
Lucerne is doing a great public service this summer by giving 12 top female conductors the opportunity to strut their stuff.
I say ‘public service’ because the public is the main loser when gender discrimination protects mediocre males from superior female talent on the podium. Just think what a loss it would be for society if a political talent like Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, were denied the opportunity to practice her profession just because she is a female.
The same holds true for women conductors: It is a terrible loss for the audience as well as the direct victims of discrimination when a talented female conductor is denied the baton just because she’s not a man.
Bravo then to Lucerne for making the case that these blatantly unfair situations shouldn't be allowed to happen.