Why women are ruling musicOnce considered a protected male preserve, symphony orchestras are becoming the most gender-blind employers in the U.S. The St. Louis Symphony had 18 women out of 88 musicians in 1964. In 2016, more than half of its musicians were women.
During the same period, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went from three women out of 104 to 41 out of 102. And the New York Philharmonic went from no women to 41 women out of 100. Today, over 50 percent of the chairs in the top 250 U.S. orchestras are filled by women.
Fairness, feminism and affirmative action has very little to do with this development. Most experts credit blind auditions — where aspiring candidates try out for vacant chairs behind a curtain — for the increasing proportion of women in orchestras. Forced by the competition for skilled talent in a world of increasingly technical standards of playing (and also by widely available recordings that made it possible for people living anywhere to hear what a good orchestra sounds like) most orchestras realized that blind auditions were a better way of filling vacancies than the traditional alchemy of contacts, cronyism and personal recommendations. The music-lover has benefited: The growing use of blind auditions has been accompanied by a rise in the technical standards as modern symphony orchestras demand more of their musicians.
But while improved playing standards were forcing symphony orchestras into gender-blind policies for musicians, the same hasn’t held true for highly visible orchestral leadership posts, such as conductors and other principal jobs. There discrimination against women has remained very much as it always had been.
In progressive San Francisco, less than five percent of the concerts of the San Francisco Symphony will be led by female conductors this coming season. At the Vienna Philharmonic, there have been a total of two concerts led by females — one in 1935 (by Carmen Studer-Weingartner), the other in 2005 (by Simone Young). There will be a third at the Lucerne Festival this summer when the French conductor Emmanuelle Haim leads the Philharmonic.
But that redoubt of male chauvinism too seems to be disappearing. When Andris Nelsons left the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), he was replaced by the very talented 29-year-old Lithuanian, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. Susanna Malkki’s recent appointment as principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic is another sign things are changing; she is only the third person in LA history to have held the post, the other two being Simon Rattle and Michael Tilson Thomas.
Doors are beginning to open for female conductors not due to any delayed sense of fair play, however, but for the simple reason that there are more women in symphony orchestras these days and they are much less resistant to being led by a woman than the male-dominated orchestras of the past.
There is also a chance factor at work here favouring women: While there are many competent young to middle aged male conductors around at the moment, there are precious few extraordinary ones, giving talented females like Mirga the chance they need. Moreover, not all talented European male conductors want permanent jobs in the United States, where there are onerous fund-raising and community-outreach duties that go along with the conducting.
The floodgates are about to open for female conductors in the next decade. You already see this at places like Birmingham where the number of female applicants for the young conductor’s program far exceeds the number of male applicants. The young are recognizing new opportunities for women in the conducting business and are readying themselves for it.
It may take a while for the public to get used to having female conductors — the symphony audience is a very conservative one. But they will.
As an indication of the times, the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland, starting Aug.12, is making female conductors and musicians the central focus of its prestigious one-month music festival. Twelve top female conductors including Malkki, Grazinyte-Tyla and Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, are scheduled to perform. Those lucky enough to attend can judge for themselves the depth of the current pool of top female conductors.
*The author is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and an emeritus professor of economics at New York University.