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Women in the Symphony Orchestra

1 Ann Drinan

Recently Carter Brey, principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic, interviewed his colleague Evangeline Benedetti, who retired from the orchestra’s cello section in 2011 after 44 years. I found the interview extremely interesting, as Ms. Benedetti was only the second woman to receive tenure in the NY Philharmonic, and had to wait to receive notification about the outcome of her audition by snail mail. The interview was first published in Allegro, the magazine of the New York City musicians’ union (AFM Local 802), and Polyphonic has reprinted the interview with permission.

Allegro captioned the interview as being in honor of Woman’s History Month, which got us at Polyphonic wondering what other articles we have in our archives about women in the symphony orchestra. We did a search and a few items should be of interest.

The most compelling is “An Endearing Legacy,” an article by Julie Ayer, violinist with the Minnesota Orchestra, about how the Spokane Symphony created two endowed chairs in honor of her mother and sister. In addition to a loving tribute, Julie also presents an overview of the history of women in North American symphony orchestras.

Robert Levine, Senior Editor at Polyphonic and principal violist with the Milwaukee Symphony, did an informal survey in 2009 of gender and principal positions among ICSOM orchestras – “Age, Gender and Orchestras.” The results were indeed most interesting, and makes us realize we haven’t come quite as far as we’d thought. Robert notes that “the closest thing to gender balance across the field is in the principal second violin position; almost half of ICSOM orchestras have a female principal second.” But that’s where inequality starts, as only 1/4 of ICSOM orchestras have a female concertmaster.

Yvonne Caruthers, former Senior Editor at Polyphonic and cellist with the National Symphony, interviewed Jennifer Montone as part of her spotlight on the Philadelphia Orchestra. Jennifer addressed the issue of gender equality in discussing her appointment as principal horn with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

We also took a look back at the Harmony archives (Harmony was published by the Symphony Orchestra Institute from 1995 to 2003, and the archives reside on Polyphonic.org). The April 1998 issue had a special section titled Women in the Symphony Orchestra.

  • Women Conductors: Has the Train Left the Station?” by Marietta Nien-hwa Cheng, a conductor who comes from a town in southern Ohio. She presents a brief history of women conductors, an overview of the obstacles facing women conductors, and then tells her own story about the path that led her to become a conductor.
  • Gender and Leadership: A Review of Pertinent Research,” a discussion with Northwestern psychology professor Alice Eagly about her research in the role of gender in leadership issues, and how this research pertains to the symphony orchestra organizations.

Finally, the October 2002 issue of Harmony published an article by Penny Brill, violist with the Pittsburgh Symphony titled “A New Avenue for Musicians’ Outreach: Music and Wellness,” which describes four areas of activity that the PSO had taken in the area of music and wellness. A breast cancer survivor herself, Penny goes on to describe the PSO’s work with the Susan G. Komen Pittsburgh Race for the Cure.

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  1. Pingback by » The Power List: Why Women Aren’t Equals In New Music Leadership and Innovation
    January 16, 2014 at 5:09 PM

    […] arts, women have an easier time rising to the top. Never mind that hardly any women conduct, and leadership imbalances persist in both artistic and administrative roles. In just a couple of generations, it does seem like the […]