Julie Ayer  

An Endearing Legacy

Julie Ayer
February 4, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

In 2009 the Spokane Symphony created an endowed chair in memory of two members of their violin section: mother/daughter Evelyn Ayer and Jane Ayer Blegen. Julie Ayer, violinist with the Minnesota Orchestra, has written a loving tribute to her mother and sister, describing their involvement with the orchestra and how the endowed chair came to be. She also gives us an overview of the history of women in North American symphony orchestras.

- Ann Drinan

My mother, Evelyn Ayer, and sister, Jane Ayer Blegen, were members of the violin section of the Spokane Symphony for many years. Their careers overlapped for 12 of the 50+ years that one of them was a member of the orchestra.

Evelyn was one of the founding members of the Spokane Philharmonic, as it was known in 1945. Evelyn sat in the 4th chair of the first violins until she retired in 1984. Jane joined the Spokane Symphony in 1972, and after her mother’s retirement, she moved to the same chair her mother had occupied.

Anyone who knew them experienced their enthusiasm and love for the orchestra, and the musical family and friendships that developed over many years. They were truly peas in a pod, with similar mannerisms, appearance, sense of humor, and were even roommates on orchestra tours.

Spokane Symphony's first concert, December 18, 2019 Spokane Symphony's first concert, December 18, 2019 (Spokane Symphony Archives. Click to enlarge.)

Jane died at age 58 on May 18, 2019 of melanoma cancer. One of the cancer treatments required hours in the hospital for blood transfusions. Never wanting to waste a minute and the queen-of-multi-taskers, Jane practiced during the transfusions, much to the delight and amazement of the hospital staff. Her last performance was with the Spokane String Quartet in March of 2002, of which she was 2nd violinist for many years. When she became too weak to play, she reluctantly put her violin away and never opened the case again. Until Evelyn was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 90, playing her violin sustained her and brought her great joy. She died August 6, 2019 at the age of 98.

In the late summer of 2002, the idea for an endowed chair in both names was discussed with the Spokane Symphony. It was quickly approved and followed by an overwhelming response from the public to the announcement of the Ayer-Blegen Endowed Chair. By the end of November, 2003, the SSO had received gifts and pledges from 167 donors totaling almost $65,000, with $100,000 the eventual goal. This goal was reached in July of 2009, and much credit and appreciation goes to the generosity of so many.

In an interview in the local newspaper in 1949, my mother stated, “As a member of the Spokane Philharmonic Orchestra for the last four years, my greatest pleasure and benefit has been in learning and playing the works of great composers. Most housewives need and maintain an interest outside of home and daily duties and participation in the Philharmonic is, to me, a very happy diversion, and makes possible my greater enjoyment of the fine symphonic music presented over the radio networks by the great orchestras of the country.”

Women have always been accepted in, and perhaps even formed the backbone of, amateur and semiprofessional orchestras in the United States. Usually offering part-time work and paying “per-service” rather than on a seasonal basis, such orchestras play important roles in the lives of their communities. The numbers of women in such smaller-budget orchestras have always been higher than in the major orchestras, averaging between 42 percent and 46 percent. Gender discrimination for the “other half of humanity” was not an issue, as it was in major symphony orchestras for many decades.

Sir Henry Wood, conductor of the London Queen’s Hall Orchestra, claimed to be the first conductor to admit women into a professional orchestra. In a 1913 letter to the Times of London, the famed British composer Ethel Smyth, later named Dame Ethel, pointed out that “the inclusion of women in a first-class orchestra... a privilege till now restricted, for some mysterious reason, to harpists.”

From the early 19th century until the 1960s, symphony orchestra membership was strictly controlled by invitation of the conductor or manager, and few women had the opportunity even to audition for a position in a major orchestra in the United States and Canada. Some conductors hired the best player, even if she also happened to be a woman. Leopold Stokowski hired cellist Elsa Hilger to the Philadelphia Orchestra in the mid 1930s, and later the next conductor, Eugene Ormandy, appointed her assistant principal, but never to the principal position. In her words, “I would have been principal but my pants weren’t long enough.”

As early as 1903, the American Federation of Labor required that the musicians union not discriminate against women. (However, it was not until 1953 that the musicians union was desegregated.) In the spring of 1938, 150 female members of the Musicians Local 802 of New York met together to discuss their mutual problems.

With the outbreak of World War II, men left their professions faster than the vacancies could be filled. In their places, women flew airplanes, towed targets, worked rigorously in factories and defense-related positions – and filled men’s chairs in major American orchestras. At war’s end, many of these women were expected to give up their jobs to returning soldiers. Not all of them did so, and their stories open a window on a generation of women who changed American society by securing a place for themselves in the workplace, the newsroom, the battlefield – and on the concert stage.

An October 1944 article in the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune notes the presence of four women in the Minneapolis Symphony. “Two of the players are symphony wives,” Dorothy Riley wrote, adding that “one of them wants to return to her role as housewife as soon as the war is over, and that the engagement with the symphony is definitely a wartime measure.” That same year the Boston Symphony Orchestra held a fund-raising meeting attended mostly by women. Music critic Alan Rich reported that the orchestra’s president announced that if not enough money was raised, the orchestra would have to reduce the number of players and length of its season and “lower its standards” by hiring women. Just eight years later, in 1952, the Boston Symphony hired Doriot Anthony Dwyer as principal flute. The headline in the Boston Herald read: Woman Crashes Boston Symphony.

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