Women in classical music

Some good news, some bad news

Courtesy of Missy Mazzoli

Sometimes a cliché is true.

For example, for women entering the field of classical music, there’s some good news and some bad news.

First the good: Professional orchestras are filled with women today. This is now a viable career for the most talented women instrumentalists.

The bad news is that the picture is not nearly as rosy for women composers, who are not well represented on orchestral programs. And women conductors are no better off than composers.

The growing numbers of women in professional orchestras can be traced to a single innovation that began around 1970: “blind auditions” where competing candidates for open orchestral jobs play behind a screen. The selection committee does not know if it is hearing a man or a woman. The rapid change in the makeup of orchestras — casually visible and backed up by the numbers — is compelling evidence of the opposition women orchestral players faced before blind auditions.

Violinist Elizabeth Baker, a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1987 until today, has experienced auditions from both sides of the screen. She does not doubt the importance of blind auditions. “The screened rounds were the main reason why women were able to advance and realize positions in major symphony orchestras,” she says.

There is scientific research to support that belief. In an article titled “Orchestrating Impartiality,” published in 2000 in The American Economic Review, researchers Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse concluded that “the screen increases — by 50 percent — the probability that a woman will be advanced from certain preliminary rounds and increases by severalfold the likelihood that a woman will be selected in the final round.” Their conclusion is backed up by 25 pages of charts, graphs and statistical studies.

The real numbers are striking. According to the most recent information from the League of American Orchestras, the percentage of women instrumentalists has gone from 38.2 percent in 1978, the earliest year that these records were kept, to nearly 50 percent today. Some individual orchestras have up to 60 percent women.

The numbers are similar locally. Based on the rosters on their websites, approximately 44 percent of the Colorado Symphony and 58 percent of the Boulder Philharmonic is female. Significantly, the concertmaster of the Colorado Symphony is a woman, as are the assistant concertmaster and several principal players in the wind section of the Boulder Phil.

Today blind auditions are just about universal in American orchestras. The Code of Ethical Audition Practices that professional orchestras follow prohibits discrimination of the basis of sex, and screened auditions are often required in union contracts between orchestras and musicians.


Women composers have enjoyed some notable success recently. In December the Metropolitan Opera produced L’Amour de Loin by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho to great acclaim — the first opera by a woman at the Met in 113 years. The Santa Fe Opera premiered Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain in 2015, and Opera Colorado premiered Lori Laitman’s Scarlet Letter in 2016. But such widely publicized events do not tell the whole story.

Jennifer Higdon’s opera “Cold Mountain” premiered at the Santa Fe Opera in 2015.

For one thing, composers do not have the advantage of auditioning anonymously. Music directors and board committees know whose music they are choosing.

“We’re completely at the mercy of the people who do the programming,” Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon explains. “We have no control over our careers, basically, especially in the orchestral realm.”

Missy Mazzoli, a 2016 composer in residence with the Boulder Philharmonic, points out that women composers may not know when discrimination occurs. “It operates on different levels, a lot of which I would be the last person to be aware of,” she says. “I’m not behind closed doors where people are making decisions, but I think the numbers speak for themselves.”

What the numbers say depends on which ones do the speaking. In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, the period that still forms the largest part of the classical repertoire, women were discouraged, when not actually prevented, from being composers. That is no longer the case, so while there is little music by women from the core of the classical repertoire, there is a great deal of newer music.

Statistics kept by the Baltimore Symphony reflect the discrepancy. They show that only 1.8 percent of all works performed by major orchestras in 2014–15 were by women. But when limited to works performed by living composers, that number jumped to 14.8 percent.

Still, that remains a smaller share of the repertoire than the growing numbers of women composers would suggest. Kristin Kuster, a composer from Boulder who teaches at the University of Michigan, observes, “We are seeing a gradual increase in the number of female composers applying to our undergraduate and graduate programs” at Michigan.

Local figures hover around the national averages. In the 11 seasons under conductor Michael Butterman (including the current season), the Boulder Philharmonic has played six pieces by six different female composers. That is approximately 3.2 percent of all the repertoire programmed on major concert performances, slightly above the 2014–15 single-season national average. Among living composers, it is 15 percent, almost exactly the national average.

For the Colorado Music Festival (CMF), it is more difficult to calculate percentages, because there are so many different genres and ways of listing programs. During Michael Christie’s 13 years with the festival, 2001–13, the CMF programmed nine works by seven women. Looking only at festival orchestra concerts that have full program listings in the record, three women make up 1.3 percent of all composers and 9.4 percent of living composers in the Christie era, below the national averages. But for the CMF Chamber Orchestra in the same period, the figures are above the national average: five women represent 2.5 percent and 17.9, percent respectively.

Since Christie left, the only works by women were Hannah Lash’s “Click” Commission winner in 2016, and an upcoming piece by Betsy Jolas.

The Click Commission choice is particularly interesting. The commission has been granted in five festival seasons 2011-17. The winners are selected by the public.

In those five years, there have been 14 men and three women candidates. Of these, the voters selected three men and two women — Kuster in 2013 and Lash in 2016. At 40 percent, this is a far higher rate than women have been programmed locally or nationally. Since there were two women candidates in 2013, voters have actually chosen a female composer every time one was available. This is a very small sample, but it suggests that audiences are more willing than program committees and music directors to choose female composers.


The most prominent musicians at orchestral concerts are the soloists and conductors. For soloists, the rise of women in orchestral positions has been paralleled by women with solo careers, particularly violinists. The rosters of three of the largest artists management companies in New York — Columbia Artists, IMG and Opus 3 — together list 37 violinists, of which 16, or 43.2 percent, are women. Female pianists fare less well, with 13 out of 59, or 22 percent.

But it is as conductors that women appear least successful. In this area, management rosters may underrepresent women. The management companies represent 153 conductors and only 11 women, or 7.2 percent of the total, whereas the numbers of women in actual orchestral conducting positions are higher.

JoAnn Falletta has persevered against sexism in the classical music scene. David Adam Beloff

The League of American Orchestras reports that among all conductors at league orchestras — including both music directors and assistants — 14.6 percent are women, almost exactly the same rate at which women are included in orchestral programs. At the highest level, 9.2 percent of all music directors are women. However, the discouraging fact is that both numbers have changed very little over the past 10 years of league records, and over the same period there has been only one female music director in the top 24 U.S. orchestras by budget, Marin Alsop at the Baltimore Symphony.

Whatever numbers you look at, women are underrepresented at the top levels of the orchestral world. When asked about this, women refer over and over again to the same issues that face women in leadership positions in business and other fields: It is more difficult for women to be taken seriously as strong leaders.

JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Symphony and one of the senior women conductors today, explains it this way: “Probably the greatest factor is that [symphony] boards are run by people who believe very strongly in the status quo. And that means board members trusted generally in an older man, and I think that has lasted for decades.”

Beverly Everett, music director in Bismarck, North Dakota, and Bemidji, Minnesota, remembers one position that she considered. “I had a friend who knew some of the people on the board, and they told him flat out that they would not consider a woman,” she says.

Happily, it is not usually the musicians who have a problem with women conductors.

“Most people just want somebody competent on the podium, period. If you’re an iguana and you do what you do well, they’ll take it. They don’t have the time to care,” says Laura Jackson, music director of the Reno Philharmonic.

In a society that labels women as being less assertive, some develop strategies to overcome such stereotypes. For example, Falletta had to learn at the outset not to be apologetic. “There can be a subtle sense of apology in what women say,” she says.

Jorge Mester, a conductor who was Falletta’s teacher and mentor when she was younger, puts it more bluntly.

“It’s the teaching that little girls are given about being subservient,” he explains. “I said to her, ‘JoAnn, do you want to be a nice Catholic girl, or do you want to be a conductor?’”

In other words, women have to step outside the “traditional” social role to exert leadership, but if they are too assertive they run the risk of being perceived as shrill, or worse.

“The most difficult thing is figuring out the window of leadership where you can be commanding and make a point passionately without being seen as angry, where you can be not seen as brittle and mean,” Jackson says.

Another challenge women face in business is dress.

“For any performer male or female, the way you look is very important,” Jackson says. “With a woman there are many extra layers to getting that right. If a man walks in and his shirt is a little wrinkled, he’s a disheveled genius. If a woman looks like that, she’s incompetent.”

“Concert dress is something men may not even think about,” Falletta adds. “With a woman, it seems to be more laden with social importance.”

Women like Falletta, Jackson and Everett have shown that women can be successful orchestral conductors. But is it a career path becoming more open to women generally? The evidence is mixed. As noted, the numbers recorded by the League of American Orchestras have been static for at least 10 years. And individual experience varies widely.

Cynthia Katsarelis, conductor of the Colorado Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra, is the only female orchestral conductor on the Front Range.

“When I was at the Peabody Conservatory, the conducting class was 50-50, male-female,” she observes. “At each new level of my career, there were fewer women. In top masterclasses and summer programs there would be fewer women, and now there are many music director searches where no women are auditioned.”

As it happens, that has been exactly the case in the most recent high-profile searches in this area.

In 2010, the Colorado Symphony had eight guest conductors, all European males, and hired Andrew Litton from that field. Six years later, Brett Mitchell was hired to replace Litton, without any other candidates appearing with the orchestra.

In 2014, the CMF featured four official candidates to replace Michael Christie, all male. The two or three other names that were informally discussed were also male. The Longmont Symphony is currently searching for a new conductor, and once again all the finalists are male.

On the other side of the coin, Jackson believes more women are coming into the field.

“In the past three years, it’s like the floodgates are opening,” she says. “I think we are on the cusp. I think that I have probably done my last music director audition where I am the only woman.”

She sees some situations where being a woman may even be an advantage.

“For an orchestra that needs a big change, when they see your resumé and see your picture, you are automatically that change, that clean slate,” she says. “That can put you in a category where people will ask, ‘Why not?’

“I think it’s going to be less and less of an issue.”

Falletta believes that the publicity around recent high-profile women conductors helps. The Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki, chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic who also led Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin at the Metropolitan Opera, is one example. Another is Alsop, who in 2013 became the first woman to conduct the BBC’s “Last Night of the Proms” in London.

“Once it’s happened on a high level, people are more open to it,” Falletta says. “All of us tend to look to orchestras that are bigger than us as models. As they start to have more women on the podium, I think smaller orchestras will do the same.”

In the end, it all comes down to fairness, and the opportunity of talented women to pursue the career of their choice. But Higdon has her own perspective on the whole issue, that opening doors to women is good for classical music generally.

“Young people don’t come to classical concerts because it looks so un-hip,” she says. “One reason is because there are so few women represented. They are used to women being part of the scene from popular music and hip-hop and everything else they listen to.

“If you want to be more hip and appeal to younger audiences, program more women.”

A more extensive version of this story appears on Peter Alexanders blog.

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