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Women and symphony orchestras

Editor’s Note: This is a part of a collection of stories SDNN will publish throughout the month of March to celebrate Women’s History Month. Join us as we recognize Women’s History Month by sending in your stories too and checking SDNN every day for stories from other women in our region. Happy Women’s History Month!

First, a confession.

Whenever I attend an orchestra concert, I do a quick assessment of how many female musicians are on stage. I’m curious. Can’t help it. I’ve done the gender-checking for so long that it has become a habit, almost a reflex.

The reason I do it is to reassure myself that times have truly changed and that symphony orchestras, which were long dominated by men, have become much more welcoming to women.

About 40% of the San Diego Symphony’s players are women, which is in keeping with the progress made at many U.S. ensembles. In Russia’s venerable Mariinsky Orchestra, which recently performed at downtown’s Copley Symphony Hall, approximately 25% of the instrumentalists are women, according to the roster.

And the Vienna Philharmonic — one of the world’s top orchestras and one of the most backward where female musicians are concerned — has promoted acting concertmaster Albena Danailova to concertmaster, making her the first woman to hold the key post of top violinist in the orchestra’s 168-year-history.

So what’s the down side?

For all the advances, symphony orchestras still have the glass ceiling that’s so common in corporate America. Leadership positions, such as conductor, executive director and concertmaster, are usually held by men. There are inspiring successes, including Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop, Los Angeles Philharmonic president/CEO Deborah Borda, the Vienna Phil’s Danailova and San Diego Opera resident conductor Karen Keltner, who recently led the cast, chorus and San Diego Symphony in Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet.” But they are exceptions.

Changing perspectives

This being Women’s History Month, I thought it would be worth considering women’s roles in symphony orchestras. To get some perspective about where orchestras have been and where they seem to be headed, I turned to San Diego Symphony violinists Kathryn Hatmaker, 31, who joined the orchestra in 2006, and Pat Francis (pictured with violin), 71, who has performed with the orchestra since 1955, longer than any other current member.

“I never thought of myself as paving the way,” says Francis with characteristic candor. “I was in the right place at the right time.”

Then a student at Hoover High School, she auditioned (and impressed) the symphony’s highly-regarded music director, Robert Shaw. After playing a variety of programs (including one conducted by composer Ferde Grofé, of “Grand Canyon Suite” fame), she officially joined the San Diego Symphony in 1957, when she was a student at San Diego State University.

“When I started, only about a third of the orchestra were women,” recalls Francis, who lives in El Cajon. “It wasn’t a full-time job. The pay wasn’t that great. The men did it as an extra job. And there certainly weren’t many women in the winds. To play the trumpet or trombone or bassoon — that was a guy thing.”

The women’s movement in the 1960s helped change perceptions. But the break-through came in the 1970s and 1980s, when orchestras began using screens in preliminary audition rounds so that the judges couldn’t tell if the applicant was male or female. A study by a Princeton economist showed that screens played a significant role in increasing the number of women who landed orchestra jobs.

“There had been discrimination in the past,” says Hatmaker, the Hillcrest resident who teaches at Coronado School of the Arts and heads the chamber music organization Art of Élan with co-founder/director Demarre McGill, the San Diego Symphony’s principal flutist. “Auditions became impartial once they started putting up screens and laying down carpet so no one could hear the sound of high heels.

“That’s when women were able to flourish,” she adds. “That’s when they were able to show the world — ‘Hey, we can do as well if not better than men.’”

Looking toward the future

Hatmaker (pictured with violin) doesn’t begrudge the accomplishments of male musicians. Music history brims with superb achievements from conductors, composers, soloists and principals. The point is that women can also excel.

“Women are doing really well in terms of symphony orchestra jobs and also (music) conservatories,” Hatmaker explains.

In the past year or so, the San Diego Symphony has hired women for such coveted posts as principal oboe (Sarah Skuster), English horn (Andrea Overturf), and associate principal cello (Chia-Ling Chien).

What of the future? Will women ever take on lots of leadership roles?

“(Having) women in the conducting world is still a struggle,” says Francis, who has seen decades of conductors come and go. “I’d love to see more women in management. But they have to have the experience first and it’s hard to get.”

Ask Hatmaker her opinion and she sighs, then responds: “The whole argument comes down to — do we really feel comfortable with women in charge? Those who have been paving the way make it easier.

“The shift may be slow,” she adds. “But it will happen. I absolutely believe that.”

Valerie Scher is the SDNN Arts & Entertainment editor. You can reach her at valerie.scher@sdnn.com; follow her on Twitter