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Women Battle Glass Ceiling of Symphony Orchestras


Women in this country head up multi-billion dollar corporations. They run universities and they hold top government posts. What they almost never do is lead major American orchestras. Celeste Headlee of Detroit Public Radio reports.


JoAnn Falletta is the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony. She and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra director Marin Alsop are the only two women leading major orchestras in the world.

Ms. JOANN FALLETTA (Music Director, Buffalo Philharmonic and Virginia Symphony): Even now when we mention the work conductoral maestro, I'm sure that the image that comes to people's mind is somewhat like Arturo Toscanini, someone who's male, in control, throwing a temper tantrum, you know, really the boss.

(Soundbite of song)

HEADLEE: Falletta thinks perhaps progress has been sluggish for women in symphonic music, because the art form is so steeped in tradition, and is therefore slow to change.

It's been 80 years since the first woman conducted a major orchestra in the U.S., but when Falletta went to school to study orchestral conducting, she was warned that she might never get a job.

Ms. FALLETTA: They used to tell me, No matter how hard you've worked, no matter how talented you are, no matter how much you try, it might not work. People might not be ready for this. But they were willing to take a chance.

HEADLEE: Conductor Robert Page says there are lots of theories out there about why there are so few successful female orchestral conductors, but no one really knows what's at the root of the problem.

Mr. ROBERT PAGE (Conductor): Why is the sky blue? I don't know. I don't know whether it's prejudice, or inefficiency, or not a big enough pool to select from.

HEADLEE: Page says you can rule out lack of ability, though. Because many of his students at Carnegie-Mellon, are highly skilled and talented on the podium. But he says many of these women end up pursuing careers in choir, band, or music education - perhaps because those are traditionally familiar positions for women.

(Soundbite of orchestral music)

HEADLEE: But a larger problem may be the difference in perception, between male conductors and so-called chicks with sticks. Though Suzanne Mallare Acton studied orchestral conducting in college, she's never been able to land a full time job leading a symphony. Acton says, sometimes when a woman is assertive on the podium trying to get an idea across, some men may misinterpret it.

Ms. SUZANNE MALLARE ACTON (Conductor): For a man, it would just be that, you know, they're indicating what they wanted and they're doing it in a very powerful way. So power can be misinterpreted as being a bitch. I can't think of another word for that.

HEADLEE: And JoAnn Falletta says part of the problem may be that many American orchestras are struggling financially at the moment and symphony boards might be reluctant to take any risks.

Ms. FALLETTA: And they have to hire someone, they feel, that will connect with the corporate community, that will connect with the donor community. In addition, of course, the musicians and the audience. But maybe that's where some skepticism takes place. Can a woman run a $10 million organization like Buffalo? Is that possible?

HEADLEE: There are other difficulties for women, as well. Acton says women are still the primary caretakers for children, and changing diapers or attending PTA meetings don't always mix with the hectic schedule of a music director. Still, she says there is notable improvement over the past few decades.

Ms. ACTON: Was it 1960 that Berlin admitted a female? I think it was a harpist because she's in the back of the orchestra. So, I mean, if you look and see what's happened in 40 years, you know, we've been making some strides into it.

HEADLEE: Acton says she won't be surprised if the U.S. gets its first female president before a woman becomes the music director of the New York Philharmonic.

For NPR News, I'm Celeste Headlee in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Celeste Headlee