Klarinet Archive - Posting 001586.txt from 1999/01
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Engendering music/The Women's Philharmonic makes a joyful noise
By Mike Antonucci
Mercury News Popular Culture Writer
AT THE Women's Philharmonic, they dream sublimely.
They dream of creating memorable music, launching female virtuosos
to stardom and, with a little luck, knocking some of the smugness
out of their male-dominated industry.
But even more, they dream of remaking the world so that nobody
tells little girls -- not ever -- that playing the drums is for
Build a symphony, change the world. It's that basic -- and that
ambitious, as it has been throughout the San Francisco
organization's 19-year history.
"It's a huge challenge," says Margaret Spaulding, one of 14
members of the board of directors for the all-female orchestra.
"It's very hard to set the world on fire and get people's emotions
engaged about women in classical music. It's serious music, and
it's often not easily accessible.
"But part of the reason I'm involved is because of how wildly
exciting the Women's Philharmonic can be. All great music can be
wildly exciting, except that right now our society does not permit
equal access for the creation and performance of great music by
women. Children don't hear much serious music, and they certainly
don't know what the possibilities are for women.
"It's wildly exciting to be part of an organization that changes
One nagging concern is less about accomplishments than image. As
necessary as the Women's Philharmonic may be, there's a lingering
sense among some musicians of both genders that its work, by
excluding men, is automatically as insufficient or flawed as that
of any symphony that excludes women.
Perhaps that explains the organization's growing desire to be
known, first and foremost, for the quality of its performances.
There's an increasing emphasis on raising people's consciousness
through great music, as opposed to strategies involving more
political or educational outreach.
In day-to-day operations, however, there are constant reminders of
the fundamental social issues.
Concert organizers in Brazil, for instance, recently contacted the
Women's Philharmonic in search of tuba, trombone and trumpet
players -- musicians they apparently couldn't find anywhere in
South America when they decided to stage a program using an
entirely female ensemble.
Here -- and there, too -- girls may be trading elbows on the
basketball court and maybe even planning a big IPO for when they
grow up. But heaven help them if they want to cut loose on any
brass instrument, let alone the kettledrums, instead of putting a
bow to a violin.
"Girls are encouraged to play small, dainty instruments," says
Judy Patrick, executive director of the Women's Philharmonic.
"Essentially, they're not supposed to make a lot of noise.
"At one time in my life, it would have just made me mad. Now I see
it as a systemic problem we're working on."
The Women's Philharmonic, whose next performance will be Saturday
night at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, is identified most
closely with causes that have sweeping political symbolism. Job
equality for female conductors is one. Equal consideration for
female composers is another.
But those goals can seem remote because they're so
industry-centered. So what if some obscure overture was played for
the first time for some high-brow subscribers and snooty critics?
Well, here's what:
Some years ago, a composition featured by the Women's Philharmonic
so impressed conductor J. Karla Lemon with its vibrancy that she
included it in a Rohnert Park Symphony concert for elementary
The music, created by Libby Larsen, was inspired by the story of
medieval jesters who jumped off courtyard walls by using colorful
silken cloth for improvised parachutes.
Lemon explained this to her young audience, then led her orchestra
through the bright, lilting piece.
The kids listened, their imaginations floating along with the
clarinets and marimba.
"The delightful thing was the mail we got later," recalls Lemon,
director of orchestras at Stanford University. "We received 30 or
40 drawings from classrooms with pictures of jesters jumping off
the walls with the parachutes. We also got pictures of a woman
with short blond hair standing in front of an orchestra.
"We'd made an imprint in those kids' minds that was different than
what you always see in magazines and subscription brochures."
What you see in magazines is male conductors, marketed as
charismatic and powerful. What you think of as serious music has
been written mostly by men, most of whom are also long dead. What
you hear at most concerts is played, in damning percentage, by
Detailed research on the issues comes from the Women's
Philharmonic, so it will be dismissed by some as unreliably
partisan. But the statistics appear to largely speak for
themselves, just because they're so extreme.
Consider these, which are based on a membership list from the
American Symphony Orchestra League:
There are no female music directors among orchestras with a top-25
budget. Five of the spots from No. 26 to No. 75 do belong to
women, but in three cases it's the same woman -- ex-Women's
Philharmonic music director JoAnn Falletta, who leads the
orchestras of Buffalo, N.Y.; Norfolk, Va.; and Long Beach.
Of the 1,400 musical compositions on the 1998-99 schedules of
American orchestras with budgets of $10 million or more (locally
that would include the San Francisco Symphony but exclude the San
Jose), exactly 12 -- less than 1 percent -- were written by women.
"There's no question that historically the music field has
discriminated against women," says Henry Fogel, president of the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra. "The membership of orchestras didn't
start to change until the 1950s or '60s."
In Europe, where the tradition of male chauvinism was cultivated,
there has been a resistance to change that's still almost
19th-century in its attitude.
Fogel says there are conspicuous signs of change in the United
States, such as a roughly 50-50 hiring pattern for some time at
his orchestra. But he notes that it could be slow going for music
directors and conductors, who will be told by major symphonies
that they don't have enough experience.
"A change in outlook for women conductors came much later than it
did for orchestra members," says Fogel. "It only started in the
last 20 years, or even the last 15.
"For so long, when there were no women permitted to conduct, no
women studied to conduct. Now, the pool of qualified women
conductors has increased exponentially. But they're coming up in
the ranks the way all conductors come up, and it's 15 to 20 years
before you reach the highest levels."
The Women's Philharmonic is counterattacking on all fronts:
Its orchestra and concert series remain the key elements. Their
mere existence focuses high-profile attention on the depth and
range of women's talent. Perhaps even more important, they provide
a rare outlet for compositions written by women, living and dead.
An ambitious mentorship and advocacy program for female
conductors is being funded by a stunning $1 million donation from
the Gabilan Foundation in San Mateo. The person within the
foundation who chose the Women's Philharmonic is an anonymous
woman who immersed herself in the issue after seeing a female
conductor for the first time. The heart of the effort is the
selection of 30 women for skill training and career counseling.
The organization does scholarly detective work that sometimes has
the allure of a historical mystery. In the early '90s, for
example, it resurrected an obscure 19th-century composition by
Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix Mendelssohn. The piece,
reconstructed from her handwritten notes, is believed to have been
played just once, in the Mendelssohn home. But since its revival
by the Women's Philharmonic, it has been performed by dozens of
orchestras around the world.
When it comes to the work of female composers, the orchestra is a
resource as well as a sponsor. That can mean providing tapes,
scores and other information, either as an aid to refining
compositions or promoting their performance by other symphonies.
But the flashiest component is the Fanfares Project, a $400,000
initiative to commission 10 century-celebrating compositions from
women across a wide age range.
All of those efforts are meant, ultimately, to serve two elemental
causes: combating discrimination and shattering stereotypes.
"The most striking aspect of the Women's Philharmonic is probably
that the basic vision has not changed since I started working on
it," says Elizabeth Seja Min, the organization's inventor and
first conductor and music director. "The idea was that the
orchestra format would be a really dramatic way to change the
world, and that we'd do it by setting a great example."
That's a mission people in general can relate to, and the Women's
Philharmonic would like to market itself to the widest audience
If only that were as simple as it sounds.
Although the Women's Philharmonic has bounced back from a
financial mini-crisis in 1995 (when it played a reduced season),
it's still a marketing challenge just to keep its core audience
happy. Even the most loyal ticket buyers fall into demographic
niches (albeit with some overlap).
Patrick, 49, says there are four main groups: professional women,
gay women, fans of new music and supporters of progressive causes.
Men are estimated to make up 25 to 30 percent of all ticket sales.
The influence of the lesbian community also goes well beyond
ticket purchases. It has been prominent in both the performing and
administrative ranks throughout the history of the Women's
A sense of division between the gay and heterosexual women
apparently has been a longstanding source of tension. But
organization insiders, as well as close observers in the San
Francisco arts world, believe any serious friction has disappeared
in recent years. So say Patrick, Spaulding and Min, among others.
The historical context of the situation is noteworthy, says Min,
who founded the symphony in 1980 with Miriam Abrams and Nan
Washburn. Min's vision of the Women's Philharmonic was galvanized
by the feminist movement, in which the lesbian community perceived
a large stake.
"If there was something called `the women's this' or `the women's
that,' lesbians would have something to do with it," recalls Min.
"That would be expected. So many women's organizations had
lesbians in some percentage of leadership back then. There was a
Critics of the women's movement often tried to capitalize on
anti-gay sentiment by equating feminist and lesbian issues, says
Min. If not for that, she thinks, any schism around the Women's
Philharmonic would have been insignificant.
If it's not meaningless now, it and any other internal political
debates are certainly secondary to the focus from Patrick and
artistic director Apo Hsu on creating extraordinary music.
Pianist Jacqueline Chew, who has performed with the Women's
Philharmonic since 1990, says Hsu (pronounced "Shu") is "very
demanding" -- in the very best sense.
"To me, the organization is now more geared toward playing really,
really well," says Chew. "Instead of just being segmented as a
women's orchestra, there's a feeling that we'll be recognized for
playing better and better concerts."
The Women's Philharmonic doesn't get all the best
instrumentalists. Some are doing much better financially, for
instance, playing for the San Francisco Symphony or in the
orchestra pit for the San Francisco Opera.
There's more to musical excitement than virtuoso playing, though.
There's also innovative programming. By continuing to seek out new
compositions, the Women's Philharmonic makes an important
"It makes the Women's Philharmonic an advocate for contemporary
music as well as women composers," says Darcy Reynolds,
coordinator of the Bay Area chapter of the American Composers
Forum. "It's a fabulous opportunity, and it's really adventurous."
Patrick wants to get the word out, louder and wider than before,
that the Women's Philharmonic is a terrific listening experience
for anyone. Yes, the organization has a clear cause. But more, it
has a glorious sound.
"This may sound self-serving," says Patrick, "but an evening with
the Women's Philharmonic is a unique experience in the Bay Area,
and to know us is to love us."
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