Thursday, April 19, 2001
Sharing the stage with Leonard Bernstein in a special 1988 Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert, Kate Tamarkin felt anything was possible. Her conducting career had opened at a promising tempo and she felt sure she was on her way up the classical music ladder.
Tamarkin, one of a handful of prominent female conductors, picked up her first music directorship at age 26. In her early 30s, she breezed through prestigious fellowships at Tanglewood Music Center, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute and Aspen Music Festival, and became associate conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
Then, for no apparent reason, her success slowed. Tamarkin says she continues to find her work rewarding as music director of the Monterey Symphony, but these days the 45-year-old is marking time, waiting for her cue to enter the big league.
Conducting is a competitive field, in general, but some say that for women, it seems bitterly so. America''s best-known female conductors, including Tamarkin, have little to show for decades of effort. None of the 27 American orchestras with the largest budgets has appointed a woman music director, and many insiders expect a woman president to be sworn in long before a female takes the helm of one of America''s top orchestras.
"I can''t think of any profession with a more dismal record in the area of women''s advancement," says Mary Mattis, senior research fellow at Catalyst, a New York City nonprofit organization that tracks women''s progress toward leadership in virtually every profession and pursuit, including the arts.
Knowledgeable sources say that no woman made the secret short lists of candidates for music directorships filled in recent months in Philadelphia, New York and Cleveland, and that no woman is under consideration for remaining vacancies at the Boston Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra.
Tamarkin''s hopes were high in the early ''90s, when she sent her resume to 12 top New York artist managers--agents who engage their classical musician clients in appearances around the globe and help negotiate longer-term commitments, such as music directorships, on their behalf. "I followed up with a trip to New York," Tamarkin says. "But when I got there, only two managers would agree to see me."
On the rosters of the three largest North American management agencies--ICM Artists, IMG Artists and Columbia Artists Management--there are 77 conductors. Only four are women. The handful of established, American-based female notables includes Marin Alsop of the Cabrillo Music Festival and the Colorado Symphony, JoAnn Falletta of the Buffalo Philharmonic and Gisèle Ben-Dor of the Santa Barbara Symphony.
The small pool of up-and-coming women includes Anne Manson (music director of the Kansas City Symphony), former Dallas Symphony associate conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, Maryland Symphony music director Elizabeth Schulze and Tamarkin.
Female conductors abroad don''t seem any further along than their counterparts on the American scene, with the possible exceptions of Australia''s Simone Young and Great Britain''s Sian Edwards, Jane Glover and Iona Brown. Women conductors--wherever they go, and wherever they come from--report finding podiums outfitted with glass ceilings.
"Where is the outrage over this?" asks Catalyst''s Mattis.
"I''ve not heard the word outrage," says John D. Sparks, vice president for public and government affairs at the American Symphony Orchestra League, a service association that promotes and supports U.S. orchestras.
Asked why such prize-winning conductors as Tamarkin, Alsop and Falletta have not moved up more quickly, Bruce Coppock, managing director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, says: "There are an awful lot of men conductors who won the same prizes, for whom there was a lot of promise held, and they''ve flamed out as well."
Pressed on the issue of women''s failure to advance to the top ranks as music directors, New York Philharmonic Executive Director Zarin Mehta says, "We are belaboring a point that doesn''t exist."
Blind Leading the Blind
The scarcity of women at the podium contrasts with the great strides made by female musicians. Nationwide, slightly more than half of all professional orchestral musicians are women. "Blind" auditions, first widely instituted in the ''70s, assure anonymity to auditioners for top jobs, concealing behind a screen such extramusical factors as age, race and gender. Ticket buyers for orchestral music also are more often female than male.
But the symphony world''s decision- makers and influential players--in orchestra board rooms and administrative offices, at American music schools and on the staffs of daily newspapers--are mostly men.
Women are joining symphony boards in increasing numbers, but they''re still outnumbered by men, especially in titled positions. There are only two women currently chairing the top 10 American orchestra boards, in San Francisco and St. Louis.
Only one of America''s top 10 orchestras has a female top executive. She is Deborah Borda, managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, formerly of the New York Philharmonic. "I would have thought 10 years ago when I became the first woman to do that," says Borda, "that within a decade there would be a number of women colleagues joining in, and that hasn''t happened yet."
"Growing up in this business," Tamarkin says, "almost all my role models were men."
Most top American conductors come up through a small number of elite training programs. A survey of a dozen of the most well-known reveals no female instructors of orchestral conducting. Overall, these programs show barely a hint of an increase in the enrollment of female orchestral conductors today over a decade ago.
Making choices between elite-level conductors, many decision-makers turn to reviews. Among the staff classical music critics at America''s top 10 daily newspapers, we did not find one female.
Female orchestra players are well represented on the conductor-search committees at various orchestras, so why hasn''t that resulted in more women in top posts?
New York Philharmonic music director designate Lorin Maazel emailed this writer with his opinion that female orchestra players might be among female conductors'' biggest detractors: "If there is any hidden gender prejudice, it would come from other women!"
"I think that''s probably true," says Susan Estrich, author of Sex and Power. "In almost every profession, those women who succeed do so not by being one of the girls, but by being one of the boys."
Edna Landow of IMG seems to bear this out. Asked why her artist-management firm has no female conductors on its roster she says, "I am only interested in people who are going to have high-level careers."
Minnesota Orchestra President David Hyslop describes the progress of female conductors as "somewhat better than it was, but it''s still relatively slow." The last woman to conduct a subscription concert at the Minnesota Orchestra was Alsop, in 1993.
Hyslop points out that on past occasions, his Minnesota Orchestra has engaged women to conduct family concerts. "I don''t care if it''s a woman or a man or whoever it is," he says. "What I''m interested in is what the response from the orchestra''s going to be and do we have the best conductor in front of the orchestra. Period."
Many decision-makers say they''re just waiting for the right woman to present herself. "The overall talent pool is small," says Boston Symphony Orchestra General Manager Mark Volpe. "I hope there will be a breakthrough."
One problem for women might be that the factors that make a conductor great, like those that make a president great, are famously intangible, and thus difficult to quantify--or to sue over.
"There comes a point," Estrich says, "in politics it''s governor, in business it''s CEO and COO--where women run into the unconscious assumptions about executive ability, about toughness in leadership, that make it hard if not impossible to get them up that last step."
To make symphony jobs more accessible to women, an anonymous donor gave San Francisco''s Women''s Philharmonic $1 million in 1998 to launch the "National Women Conductors Initiative," which helps prepare and promote female conductors. Advisors to the program include Tamarkin, Alsop, Falletta and Ben-Dor.
In a book for young girls called Hopes and Dreams, Ben-Dor writes, "Never quit if it matters." She knows that given the odds, talented women can''t afford to waiver in their dedication.
In January, Tamarkin led the Monterey Symphony in a performance featuring Minnesota Orchestra violinist Angela Fuller in a solo work by Hillary Tann. The review in the Monterey County Herald called it "ladies night."
Estrich asks, "You know what they call it when a man conducts a man in a piece by a man?"
Kate Tamarkin conducts the Monterey Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and 10 soloists in Johann Strauss Jr.''s Die Fledermaus on Sunday (3pm) and Monday (8pm) at Carmel''s Sunset Theater, San Carlos at 8th, and on Tuesday (8pm) at Salinas'' Sherwood Hall, 940 N. Main. For ticket prices and more info, call 624-8511.