Shoulders of the Orchestra

Four women now occupy the concertmaster chair at leading American orchestras, pointing to an increasing female presence in the front ranks of orchestras nationwide.

by Chester Lane

When Nurit Bar-Josef made her debut as concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra last September, two things conspired to rob her of the limelight she might otherwise have enjoyed. The instrumental soloist was Midori, arguably the most popular female violinist in the world. And in the wake of devastating attacks on New York and Washington just eight days earlier, the audience was hardly in a celebratory mood--was, in fact, barely able to grasp the enormity of recent events, let alone open their ears and hearts to a new talent onstage. Yet there was an opportunity for the orchestra's new concertmaster to sing out: In an aria from Mozart's Il re pastore, Bar-Josef accompanied a cadenza by soprano Danielle de Niese with what Kennicott called "an unobtrusive tone, and uncanny accuracy." He interpreted this as "the promise of good things from her."

One of a concertmaster's perks, of course, is the opportunity to play both concertos and the big, visible violin solos in orchestral works like Also sprach Zarathustra, Ein Heldenleben, The Lark Ascending, and Sheherazade. Bar-Josef will do the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 with the NSO in February, but Music Director Leonard Slatkin says that as she settles into her new job "she really wants to concentrate on sitting in the concertmaster chair." He also notes that, given the orchestra's commitment to its American Residencies program--which includes master classes and extensive outreach activity--his criteria in selecting a concertmaster included excellent communication skills and teaching ability. "Nurit is who we were looking for," he said last fall as the NSO season was getting underway. "The orchestra has responded very well. And certainly over the three weeks that IÕve been back the orchestra has taken on a very different quality in its string sound. Eventually that will affect the winds as well."

With Bar-Josef's appointment at the National Symphony, four of the 26 largest North American orchestras now have instrumental forces headed by women. That's not a staggering statistic, but significant when one considers that none of those orchestras had a female concertmaster until 1988, when Emmanuelle Boisvert assumed her current post at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Boisvert adamantly refuses to be typed as a "successful woman leader"--she just considers herself a dedicated professional musician--but this was a landmark event nonetheless. Jorja Fleezanis followed the next year by becoming concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, and in 1990 Cecylia Arzewski was selected for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Slatkin notes that all four of the "very good" finalists who auditioned publicly for the concertmaster spot last season were women, and they included NSO Associate Concertmaster Elisabeth Adkins. The job of leading an orchestra's first violins, and to some extent its entire instrumental body, obviously requires skills and experience above and beyond those required to be an excellent musician. And it's interesting to note that Boisvert, Fleezanis, Arzewski, and Bar-Josef all advanced to their posts after serving in American orchestras generally regarded as being at the very height of refinement. These four women are all products of an American farm system that appears to be operating at the highest level.

This may be the inevitable result of an American educational environment in which female violinists apparently outnumber their male counterparts, both avocationally and in serious professional study. Samuel S. Hope, executive director of the National Association of Schools of Music, reports that a study of doctoral training in string performance at some 40 U.S. institutions during the 1999-2000 academic year found that 143 women and 108 men were enrolled in such programs, with nine women and seven men receiving their doctoral degrees that year. Hope sees a loose correlation between these data and the pool from which professional orchestras are drawing their string players.

The Leadership Track

Arzewski says that when she joined the BSO in 1970, "out of 105 players there were only six women. The only way I could survive was by not paying attention to that. I just did my job." She spent seventeen years with the BSO, rising to assistant concertmaster, then served as associate concertmaster at the Cleveland Orchestra for three years before successfully auditioning for the concertmaster post in Atlanta. Asked if one's ability to command authority in an orchestra is in any way related to gender, Arzewski notes that "some of the men in the Atlanta Symphony may have had to deal with this. Really that's not my problem, unless they make it my problem."

Fleezanis's trajectory took her from section player in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, to concertmaster of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, to associate concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, and finally to the top spot at the Minnesota Orchestra. In 1989, her role as female concertmaster at a major orchestra was unusual enough that she was asked to speak to Rotary clubs. She suspects that the orchestra wanted her to do this "because they knew it was important for these male-dominated organizations to see a woman stand up and talk about leadership. The fact is, there were fewer of us doing that then, and it was still kind of a novelty in certain parts of professional life.

"I think the orchestra was proud and excited to get me out there. And it was almost like a rite of passage for me. I was not intimidated -- I loved making them feel at ease with me, talking to them about how my achievement was not some odd sociological phenomenon. I'd been working since I was eight years old to get to that place; this was not something I felt I'd earned overnight and gotten because of some bogus vote by a music director. When you dedicate yourself to something and your purpose is to do it for the craft, you reap the reward of that dedication. It's not about me. It's about the fact that music needs [concertmasters] as much as it needs [people like] Jascha Heifetz on each side of the gender line."

With dancers and vocalists, Fleezanis acknowledges, there are masculine and feminine traits that obviously make a difference in performance. "But the musicianship factor, to me, is the universal element of any human being. A woman horn player can sit up there with five men and play as strong, as loud, as sensitively as any man. WeÕre all endowed with strength to express ourselves -- the instruments are vehicles for that expression. And attaining the level of expressivity that a leadership role demands takes the same amount of work for a man as for a woman -- it takes conviction and dedication and talent that's been cultivated. It's genderless."

Shouldering Responsibility

As one who directs a body of musicians from the podium, currently at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano has a "morphological" view of the concertmaster's role. "The Italian expression for concertmaster," he says, "is spalla d'orchestra, which means 'shoulder of the orchestra.' I love that phrase. It tells the whole story."

Arzewski, Spano's "shoulder" at the ASO, is looking forward to collaborating with a conductor who, like her, cut his teeth at the Boston Symphony. Although his music directorship in Atlanta began officially only at the start of this season, Spano said last September that he and Arzewski had already "worked together quite a bit. She's a marvelous musician and leader. Her ears are around the whole orchestra, functioning in a very 'broadband' way." Asked what their working relationship is likely to be, he simply says that "a lot of things can work." Diplomacy may be part of what makes a concertmaster effective, but "different people achieve their goals differently, just by the nature of who they are."

In this respect, Boisvert and Fleezanis offer a study in contrast. Boisvert came to the Curtis Institute after studying in her native Quebec, then played in the Cleveland Orchestra before winning her Detroit post. But small-ensemble work, at Marlboro and as a member of the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia, was an important part of her early training. And as concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony she now works cooperatively with the other string principals--what she calls the "horseshoe"--to coordinate the bow markings, much as one would do with a string quartet. "I make eye contact with the other principals all the time. We have a private sign language, an extensive vocabulary that's been elaborated over the years-- face, fingers, arms, eyes, eyebrows, any part of the body. Even during a performance we're able to adjust ourselves with this secret language."

Fleezanis speaks more in terms of communicating what she wants to the violins behind her. "My mode of communication is demonstration," she says, "playing in a way that's leading the section physically." Fleezanis notes that she has "learned from a lot of wise conductors" about what can and cannot be communicated by the concertmaster. "You cannot lead certain things from the front, because they will never be felt in the back," she says. "I remember Kurt Sanderling saying, 'do not lead the pizzicatos--it will never be successful.'" Bowing and vibrating, far more visible from the back stands, are another matter. "When you have an active leader--not a mad man or woman, but somebody who's actively participating with the intentions of the podium--you generate maximal electric current to the rest of the section. I'm not a person of low temperament. Whether I'm in the most extroverted level of the music or the softest passages, I demonstrate with my body. I'm not flash-dancing, but it's impossible not to read what's supposed to be happening."

"It's a matter of trial and error, learning the idiosyncrasies of the section and its psyche, learning to be both confident and there and never wavering--but always to be taking in what you hear and using that as part of the performance. At a certain point you become part of the psyche of the orchestra, and the orchestra knows that."

Chester Lane is senior editor of SYMPHONY.