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
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."
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
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.