Wednesday 7 December 2016

Passing the baton to the fairer sex

Published 29/01/2011 | 05:00

It's entirely coincidental. This column was already in preparation when the big sports story broke. But maybe it's appropriate in the week that comments about a female official at a football match made headlines, that we should consider women in music's great arenas.

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Historically, for all manner of sociological reasons, music has been a man's world. Clara Schumann may have taken to the stage in the mid-19th century as the first female concert pianist, but that didn't exactly open the floodgates. Take the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Though they had women players over the years, it wasn't until 1997 that they got around, under some pressure, to according them full member status. Actually, it was just the one female they admitted on that occasion: Anna Lelkes, who'd played the harp for the Vienna Phil for the previous quarter century.

But then, there aren't too many male harpists, so there might have been a certain inevitability about it? Not everyone was as conservative as the Viennese. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra even had a woman conductor.

In 1930, they'd handed the baton to Antonia Brico, a Dutch-born American, who thus became the first female to lead a major international orchestra.

She was the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic, and made guest appearances across the United States and Europe.

So highly rated was she that the composer Jean Sibelius invited her to take charge of the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra for a programme of his music.

Margaret Hillis was another American who came to prominence as a director.

She founded the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus and led them in almost 600 performances. The most successful of the contemporary female conductors is also an American. Marin Alsop is a New Yorker who, as a child, was inspired when she saw Leonard Bernstein in action, and it was with Bernstein that she began her studies.

Some 10 years or so conducting with various orchestras led, in 2002, to her first appointment as Principal, with the Bournemouth Symphony.

After five years in the south of England, she made history when she was appointed Music Director in Baltimore, the first woman to take charge of a major American orchestra.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTE lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning. ghamilton@independent.ie

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