When 90 percent of the musicians in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra protested the symphony board’s plan to hire Marin Alsop as the first female conductor of a major American orchestra, the press, predictably played the controversy as a sexism issue. A Washington Post story asked:
“In an era when women commonly run everything from universities to Fortune 500 companies to entire countries, why has it taken so long for a single leading orchestra to take the step?”
The story rambled on and on about the hidebound traditionalism and 19th-century chauvinism of classical musicians. But maybe the symphony members in Baltimore had a better reason for rejecting Alsop: that she?s just not much of a conductor. The Post reported:
“…[A] a letter dated April 21 from Anthony S. Brandon, a board member who has been outspoken in his opposition to Alsop?s appointment, to Philip English, the chairman of the BSO board, is specific. It was drafted with the help of other board members, with input from a number of musicians, and copies have circulated freely in circles close to the BSO….
“?The overriding justification for eliminating Alsop is that 90 percent of the BSO musicians oppose her appointment,? the letter states. ?In her appearances with the orchestra, the players say, Alsop has not produced inspired and nuanced performances of standard classical repertory. They cite “dull,” even “substandard,” performances of Brahms?s Symphony No. 3, Mendelssohn?s music for “A Midsummer Night?s Dream” and Tchaikovsky?s Symphony No. 2.
“?They say that she either does not hear problems or — because her technical limitations prevent her from fixing them — that she ignores them. Her musical sense is inhibited by her own lack of depth as a musician and she becomes frustrated when what she hears in her head does not come out from the players. Upon finding something wanting in rehearsal, she responds with vagaries such as “I?m not feeling it” (Mendelssohn?s “A Midsummer Night?s Dream”) or exhorts them with abstractions such as “make magic” (Brahms?s Symphony No. 3).
“?When an orchestra believes it is being pushed by unmusical ideas, tempos and phrasing and being told that the orchestra itself lacks imagination, musicians feel they are dealing with a conductor who lacks ideas, conviction and technical skill.?”
The situation in Baltimore is expecially poignant because Baltimore, like many an Eastern Seabord city, has long been in economic and demographic decline, and it?s been increasingly difficult for the symphony to attract large audiences to its downtown Baltimore auditorium. Classical musicians, except for a few superstars, don?t make much money, and they need all the morale-boosting they can get. While the usual feminists in the media may be tooting their piccolos with glee over Alsop?s appointment, the musicians, who begged the board to broaden the search, must feel as though they have few friends. As the Post reported on the board?s decision to make Alsop?s appointment official:
“The announcement was greeted with ?general silence,? according to Ellen Orner, a violinist in the BSO who says she?s an Alsop supporter. ?It was seriously taken.? Musicians then filed out of the building, some of them smiling, some of them wistful, a few of them apparently fighting back tears. ?We?ve been told not to talk,? one woman whispered as she pushed through a group of reporters and photographers out into the steamy afternoon heat.”
Still, the musicians have done themselves proud professionally and issued a statement pledging their resolve to work with Alsop to make music. It would be nice if the press had behaved with similar dignity and not been so eager to brush off the disharmony as mere reactionary sexism.