Review

Can 2016 really be called the year of the woman? Look to the arts world, and the answer is yes

As you peruse year-end punditry for something — anything — to elucidate 2016, you will inevitably be burdened with the claim that this was not, as the media led us to believe it would be, the year of the woman in America.

Yes it was!

For a pivotal 2016 moment in classical music — and the broader arts world — look to the appointment last month of Debora L. Spar as the first female president of Lincoln Center in New York, ensuring that our country’s three great performing arts centers will be run by women. Two years ago Deborah F. Rutter became the first female president of Kennedy Center in Washington. Last year Rachel Moore took over the Music Center of Los Angeles. Once Spar moves down Broadway some 50 blocks from Barnard College, where she has been president since 2008, women will preside over a large and influential swath of performing arts.

That means for the second time in two years, I am devoting a year-end consideration to women’s role in classical music. In the case of L.A., Moore is hardly the first woman ruling the Music Center, which was founded by Dorothy Buffum Chandler, then-wife of the Los Angeles Times publisher. The 50th anniversary of the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the end of 2014 was occasion in these pages to look back on the crucial role women have played, and continue to play, in the history of classical music in Los Angeles. 

Now the rest of the country — and select parts of the world — seem to be catching up. This has been a good year for female conductors. Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla’s appointment as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England made the front page of the London Times. “Prima Donna” was the theme of the Lucerne Festival’s focus on female composers and conductors this summer, and it wasn’t as condescending as it might sound. Women in some parts of Switzerland didn’t get to vote until the 1970s.

We will need time to know just what will happen at the centers Lincoln, Kennedy and Music. There is much work to be done. All three leaders have arrived at a campus with major infrastructure needs, huge fundraising challenges and, most important of all, a desperate demand for artistic vision. All three new presidents get my vote.

Rutter at Kennedy Center has been in her post the longest and consequently has the most to show, although the performing arts world moves slowly. A musician who previously headed the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Seattle Symphony and Chicago Symphony, she has, not surprisingly, put much of her public attention on the troubled National Symphony and appointed an excellent new music director, Gianandrea Noseda, who begins next season.

No one knows what cultural Washington will be like in a Trump administration, but it will be women’s chance to make a difference in its classical music scene, which in the last couple of years has become even more feminist than in Los Angeles. Francesca Zambello is breathing new life into Washington National Opera (a Kennedy Center resident company); Jenny Bilfield has made Washington Performing Arts one of the liveliest presenting organizations in the country.

At the beginning of the year, Moore, a former dancer with and head of American Ballet Theatre, told The Times that her priorities included a major renovation of the Music Center plaza, making it an audience-friendly meeting place, along with the creation of an Edinburgh-like summer festival. While she has remained somewhat under the radar, Moore reaffirmed in remarks to Gail Eichenthal on KUSC-FM that those projects are very much in the works.

But first, Moore has sought to catch the attention of millennials with late-night events throughout the campus for the downtown crowd, and that seems to be working. There is nothing like eager young people coming to the Music Center for the first time to encourage the county Board of Supervisors to pony up investments in the county facility. Lurking, however, is the elephant in the room: the long-needed renovation of the half-century-old Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Lincoln Center in New York, to put it bluntly, is a mess. Even the recent Diller Scofidio + Renfro redo is already starting to look a little bland. But remodeling some of its public areas, and the questionable refit of Alice Tully Hall, was never going to do much to vitalize the performing arts center. The two most prominent companies, the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic, are struggling for audiences, cash and relevance.

The last president resigned after questions about a relationship with a staff member whom he promoted. That departure leaves Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic to raise upwards of half a billion dollars for the renovation of David Geffen Hall, after getting only $100 million from Geffen for the naming rights (and needing $15 million to pay the family of Avery Fisher, for whom the hall had been named).

Spar inherits that problem plus the new Geffen renovation team selected a year ago, the fashionable Heatherwick Studio and the more conservative Diamond Schmitt Architects. Designs were promised this year and haven’t yet been made public. The hall’s main need is acoustic, but that so far has been the last thing on Lincoln Center’s mind. It in no way, shape or form wants something as exciting or democratic or acoustically involving as a vineyard-style hall, like Walt Disney Concert Hall and pretty much all the best halls of the last three decades.

But there is hope. Spar appears to be an especially savvy pick. An academic with diplomatic and business experience, a graduate and former professor of the Harvard Business School, she also has a background in dance. The Lincoln Center board no doubt was impressed by Spar’s fundraising ability at Barnard.

I’m impressed by the latest of her several books, “Wonder Woman: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection,” a discerning post-feminist evaluation of the role of women in today’s society, the expectations for them and the ones they have for themselves. If anyone can be the savior of Lincoln Center (and I’m not sure any can be), Spar just may be the one.

The last lesson of 2016 is that with Deborah Rutter, Debora Spar and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Deborah Borda, who is the most successful arts manager in the country, you now know what to name a baby girl you would like to see become president.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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