The United States also has one professional orchestra that has been composed of musicians of one sex for its entire history: the San Francisco-based Women’s Philharmonic.
“We get very few questions about the fact that we are an all-women’s orchestra,” executive director Judy Patrick said Friday. “People understand it’s a critical part of our mission, [which is] really about trying to change the mainstream.”
The 73-member group was formed 15 years ago “as an attempt to create, ultimately, equal representation in the orchestra world of female performers as well as female composers and conductors.”
Patrick said her organization has been following “very closely” the developing storm of protest in the United States over next month’s appearances of the Vienna Philharmonic, which is poised to reconsider its 155-year tradition barring women from permanent membership.
“In terms of the situation with Vienna, it’s one of the few places that the doors have remained closed,” she said, “and that should be challenged.”
While she couldn’t recall an instance of a male musician asking to join the Women’s Philharmonic, Patrick said, “We are an equal opportunity employer, so we would audition anyone who applied.”
The Women’s Philharmonic receives state and federal money as part of an annual budget of a little more than $500,000, Patrick said. The orchestra plays three to six concerts each year, most in the Bay Area, but traveled to Southern California once for a 1992 performance at Cal State Long Beach.
JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Long Beach Symphony, served in the same capacity for the Women’s Philharmonic for 10 years. She recently left that post but continues as its artistic advisor. Patrick said the search for her replacement shows how much conditions have changed in recent years.
“When JoAnn was hired, there were fewer than 10 applicants,” she said. “Since we launched an international search, we’ve found 30 strong conductor candidates.”
Two men, in fact, also applied, but Patrick said “independent of gender, [the male applicants] didn’t have the qualifications.”
The Women’s Philharmonic regularly, but not exclusively, plays works by female composers and tries to encourage other orchestras to do so more frequently. Patrick said her group conducted a survey of the top 23 orchestras in the country, and found that of 1,534 compositions played in 1996, only three were composed by women.
Given those numbers, Patrick said: “The truth is I think we could have done a better job” in lobbying efforts on behalf of female composers.
She added that the orchestra also serves as a way station for musicians and conductors to gain experience that can be difficult to get elsewhere. It also has spawned at least one musical offspring: the fledgling European Women’s Orchestra, based in London.
“I hope at some point there’s no need for the Women’s Philharmonic,” she said, “and that women are equally represented.”