Entertainment & Arts

Year in Review: Then and now, L.A. women get things done in classical music

Dorothy Chandler
Dorothy Buffum Chandler used her social and media influence to push for creation of the Music Center.
(Life Magazine / The Music Center)
Los Angeles Times Music Critic

Comedian Jack Benny once introduced Dorothy Buffum Chandler and her husband, Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler, as Mr. and Mrs. Pavilion. This was very funny because the Times building has a Norman Chandler Pavilion and we all know about the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which turned 50 this month.

But it was also an acknowledgment of something quite rare, a major concert hall named for a woman. This being a major anniversary season of the Music Center, Mrs. Chandler’s contribution to the musical life of L.A., which included the enviable pursuit of a major performing arts center downtown and home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic (which she also ran for decades as the imperious board chairwoman), has deservedly gotten a lot of attention lately. So has the current president and chief executive of the orchestra, Deborah Borda, arguably the most successful arts administrator in America at the moment. Last week the orchestra received a $20-million gift in her honor.

But look around town. The majority of our largest classical music organizations are run by women, and most are doing well in a time when that is not the norm elsewhere. This includes the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Music Center’s dance series and the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA. Our latest glamorous venues, the Broad Stage in Santa Monica and the Wallis in Beverly Hills, were founded by and initially headed by women. The Pasadena Symphony has just named a new president: a woman.

The glass ceiling, of course, shattered a while ago most places. In the last quarter century we’ve seen women at the helm of symphonies and opera houses. But what is often overlooked is that in L.A., women had a larger hand in the creation of music capital than in any other major city.


One obvious reason is that in the Wild West the arts were seen as women’s work, thus providing unique opportunities for women. In 1883, the Los Angeles Conservatory was founded by a woman. A decade later the Los Angeles Women’s Orchestra came into being.

This is not to say that sexism wasn’t rampant. It was the 19th century, after all, and it was the Wild West. The ladies in the Women’s Orchestra were conducted exclusively by men. Still, the ensemble fostered an important body of female musicians who would go on to make a difference on the cultural scene.

Founded in 1919, the Los Angeles Philharmonic had as its first board chair Bessie Bartlett Frankel, a singer who championed Schoenberg and Ives (and for whom Frankel Hall at Scripps College is named). A short while later, Artie Mason Carter, another champion of new music, founded the Hollywood Bowl and donated the early Lloyd Wright shell. But she ran the Bowl for only a short while before being forced out by a prominent and reportedly misogynist businessman.

Women weren’t influential only as musicians or administrators; they also were more readily accepted as composers in L.A. than in most other cities in America. Frankel happened to be a composer. Fannie Charles Dillon, a concert pianist and a remarkable composer who wrote pieces based on birdsong, taught at Los Angeles High School, and among her pupils in the 1920s was John Cage. Elinor Remick Warren was another L.A. trailblazer. Dorothy Chandler commissioned her to write the intermission chimes theme for the Music Center, still in use today.


A cellist in the Women’s Orchestra, Isabel Morse Jones, became the L.A. Times music critic in 1925, a position she held for 22 years. One of her first reviews was of the debut that year of Ethel Leginska, a composer and pianist and the first woman to conduct the L.A. Phil. That concert didn’t go well thanks to what Jones described as an attitude of hostility from the all-male orchestra (women weren’t allowed in until the 1950s). Leginska was, Jones wrote, “a master of music, not men.”

Not only was Jones the first major music critic on the West Coast, chronicling the unprecedented growth of classical music in Southern California, but she was a radical. And she was prescient. When Schoenberg moved to L.A. in the ‘30s, she wrote that “we are indeed on the threshold of a profound change in musical art.”

She and Crete Cage, John Cage’s mother, who oversaw the Times society pages, held great sway over L.A.'s cultural life. Jones and Crete Cage became friends at The Times, and it was the two of them who first agitated for a new concert hall for the L.A. Phil (which also happened to be run by a female administrator at the time). Neither Jones’ proselytizing nor Crete Cage’s role in persuading the wives of wealthy businessmen to contribute to the early efforts to build a new hall have been properly acknowledged.

This was the foundation Mrs. Chandler was able to build on. But Mrs. Chandler was also a woman who wanted to run the show herself. She disapproved of Jones as too bohemian; she had her husband remove Jones and hire a more traditional critic from Chicago, Albert Goldberg, in 1947. Jones, however, went on to found the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara.

Crete Cage left The Times at the beginning of World War II, and Mrs. Chandler was only too happy in 1948 to take over the influential women’s pages and use them to promote her own cultural tastes. The rest, of course, is a history that included getting the Music Center built, making her a true master of men.

But crucial as Mrs. Chandler was on the L.A. cultural scene, she wasn’t the one who broke the glass ceiling. Her lasting legacy was her thoroughness in sweeping away the shards for the next generation, which could well be ushering us into a golden age.

Twitter: @markswed

Get our daily Entertainment newsletter