More than 50 years ago, in Europe and the United States, Dutch-born Antonia Brico dared to tread where no woman had ventured before: the field of symphonic conducting.
In the late 1950s, pioneer Sarah Caldwell formed the Opera Company of Boston and Margaret Hillis the Chicago Symphony Chorus as one way to sneak into orchestral conducting.
Today the picture is far brighter as women become integrated into the music world at large--in 1989, four were appointed concertmasters in Minnesota, Atlanta, St. Louis and Detroit.
And although men still run the nation's top 21 orchestras (those with budgets in excess of $8 million), a small, albeit growing number of women are mounting the nation's podiums, conducting subscription concerts and moving through the ranks to become music directors of their own orchestras.
JoAnn Falletta, 36, on her way to becoming a jet-setting maestra, has advanced step-by-logical-step to the helm of the Long Beach Symphony, the Denver Chamber Orchestra and the Bay Area Women's Philharmonic. She also is a candidate for music director of the Virginia Symphony.
Yet unlike her male counterparts, Falletta must constantly confront issues of gender politics in the music place: How does a woman establish authority over largely male forces? What attire works best? A masculine look? A feminine touch?
Tails that allow for freedom of movement are \o7 de rigueur\f7 when Falletta conducts the 65-member Bay Area Women's Philharmonic--"We want to appear equal," she says--and are popular with Denver audiences. Experimenting in Long Beach, she wears tails or skirts or black-and-white outfits designed by her late father, who worked in the garment industry. However, to avoid appearing masculine when making guest appearances in the South, she sticks to dresses.
Still there are comments. One San Francisco reviewer recently pondered what "psychosexual message" Falletta seeks to convey by wearing a tux.
And there are still reviews that marvel that one so "petite," so "diminutive" and "attractive" as Falletta can nevertheless command a strong podium presence.
"People often ask how a little thing like me can control all those musicians," Falletta says. "I mean I am tired after a concert, but some people are amazed I can get to the end without collapsing.
"Yes, this is a controlling position, but it's psychological control, not physical. You are not beating people with a whip. All the musicians want and expect is to have someone up there who brings the music alive."
But it's predominantly the orchestral musician over age 50, she notes, who has the most difficulty accepting a young American woman on the platform.
Falletta recalls an elderly woodwind player with the Baltimore Symphony who said at rehearsal that he had hoped to die before this became a reality.
It's a sunny afternoon, and Falletta is talking about her 15-year career with a visitor in a reception area of a Long Beach complex overlooking the ocean. Falletta recently purchased a condo there to satisfy the Long Beach Symphony's requirement that she live for 100 days in the area.
Speaking in soft tones at times barely audible, Falletta recalls growing up in an Italian household in New York that was constantly filled with music. Weekends, relatives would drop by and the two Falletta sisters would sing and play guitar and piano. At 13, "in love" with the great symphonic repertory--she spent hours in record stores debating the merits of the Beethoven Third over the Sixth--Falletta was determined to become a conductor. She was admitted "reluctantly" to the conducting program at the Mannes College of Music and, "defying the odds," at age 28 began her doctoral studies at Juilliard.
There, under the tutelage of Jorge Mester, she was forced to embark on a painful inner journey toward self-discovery.
Her stage manner and verbal patterns were scrutinized and analyzed. Rather than ask for changes, the soft-spoken Falletta apologized to the Juilliard orchestra for what she wanted, and rather than look into a player's eyes, she cast her head downward.
"This was so painful for me because I had to look at myself and realize the things I was doing was natural from my upbringing," Falletta remembers.
Mester, currently in Perth, where he is leading the West Australian Symphony prior to returning to the Southland for appearances with his Pasadena Symphony, acknowledges that "it's a cultural thing" for women to be nurturing, understanding and self-effacing. He believes that when assuming a leadership role, these "wonderful characteristics" need to be combined with assertiveness, intelligence and problem-solving skills--a balance he believes Falletta has attained.
Falletta says she's learned to wield her power discriminately:
Eschewing anger or a display of theatrics, she makes her point through silence or via facial expressions that convey her disappointment in a player who has let her down.