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Trombonist's Battles Give 'Miriam' a Voice

Music: Abbie Conant fought the Munich Philharmonic, alleging discrimination against female players. She performs the piece born of her experience tonight.

April 03, 1996|TERRY SCHWADRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She had auditioned in 1980--as had the other musicians seeking the job of principal trombonist with the Munich Philharmonic--behind a screen.

It was only when the screen was removed that orchestra officials realized that the winner--Abbie Conant, an American--was a woman. Then, after a probationary period with the orchestra, Conant was demoted.

So began a multiyear legal case that pitted musician against orchestra and against the city of Munich. Her case, which was settled in her favor in 1993, has spurred concern about discrimination against women in professional symphonies.

Conant says that she repeatedly was forced to prove herself as a top performer, was forced to undergo medical tests to determine physical strength and endurance and suffered pay losses.

Why? According to court documents, the orchestra general music director allegedly told her: "We need a man for solo trombone."

The orchestra management does not discuss the case, but Conant left after the settlement for a teaching position in Trossingen, Germany, from which she continues to tour and perform. She was replaced by a young man with no professional experience.

All this is of interest because Conant appears tonight at USC, where she will perform a multimedia work, "Miriam," developed with her husband, William Osborne. It is a protest piece born of her experience, they say.

In the performance, Conant combines acting, song, mime and solo trombone to portray a woman trapped in domestic boredom, seeking her identity even as she approaches a nervous breakdown. Later, she is in an asylum, unable to find language to express herself other than that of her trombone.

"In 'Miriam,' " Conant explains, "we haven't made a literal portrayal of my orchestral experience. We sought a more universal symbol. We focus on how human beings are hurt when they are robbed of their creative identity.

"I was not adequately warned about what I would experience in some German and Austrian orchestras. I would keep it together at work. 'Show no weakness, don't react,' said my instincts. At home, I could fall apart."

Conant suggests her story is not unique. She distributes documents from the Vienna Philharmonic, for example, which, as a "private club," asserts its freedom from gender discrimination laws. In any event, orchestra leaders argue in printed notices, women take too much sick leave.

Indeed, worldwide, there are few principal female brass symphony players. Among U.S. professional orchestras, there are more female players among strings and winds than among the brass.

"Over and over I see young brass-playing women go through a kind of psychological hazing when they enter professional life," says Conant. "The woman clearly beats out her competitors and during her probationary period, 'fault' is found."

Conant acknowledges that fewer female musicians turn to the low brass instruments, although their numbers are increasing. She made the leap early. "The trombone has a multifaceted personality. It is a jazzer, an angel instrument, the announcer of the Last Judgment, the cavorting clown while often bringing on the most dramatic moments in orchestral literature. I love this instrument, which in itself is a performance artist. . . .

"And another thing, if you let go of a trombone slide, it flies right off and skitters across the floor. Arrogance cannot be maintained for any length of time. One is apt to reflect on the absurdity of life."

* "Miriam," by W.W. Osborne, featuring trombonist Abbie Conant, Bovard Auditorium, USC, tonight at 8, free. (213) 740-7111.

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