Sexes at the symphony

For the first time in the New York Philharmonic’s 180-year history, its roster of musicians is majority-female: 45 are women, 44 are men.

“It’s a sea change,” Cynthia Phelps, the orchestra’s principal violist, told The New York Times’ Javier C. Hernández. “This has been a hard-won, long battle, and it continues to be.” In 1976, the philharmonic had five female players; in 1992, there were 29.

Currently, there are 16 vacancies on the roster, so the orchestra’s gender parity may change; but 10 of the last 12 musicians it hired are women, who are “winning these positions fair and square,” said Deborah Borda, the philharmonic’s president and chief executive:

Although “still substantially outnumbered by men in most elite ensembles, including in Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles,” Hernández notes, “[w]omen now make up roughly half of orchestra players nationwide.”

That was reflected in the ensemble onstage at the Richmond Symphony’s most recent mainstage concerts. Among 75 players, there were 37 women and 39 men, according to the roster listed in the program booklet.

Of the 22 violinists, three were male: the concertmaster, associate concertmaster and one section player. (The orchestra’s violin and viola sections have been predominantly female for years.) One women played in the long-all-male percussion section. The flutists and the harpist – historically, the gender barrier-breakers in orchestras – were all women. The brass players, timpanist, pianist and saxophonist were all men.

For many of its performances, the symphony hires substitute players and musicians needed for extra parts, so the proportions change from one program to the next.

The orchestra’s music director, associate conductor and executive director are women. Among its 17 currently designated section principals and single chairs (timpani, piano, tuba, harp), five are women, leading the second-violin, viola, flute and oboe sections, plus the harpist.

However this factoid may figure in the near-future of US orchestras: At Miami’s New World Symphony, the elite post-graduate “orchestral academy,” many of whose musicians move on to their first full-time gigs at orchestras the size and caliber of Richmond’s, 45 male and 38 female “fellows” (a terminological lagging indicator of academic gender-sensitivity) are pictured this season on its website (http://www.nws.edu/about/fellows/).