In a ‘Sea Change,’ Women of the Philharmonic Now Outnumber the Men
Still, many artists hailed the new prevalence of women in the Philharmonic as a significant development. Symphony orchestras were long seen as the dominion of men. And turnover is generally extremely slow at leading ensembles like the Philharmonic, whose players are tenured and can remain in their posts for many years. Meaningful demographic change can take decades.
“It’s more of a family now,” said Sherry Sylar, associate principal oboe, who joined the orchestra in 1984. “There are moms and pops both.”
For much of its history, the Philharmonic, the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States, was closed off to women. At the time of its founding in 1842, women were not only discouraged from pursuing careers in music — it was rare for them to attend evening concerts unless they were with men. (In “Philharmonic: A History of New York’s Orchestra,” Howard Shanet wrote that during the 19th century, the ensemble’s public rehearsals on Friday afternoons were popular with “unaccompanied ladies who could venture forth by day with more propriety than they could by night.”)
It was not until 1922 that the Philharmonic hired its first female member, Stephanie Goldner, a 26-year-old harpist from Vienna. She departed in 1932, and the orchestra became an all-male bastion again for decades.
Then, in 1966, Orin O’Brien, a double bassist, was hired as the Philharmonic’s first female section player. Often described as the first woman to become a permanent member of the orchestra, she was at the vanguard of a pioneering group of female artists who opened doors for other women to join. The orchestra’s move toward blind auditions in the 1970s was seen as making the process fairer. By 1992, there were 29 women in the orchestra.
Even as representation increased, however, female musicians often faced discrimination. Sexism was widespread in the industry (the maestro Zubin Mehta, who opined in 1970 that he still did not think women should be in orchestras because they “become men,” was named the orchestra’s music director six years later). Fewer women got the best-paid principal positions, and some who did found that they earned far less than their male counterparts. In 2019, the Boston Symphony settled a lawsuit in which the principal flutist of the orchestra said she was being paid less than a male colleague, the principal oboist.