Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tommasini's Alsop Profile

Anthony Tommasini had a profile in the Times the other day of Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony and Bournemouth Symphony. I am a known fan of hers, so I glanced at the article over the weekend, then read it more carefully today after a friend asked me some questions about it. My conclusion, the second time around, is that it's unmitigated crap. I suggest that you click the link to the profile so you can follow along as I justify that conclusion.

Here's the first paragraph:
The conductor Marin Alsop has strong artistic convictions that she puts into practice and expounds on readily. But there is one aspect of her career that she has been ambivalent about discussing: Ms. Alsop is a notable woman in a field that for whatever reasons continues to be dominated by men.
Somewhat later, Tommasini says this:
The dearth of leading female conductors is ultimately inexplicable.
Well, you know, it's not inexplicable at all. You need only look at what women have experienced whenever they enter previously all-male fields to find the explanations: the doubts raised about women's abilities; the patronizing attitudes of men already in the field; the automatic disqualification of women who try to get jobs or schooling in those fields. This is well documented, as both Tommasini and Alsop must be aware, and in many fields. I will cite the early career of Sandra Day O'Connor, who graduated near the top of her law school class at Stanford, and after passing the bar, found herself offered a couple of jobs as a legal secretary. I will also cite Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing, which neatly outlines the ways that the quality of women's writing has been denied. It is beyond naive to imply, and worse to believe, that classical music is in any way free of these patterns of sexism.

Later on, Tommasini speculates about whether Alsop's lesbianism somehow makes her more acceptable as an authority figure:
Is it possible that in Ms. Alsop’s case her sexual orientation has made her less intimidating as an authority figure?

There can be a seductive element to conducting. Think of the kinetic young Leonard Bernstein, the suave Herbert von Karajan, the exotic and scruffy Valery Gergiev. Ms. Alsop is a dynamo on the podium, an incisive technician who moves and grooves much like Bernstein, her mentor. Might male orchestral players (and even some female ones) be more comfortable with an electrifying woman on the podium if she is known to be a lesbian?
The nonsense about "ultimately inexplicable" directly follows this nonsense.

And nonsense it is, except for the part about Alsop being electrifying, a dynamo, and an incisive technician. Note that there's no justification or logic offered for why orchestra players might be more comfortable with a lesbian on the podium. That's because it's pure speculation. Not only that, it's patronizing speculation: how is "maybe they're more comfortable with her dynamism because she's a lesbian" different from "women are better suited to be nurses than doctors, because they are natural caretakers"? Is being a leader somehow less acceptable from straight women than from lesbians? Does Tommasini think all orchestral players respond the same way to lesbians and to straight women? This is just stereotypical crap.

I think Tommasini raises the lesbian red herring to give himself a pass from discussing the reasons why there aren't more women conducting at the opera and symphony. He doesn't want to discuss the lack of opportunity, lack of role models, active discouragement, and outright sexism in the field, starting with the wealthy donors sitting on boards of directors. Those are the people who appoint search committees and make short lists of candidates when there are music director openings. As in other fields, your contacts - who you know and who they know - are hugely important to the process of becoming known. And people tend to like and know people who are like themselves. The boards of directors of major musical institutions are, I'm willing to bet, mostly older white guys. For example, take a look at the New York Philharmonic's Board of Directors. I counted a very small minority of women's names. It's true that the men could all be under 35 and feminist, but I bet not.

Now, Tommasini could answer his question by doing an investigative story about why there are so few women conducting in the big leagues, but I don't recall seeing such an article in the Times. Instead, for this profile he puts Marin Alsop on the spot. I am certain she has experienced more than enough sexism and homophobia during her career. She talks about sexism on her personal Web site, but she's circumspect about it, so you have to read between the lines a bit.

I understand why she does this: women in the public eye who talk about sexism cannot win. If you don't talk about systemic sexism, it doesn't get addressed in a systematic way. If you do talk about it, you will be accused of being a complainer, a whiner, someone making excuses for why she hasn't gotten ahead. It is a huge risk to speak up. Your job application may have been at the bottom of the pile because you have an obviously female name; one of the judges on a panel may have leered at you; a whole board of directors may not have taken your candidacy seriously because you're a woman, but if you say this in public, unless you have witnesses, or written evidence, you will be the one getting grilled, not the people who treated you that way.

There is much else in the article that I take issue with:
Most conservatories and college music departments report that roughly half of composition students these days are women. And given the impact of A-list composers like Kaija Saariaho, Judith Weir, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Joan Tower, Augusta Read Thomas and Chen Yi, the very idea of discussing “women composers” seems patronizing.
Not if you're interested in why it's only in the last 10 or 20 years years that women have made up 50% of composition students, or why there are only about ten or twelve women on the compositional A-list of living composers, or why Ruth Crawford gave up her career as a composer when she married Charles Seeger. Or, speaking personally, why I was in my second year of musicology graduate school before I first heard of Hildegard of Bingen.

Drew McManus has already demolished the straw man discussion of how auditions and hiring are done at orchestras. He didn't talk about this particular point:
Some kind of affirmative action in hiring and promoting may be called for, Ms. Alsop suggested, starting with orchestra musicians. This is a controversial subject in a field that advertises itself as making appointments according to artistic excellence alone. Still, Ms. Alsop says she believes in the benefit of diversity in the performing arts.

"In most cases, when you look at symphony members, they don't look like the communities we live in," she said. "We must reach out to various groups, to gain diversity, so that communities feel engaged and reflected."
Most readers of this blog know the makeup of typical big city orchestras and will realize that this is code for "I'd like to see more African-Americans and Latinos in orchestras." I don't disagree with that sentiment at all. I just wish it were discussed openly rather than in code. Ironically, Tommasini later writes:
Americans like to think that racial and gender discrimination does not exist here, [Alsop] said. “Consequently everyone develops a fear of talking about it.”
WTF? Discrimination is talked about all over. One need only pick up the Times itself to find plenty of reporting about racism and sexism, or to find discussions of court cases related to the laws against discrimination. Or visit a good bookstore, where there are lots of books about the history of feminism and the civil rights movement. Or start the conversation yourself, about the many economic, class, and cultural reasons we don't have more black and Latino people in classical music.

Lastly, I'm astonished by a particular omission from the article: there is no mention at all of Alsop's fifteen years of leading the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. It's an important festival where she has done a fantastic job. Maybe this got left on the cutting room floor, as it were, but it seems a bizarre omission.


Unknown said...

Yikes - His article is almost as alarmingly politically incorrect as I found the recent HGO premiere.

Anonymous said...

Excellent rebuttal. Thank you so much. There is a serious, serious backlash/denial today that couldn't be summed up more perfectly than this man writing that "inexplicable" line.

Lisa Hirsch said...

"Politically incorrect" is a useless term. What you really mean is that the article is clueless, poorly thought-through, and willfully ignorant.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you, Anonymous - you and I were posting simultaneously. My first comment was directed to Marcus.

Unknown said...

Maybe he's catching Holland syndrome?

Lisa Hirsch said...

oh god