Women's History Month Perspectives: Gloria dePasquale

Posted by:  Gloria dePasquale on March 24, 2021

After more than 60 years, I still remember the moment I was “struck by lightning” in an elementary school assembly concert in Evansville, Indiana, featuring a group of stellar student musicians from Indiana University. School visits by musicians are often pooh-poohed by educators and professional musicians alike, many of whom consider the likelihood of significant impact to be akin to the odds of a lightning strike. It was the sound and musicianship of a young violinist, Miriam Fried, that directly pierced my heart, opening within me a permanent yearning for the discovery of music, particularly through the medium of string instruments.

Eagerly taking home a violin, a Merle Isaac String Builder book, and an entire folder of the elementary school’s repertoire, and armed with a background of several years of piano instruction, I was able to teach myself to a level sufficient to join my first school orchestra. At the end of the school year, I thought nothing of the request to take home the cello and learn it over the summer—at age nine and a height of 5’4”, I was the tallest of the children my age and, as such, deemed the perfect candidate for the orchestra cellist. Ironically, I never grew another inch and would find that, as I ventured further into the professional music world, size and gender were equated in a very negative connotation. I was sternly advised during my conservatory years that I had to be careful to never “play like a girl” due to my petite stature and sex.

I entered the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) on a full scholarship. Like many students today, I had other strong academic interests, accomplishments, and scholarship offers to prestigious academic institutions, but my naïve 18-year-old self reasoned that I’d better try the music route first and if that didn’t pan out, I could probably always return to an academic path. Air travel was extremely expensive back in the pre-internet days, so I went off to Boston to a school sight unseen on my first flight with two suitcases and my cello. My first interaction with the administration of the school was to assign me a private teacher. When I requested the youngest member of the Boston Symphony cello section, Stephen Geber, I was met with quizzical looks. I explained that I wanted to do what he had just done: win a position with one of the top US orchestras. My time at NEC was magical—I felt like a kid in a candy store. There were so many different types of music to explore and I eagerly gobbled up opportunities with equal parts diligent practice and self-exploration. I was never told at NEC that I couldn’t attempt something or wouldn’t have a chance to succeed. When I first joined the musicians’ union and began freelancing in the circle of community orchestras, I was shocked to receive very different treatment than my male colleagues.

In one instance, a community orchestra requested that NEC select a group of student cellists to play one of their programs, which included Rossini’s William Tell Overture. The ride to the gig with my peers was joyous, as we were all super excited to play the famous opening to the Overture featuring the cellists. My excitement quickly diminished when, as I warmed up to play the solo part, the conductor came over and said, “Do you really think you can handle this?” as he sneered down at me. On another occasion, I auditioned for the principal cello spot in a regional-level orchestra. This audition lasted two hours and was adjudicated solely by the male conductor, who came armed with three excerpt books and had me play through quite literally all of them before agreeing to hire me as principal.

My very first professional audition for a major orchestra was for my teacher’s position in the Boston Symphony (BSO). He had been awarded the principal cello position in the Cleveland Orchestra, creating the vacancy. I would never have taken this audition, except for his insistence. After all, I had first come to him with the intention of learning how to get to where he was and was now presented with the exact opportunity he had been helping me prepare for during both my undergraduate and graduate work. What an amazing audition experience for the early 1970s! The Boston Symphony actually presented candidates with a list of 18 full orchestral pieces for the audition—no excerpts. Many of the major orchestras were not presenting any repertoire lists at this time, as candidates for the “major” orchestras were supposedly already several years into tenure in other orchestras and gaining the experience they would need to succeed at the highest levels. In response to the women’s liberation and civil rights movements of the late ’60s and early ’70s, the BSO had newly instituted the use of a screen for the preliminary auditions. The experience of this screened audition for me was life changing—I was one of two female finalists. Martha Babcock won the position and I earned a spot on the  substitute list.

My first experience subbing with a high-level professional orchestra included the string orchestra version of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night. The call came around dinner time to join rehearsal the next morning—I was replacing a cellist who had been at the first rehearsals for this complicated piece and had fallen ill. I knew the piece well, but in a different version, so I stayed up most of the night studying the score and practicing my part. I felt very confident about the way my first rehearsal went. When the break of the rehearsal arrived, one of the older male violists near me came over and commented that perhaps I shouldn’t play in such a confident manner, as it was “unbecoming for a young girl.” On a separate occasion as a substitute, I was sitting on a high-back riser when a bass player untied the back of my dress and tied it to the chair, nearly causing a complete disaster for me and my instrument when I stood.

Despite this, after my experiences auditioning and working as a substitute player for the BSO and the Boston Pops, I knew that I was capable of winning a position in a major orchestra and doing well. Nothing less was acceptable to me. After the BSO finals, I was contacted by other major orchestras when positions arose. I spent a full season after my Master of Music degree freelancing in Boston and taking a slew of auditions. These openings are very few and far between; I just happened to hit the cycle of being available and ready to audition when a spate of retirements was happening across the major orchestras. I always played my way to the finals in each of these auditions and I was always the only female in the finals. I was always pulled aside at the end of the audition and whispered the advice that the committee was very interested in having me in the orchestra, but that I needed to come back when there was an opening created by a female musician leaving and/or that I needed more “experience.” And horrifically, more than once, I had to field an unwanted sexual advance or comment backstage either before or after an audition final.

As I could see the jobs were always awarded to men who were coming from positions in other orchestras, I reluctantly took a few auditions outside of the orchestras I had my heart set on, always coming away with a job offer and not accepting until the offer to work with Michael Tilson Thomas appeared in the early ’70s. I spent three seasons with him and the Buffalo Philharmonic as associate principal, playing great music with a wonderfully collegial orchestra, then comprised of about one-third women and with a median age of about 35.

When I came to my dream job in Philadelphia I was shocked by a culture that was mostly male (there were 10 women in the Orchestra) and with a median age of about 55. I was well aware of two former female members of the cello section who broke entry barriers to major orchestras for women: Elsa Hilger and Winifred Mayes. Elsa was the first woman member of a major American orchestra other than a harpist, and Winnie was the first woman string player hired in Boston before coming to Philadelphia. I was in a new city, in a high-level job that I knew I was perfectly capable of doing really well, with little emotional or social support within the Orchestra. Most of the nine other women were older and married, but two of the somewhat younger ones were quite friendly and helpful, as were a couple of the younger new male musicians. But all in all, it was a rather lonely start, fraught with backstage sexist comments just loud enough for me to hear when walking by, commenting on my physical appearance and clothes. Even worse for me were the comments between older colleagues of my section, made to each other during rehearsals, which they made no attempt to hide from me.

Orchestra meetings were another source of discrimination. When there was a topic that I felt I might have knowledge and expertise, I would raise my hand only to be completely ignored by the musicians leading the meeting. In the ensuing decades, I was elected three times to serve as chair on that same musician committee (to date, the first and only female chair), serve as the first female musician representative on the Orchestra’s board of directors, serve on the musician committees for several contract negotiations, and spend many terms on the members’ education committee.

When I became pregnant with my first child in my third season with The Philadelphia Orchestra, there was no maternity leave. When trying to solicit help from the Orchestra musician committee to at least be allowed optional unpaid time, I was told to “forget it; you’re lucky they even let you go on stage looking like that (pregnant).” So, I played (“looking like that!”) until my due date. My delivery necessitated a C-section, major abdominal surgery. In order to keep my job, I returned after four weeks (the total amount of sick leave at the time) and at the five-week mark after the C-section, boarded a train carrying my infant, a suitcase, and my cello for a concert in Washington, DC, followed by an overnight stay and trip to Baltimore for another concert the next day.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, women began to break more entry barriers to the Orchestra. Violist Judy Geist became the first woman hired in the viola section and two more women, Kathryn Picht and Patricia Weimer, joined me in the cello section. However, there were also women leaving the Orchestra: a young violinist who left after the birth of her first child; a young brass player who began to develop “chop” problems (receiving little support and a lot of pressure from her section); a young cellist who would not be granted unpaid leave to advance the work of her piano trio; and another young cellist who felt the pressures of trying to balance young children with a schedule that had little flexibility. Over time, contract negotiations for the musicians (aided by the passage of the American Family Leave Act) began to acknowledge the benefit for all musicians for maternity and/or paternity leave, optional unpaid time to stay home from tours with young children, extended medical time off for playing injuries, compassionate care time off, optional free time to advance chamber music and solo opportunities, sabbatical leave, extended unpaid leave for professional development, and personal days. No longer would musicians need to miss important family events and they could be assured that their emotional and physical health needs were recognized and safe guarded.

While many more positions in our orchestra are now held by women, it is of note to reflect upon the tenure process in The Philadelphia Orchestra. Since 1977, there have been very few instances (six) of disputes regarding the awarding of tenure to a musician. All except one of those disputes involved the tenure of female musicians. The five women that I witnessed undergoing scrutiny were put under tremendous pressure, but all were eventually awarded tenure. I consider these episodes to be some of the ugliest and most shameful moments in our orchestra’s history.

Screened auditions have positively influenced the leveling of the opportunity for women musicians to advance throughout the audition process and to be hired. The Philadelphia Orchestra now has 37 female musicians, including 13 of those women holding titled positions. Our conducting staff boasts three women and we also have a woman composer-in-residence. While gender diversity is definitely in place in The Philadelphia Orchestra, we still have a way to go when we consider our record of hiring musicians of color. When I joined the Orchestra in 1977, we had three black musicians and today, in 2021, we still have only three black musicians on our roster. I am proud to say that The Philadelphia Orchestra has been tackling the issue of diversifying to include not only BIPOC musicians, but also staff and board members. Under the IDEAS (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access Strategies) umbrella, musicians, staff, and board are working to find ways within each constituency to increase our racial diversity. Not only do we want to look more like the community in which we live and serve, we want to have all voices and human experiences represented and heard.

I have the perspective of over four decades of playing in professional orchestras, with 44 of those years in Philadelphia—I see not only how far we have come, but how far we have yet to go. As artists well attuned to the world, I believe that The Philadelphia Orchestra is open and eager to rise to the occasion of continuing the equity journey and actually accelerating the pace of progress. It is my personal dream that one day The Philadelphia Orchestra, viewed by many as “the world’s orchestra,” will one day lead the way by touring the world with a racially integrated ensemble, illustrating with its brilliant artistry that “Diversity is Excellence, and Excellence is Diversity.”

Photo: Cellist Gloria dePasquale at Shofuso Japanese House and Garden. Photo by Kriston Jae Bethel

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