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A REPERTORY OF DISCORD; Female musicians have long since mastered the piano, a machine from the Industrial Age. But even the greatest soloists haven't conquered a centuries-old legacy of stereotyping and sexism.; COVER STORY


Olga Samaroff was the first great American-born female classical pianist. She created a sensation at her London debut in 1901 and was admired by such great musicians as Gustav Mahler, Ignace Paderewski and Teresa Carreno. Just after her debut, Carreno, perhaps the greatest female pianist of the time, gave the 21-year-old Samaroff this warning: "My child, the highest praise you will ever get in concert reviews is that you 'play like a man' -- and they don't mean it entirely as a compliment. Someday, before I die, I'd like to see a review of a man's concert in which a critic would write that he played with the delicacy and charm of a woman! But they'd never dare."

Years later, in her autobiography, Samaroff wrote, "It would ill beseem a woman pianist to discuss this matter on the basis of relative merit, but the fact remains that the female of the species invariably receives lower fees than a man with the same degree of success and reputation."

For these and other reasons, Samaroff, a single parent with a child to support, gave up life as a touring soloist in the 1920s for the security of a teaching position at the Juilliard School in New York City.

Gender shouldn't be a factor in determining pianistic worth -- Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto can be played equally well by either sex. But the reality of performing is that gender matters nearly as much as it did when Samaroff was young. "Being a woman conductor is even more difficult," says the San Francisco-based Mariedi Anders, one of the most admired concert managers in the classical music business. "But I've been in this business more than 40 years, and male pianists have always been able to make greater careers than women who are just as good, if not better."

Compared with men of similar gifts, Anders says, women still earn smaller fees, enjoy fewer opportunities in recording studios and experience more difficulty in finding management and in getting engagements.

"There are several women my age or younger who are fantastic," says Helene Grimaud, 28, whom Anders calls the only female pianist of her generation with an international career. "I can't understand why they don't play more and aren't better known," Grimaud says. "All I can think is that it's because they are women."

It's odd that the piano should still figure in the gender wars. In conservatories today, women studying the piano outnumber men -- just as they do on the violin. In fact, the number of prominent young female violinists far surpasses that of the men on rosters of the important concert agencies.

A short list of female violinists performing frequently with prestigious orchestras and recording for important labels includes: Anne-Sophie Mutter (35), Midori (27), Viktoria Mullova (39), Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (37), Sarah Chang (17), Hilary Hahn (18) and Leila Josefowicz (21).

Perhaps because of the success women enjoy on the violin, some people in the music business believe the kind of bias that once held back female instrumentalists is gone.

"There is no longer any difference between booking male or female pianists, whether for orchestras or for recitals," says Jenny Vogel, a senior vice president of ICM Artists, in New York, whose clients include Grimaud, conductor David Zinman and pianist Radu Lupu. "Everyone is looking for the next great pianist to emerge, and whether the next Evgeny Kissin is male or female doesn't seem to matter."

But others, including Van Cliburn International Piano Competition executive director Richard Rodzinski, say the number of female pianists is declining.

In 1985 and 1989, one of every three contestants at the Cliburn was a woman, Rodzinski says. Four years later, the ratio had shrunk to one in five. In 1997, it dropped again -- to about one in seven. And, he adds, these figures represent what's happening at other competitions.

"I don't think I've ever seen a woman in a competitive situation who was eliminated because she was a woman," he says. "But why do these dropouts occur among pianists and not violinists? That's something for which I don't have an answer."

'Written out of history'

If it's difficult for female pianists to make a reputation, it may be more difficult for them to preserve it for posterity.

The gargantuan 200-CD anthology "Great Pianists of the 20th Century," recently issued on Philips Classics, collects performances by 74 pianists, only nine of whom are women. The Brazilian Guiomar Novaes (1895-1979), the Russian Maria Grinberg (1908-1979) and the Hungarian Annie Fischer (1914-1995) are just a few of the great pianists whose recorded legacies were neglected.

"We don't have the same labels for remembering women that we have for men," says Judith Tick, professor of music history at Northeastern University in Boston. "We decide what we want to remember in terms of history. Clara Schumann was the first pianist to take a serious approach to the piano and its repertory. But she is remembered almost exclusively as Robert's wife.

"Philips' 'Great Pianists' series conforms to this pattern by excluding great pianists such as Novaes and Fischer," Tick adds. "In effect, they get written out of history."

Schumann (1819-1896) was the first of history's three superstar women pianists. But she required -- as did her successors, England's Myra Hess (1890-1965) and Argentine Martha Argerich, 57 -- unusual circumstances before she could achieve such status.

The German-born Schumann was the first pianist to play entirely from memory. She was also the first to present historical surveys of keyboard music -- from the suites of Handel and Bach, through the sonatas of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, down to the music written in her own lifetime, including the works of her husband, Robert, Frederic Chopin and her lifelong friend Johannes Brahms.

But despite her career and innovations -- some of which are wrongly attributed to Franz Liszt -- her fame, even in her own lifetime, was based on extra-musical matters: as the heroine of the fairy-tale romance with Robert Schumann; as that composer's devoted wife and devoted mother of his eight children; later, after Robert's death, as his devoted widow; and, finally, for her "passionate friendship" with Brahms.

Hess was considered a great pianist by most connoisseurs before World War II. But it was only afterward that she became popular enough to sell out Carnegie Hall for 14 consecutive seasons. The war did for Hess what her gift could not: It turned her into a mythic figure.

Throughout the war years, Hess dared daily bombing raids to give more than 1,000 free noon-time concerts, boosting the morale of the hundreds of thousands of her countrymen attending them and the millions more (in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada) listening to the broadcasts.

By the war's end, she was an international symbol of the fight for freedom. She was received at Windsor Castle, where she was made a dame of the British Empire, and was visited backstage by President Harry Truman whenever she performed in Washington.

Argerich is already ranked among history's greatest pianists. But her legendary status also has less to do with music than with other factors. In 1979, at the age of 37, she stopped giving solo recitals. She has since restricted her rare appearances to chamber music recitals with friends, such as violinist Gidon Kremer and cellist Misha Maisky, and to concerto performances only with orchestras conducted by either Seiji Ozawa or Charles Dutoit.

She was a great pianist before 1979. But her acquisition of legendary status afterward is based more upon the concerts she canceled than the few she actually gave. It's also based upon a free-spirited lifestyle, in which she bore five children by five different men -- all celebrated musicians, but only one her husband.

Not only did great pianists such as Schumann, Hess and Argerich fail to receive their due; they also had to struggle with the "gendering" of the repertory.

Until 1900, women were restricted to a smaller repertory than their male counterparts at the Paris Conservatory, which attracted students from North and South America as well as Europe. This practice reflected beliefs about the different roles of the sexes that prevailed until much more recently.

At the inter- nationally prestigious Geneva Piano Competition in Switzerland, for example, male and female pianists competed in sexually segregated contests until 1963.

The works of certain composers, particularly those of Beethoven, were generally considered too profound for women to understand, as well as too demanding physically for them to perform. As recently as the late 1950s, one British critic could say openly of an all-Beethoven recital by Hess that "Dame Myra is the exception that proves the rule that women cannot play Beethoven."

Such biased opinions are rarely expressed in print nowadays, but they have only gone underground. The complete piano works of Beethoven have been recorded by countless men; but women have recorded the 32 sonatas only three times, the five concertos only twice.

"The neglect of important women pianists by all the major record labels was and continues to be shameful," says Vincent Lenti, professor of piano at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and an expert on pianistic history.

Married to the piano

Pianists contend with the most difficult of all instruments. They must have equal dexterity of all 10 fingers, considerable coordination, and high levels of visual and mental agility involved in the simultaneous reading of two lines of music in different clefs.

Moreover, classical pianists have the largest repertories of all musicians and, unlike the others, they are expected to play from memory. Playing the piano simply requires many more hours spent alone in practice. The failure rate is higher than for any other instrument.

On tour, a pianist's life is also more stressful.

"Unlike violinists, pianists have to play unfamiliar instruments each time they perform -- many of them in terrible condition and physically difficult to play," says ICM's Vogel.

But while the stresses are similar for both sexes, they may take a higher toll on women.

"It's always more difficult to be a woman traveling alone," says Grimaud. "The most successful male pianists tend to be bachelors or be married to women who fulfill themselves by taking care of their husbands. Look at Vladimir Ashkenazy's wife, Dody. She's raised six children, traveled everywhere with him and, because she's herself such a fine pianist, become the critic whose judgment he respects most.

"How is any woman going to find a man willing to do all that?" Grimaud adds. "It's not just hard, it's impossible. It goes against the male grain, and it's why I know, as long as I play the piano, that I'll never, ever, be able to have children."

Grimaud is not the first to articulate such sentiments. More than 60 years ago, Hess was asked why there weren't more female pianists.

"Because not many women are foolish enough to spend their lives on trains," she said. "In this business there is only one thing one can be really earnest about. That is playing the piano."

But the stress on female pianists goes deeper than the logistics of life on the road.

Their situation is also the consequence of several anachronistic notions -- dating from the beginning of the Romantic era around 1800 -- about genius, about the relationship of women to technology and about the proper place of women, sexually as well as socially.

Romantic ideology maintained not only that genius was confined to men, but also that it was all-encompassing. Qualities of musical interpretation described in what we think of as "female" terms were, and continue to be, acceptably attributed to men. For example, "He played with grace, elegance and charm." But "male" qualities -- such as "sinew and brawn," "brute strength" and "heroic might" -- could seem inappropriate, if attributed to women.

In addition, the grand piano was a creation of the Industrial Revolution, and the frustrations experienced by women pianists had much to do with 19th-century attitudes about the relationship of gender to technology.

Descriptions of male virtuosos of the 19th century commonly dwelled upon the element of conquest. This expressed not only a quasi-sexual control of the audience, but also suggested a celebration of technology, itself an expression of a desire to control nature.

Since the grand piano was technologically driven -- it weighed more than a half-ton, and its cast-iron frame enabled its steel strings to withstand 10,000 pounds of pressure per square inch -- it was the premier "masculine" instrument.

On the other hand, women were thought to represent -- and be in harmony with -- nature. Thus, they were more acceptable as dancers, actresses and singers because those activities were natural, physical expressions.

Once a woman put the barrier of a piano between herself and her audience, she called into question her traditional sexual role. It was no accident that newspaper accounts of successful woman pianists, for much of this century as well as all of the 19th, almost always assured readers that the musician was not only accomplished, but also "womanly."

Swinging violinists

There is no pianistic counterpart to such glamorous female performers as violinists Mutter, Salerno-Sonnenberg, Anne Akiko Meyers and cellist Ofra Harnoy.

This absence is both interesting and peculiar -- not least because the violin and cello are instruments women were generally forbidden to play, even at home, until about 100 years ago.

In the 19th century, the cello and violin were principally male prerogatives because women were considered to look unattractive while playing them. Several decades into the 20th century, even women who had been allowed to play the cello in orchestras were not permitted to hold that large instrument between their legs.

The taboo against the violin and cello was beginning to lose its potency by the close of the 19th century. By the middle of the 20th, there were several enormously gifted women soloists playing stringed instruments -- Ginette Neveu, Erica Morini, Ida Haendel and Gioconda de Vito, among the violinists, and Zara Nelsova and Raya Garbusova, among the cellists. But none of these superb players matched the success enjoyed by men of comparable gifts.

That situation changed dramatically in the mid-1960s, with the emergence of cellist Jacqueline du Pre, who, despite her tragically short career, inspired her audiences to frenzied adulation.

When du Pre strode onto the stage, she seemed a golden, strapping creature. And when she wrapped herself around the cello, she drew sounds, charged with emotion and sensuality, that transfixed her listeners. Her physical abandon was exciting to both sexes. She and her instrument seemed one, and she related to her audiences with startling directness.

Although multiple sclerosis ended her career in 1973 at the age of 28, du Pre paved the way for others: for violinist Kyung-Wha Chung and, somewhat later, for Mutter and the deluge of young women that followed her.

Du Pre was a harbinger of nothing less than the sexual revolution, which made available what had been forbidden to men and women of the previous 130 years. Among other things, this meant the audience's freedom to look.

Female instrumentalists began to wear the off-the-shoulder, form-fitting dresses now ubiquitous on concert hall stages. Unlike their predecessors, who played stiffly and with poker faces, the new generation, men as well as women, began to indulge in physical and facial gestures as they performed.

In some ways, this new freedom of expression brought perceptions of female string players closer to traditional images of actresses, singers and dancers. The performances of Mutter and others were more expressive physically -- if not not musically -- of their femininity than instrumentalists of earlier eras.

"The way they shake and jiggle in those tight, low-cut dresses!" exclaims Anders, the concert manager, of the current generation of female violinists. "They play practically in the nude."

Such expressions of femininity are not possible, however, for female pianists -- no matter what they wear.

"Today a woman playing the violin has a quasi-pornographic aspect," says Ruth Solie, professor of music at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "But a woman playing the piano doesn't give audiences a clear signal about sex, and women pianists continue to project an androgynous quality."

A violinist or cellist faces an audience with full-frontal address; a pianist reveals only her profile. Moreover, the pianist's physical movement is limited because her body is anchored to a huge, Industrial Age machine. Unlike her liberated violinist and cellist sisters, she continues to express herself through technology.

The more things change ...

Sex appeal does not seem to matter at the keyboard.

The three female pianists who reached the top, or near to it, earlier in this century were Hess, Novaes and Gina Bachauer. They projected matriarchal, stately images, nothing that might be arousing or threatening to any listener.

Even Argerich and Grimaud do not project anything remotely like raw sexuality during their performances. Argerich may look sultry in photographs, but on stage, the Argentine pianist is all business. Grimaud looks as glamorous as a model in her publicity shots. But when she appears on stage, she wears no makeup or jewelry, and her concert attire -- simple dark jacket, sweater and pants -- makes her look like a busboy. This is deliberate on her part.

"What people don't realize is that what seems an advantage [looking attractive] is really a disadvantage at the piano," Grimaud says. "You're not taken as seriously."

The piano has the largest, grandest, most difficult repertory in music. It is considered a more profound instrument than the violin. And being taken seriously has always been a problem for female pianists.

"Virtuosity and intellect -- at least at the piano -- were always considered unfeminine," the Cliburn Competition's Rodzinski says. "There have been plenty of women, like Novaes, who were as brilliant and as profound as the best of the men, but we had a need to hear them as 'feminine' and 'delicate.' "

The way women are sometimes still referred to can be as ridiculous as ever, says Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska. She is nearly 6 feet tall and has enormous hands that permit her to play pieces like Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz" brilliantly and powerfully.

"I don't think I've suffered par- ticularly because of my sex," Fialkowska says. "But in an American orchestra's brochure I was recently described as 'Canada's diminutive gift to the piano.' I like being called attractive as much as the next woman, but there's nothing diminutive about me."

Fialkowska's is not an isolated case.

Another Canadian pianist, Angela Hewitt, is widely regarded as perhaps the finest interpreter of Bach on the modern piano. She lives in London, where her recordings for the Hyperion label have won several prizes, including Gramophone magazine's award for best instrumental recording of the year. For several years running, she's been on The Times of London's yearly top-10 classical list.

"Since she's been so successful with British critics and has lived in London for more than 10 years, I thought that getting her management in the U.K. was long overdue," says Seldy Cramer, Hewitt's Los Angeles-based American manager.

When the two visited a prestigious London concert management company last September, the pianist says, "They told me that I've 'been around a while' -- which was their way of telling me I was too old."

"I was still a few months short of 40, and I hardly think that is too old," Hewitt says.

"Then they told me that my image was all wrong -- that, for example, I shouldn't wear my hair up, and I should wear slinky, low-cut gowns and more makeup.

"Well, what I look like is the way I am. I wear my hair up because it's hot up there on stage, and having your hair down makes it hotter. I'm not a tramp, and I don't want to wear a dress that makes me feel like one. I thought, 'Why should any of this matter? It's disgusting; it's a double standard.' "

She goes on: "Alfred Brendel was over 40 when he began his British career, and Richard Goode was 50. And, come to think of it, do they look so good? Richard looks like a guppy out of water when he is playing, and Alfred doesn't look so great either!"

Hewitt is an attractive woman, but -- as she herself concedes -- meeting that management's criteria for sex appeal probably wouldn't have helped.

"The rosters of concert agencies never carry more than one woman for every six men," she says. "It irks me that women pianists face more difficulties than men and that men continue to earn much higher fees, but it must be much more difficult to book a woman than a man.

"My only consolation is that there's always the piano," Hewitt adds, with a chuckle.

"The piano doesn't let one down -- like men usually do."

Pub Date: 02/14/99

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