She broke barriers in music. But she is disturbed by the attention. | ET REALITY


For decades, the New York Philharmonic, the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States, was an all-male bastion. Then in 1966 came Orin O’Brien, who played double bass.

Often described as the first woman to become a permanent member of the Philharmonic, O’Brien was part of a pioneering group of female artists who opened doors for other women. Last year, for the first time in its 180-year history, women outnumbered men overall.

O’Brien, who retired from the Philharmonic in 2021 after a 55-year career, has resisted speaking publicly about his life in music, preferring to remain in the background.

But a new short documentary, “The only girl in the orchestra,” directed by his niece, filmmaker Molly O’Brien, looks at his struggles and accomplishments. (The movie premiered last week at DOC NYC, a festival celebrating documentary film).

The Philharmonic, founded in 1842, was long closed to women. It was not until 1922 that she took on her first partner: Stephanie Goldner, a harpist. But she left after a decade, and the orchestra once again became a male bastion until O’Brien’s arrival.

In a recent interview at her Manhattan home, O’Brien, 88, reflected on her early days at the Philharmonic, the advances made by women in classical music and growing up in California with movie star parents. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

You made history at the Philharmonic but you have avoided talking about your time there. Why did you agree to participate in this film?

I hate the idea of ​​being photographed. I hate the idea of ​​talking about myself. It’s just horrible. In music, you are part of a group and enjoy the camaraderie with other musicians. My niece begged me for it for years. She told me, “Maybe it will help the cause of classical music.” If she wasn’t my relationship, she would just say no. It’s all your fault.

Her appointment to the Philharmonic was the subject of many news stories that focused on her gender. How did you feel about the attention?

I didn’t like it because, first of all, the difficulty was not being a woman. The difficulty was studying for years and practicing and also being encouraged by your teachers and your classmates.

I felt like there was undue attention paid to me, especially because the orchestra was great and Leonard Bernstein, the musical director, was great. Bernstein shouted from time to time: “Bravo, Orin!” because he could count. And I felt very embarrassed. I felt my face turn red. He was trying to be nice, friendly and welcoming. But I felt like the other musicians would resent it because I was new. I mean, who was I? I was only a member of one section. I wasn’t anyone that important. But PR gave me importance at that time and I shied away from it.

Much of the coverage at the time was sexist. A Time magazine article He said you were “as curvy as the double bass she plays.” A New York Times article He called her “as beautiful a colleague as any orchestra could wish to have in its ranks.”

Seems a bit frivolous, doesn’t it? It says nothing about my background or experience or the fact that my teacher, Fred Zimmermann, was in the orchestra for 36 years before me, and that I had tremendous knowledge of the orchestra because I had heard every concert they played. for two whole years when I worked as an usher at Carnegie Hall. I absorbed his style that way.

In the 1960s and 1970s, maestro Zubin Mehta was of the opinion that he did not believe women should be in orchestras because “become men.” He too saying that musicians “were simply not as good at 60 as a man is at 60.” He was named music director of the Philharmonic. in 1976. How did you feel about their comments?

They were so baseless, ridiculous and full of prejudice. I thought it was ridiculous because there were so many talented women. One of the Philharmonic’s best musicians, although her name was often not on the list, was the pianist Harriet Wingreen, who could sight-read any score. And Marilyn Wright (former concertmaster of the New York City Opera), I remember the violinist Nathan Milstein came and sat in the front row to hear her play the great violin solo in Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.” And she didn’t flinch and played perfectly.

When you joined the Philharmonic, there were no dressing rooms for women. In the early 1970s, there were only five women in the orchestra. How did you feel you were treated in those early years?

I felt welcome as a musician, as a member of the group. The feeling was, “You’re a musician like us,” except they were my heroes. They were special people. He knew them by name. And now they were talking to me? I was very excited to be there.

Some women in the Philharmonic have said they struggled to get paid as much as their male counterparts and were offended when their male colleagues referred to them as “the skirts.” Did you find those problems?

I never heard that. I think they were too polite to tell me that. Everyone has a different experience.

What do you think of the fact that women now make up about half of the New York Philharmonic?

It is an uncomfortable topic. It was when I joined and it still is for me. I don’t think it has anything to do with music. It means nothing to me. I don’t think that female composers are better or worse than men. I have friends in the orchestra of both sexes.

One of his admirers was Bernstein, who led the Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969 and once described him as a “source of brilliance in the orchestra.”

I remember when Bernstein said he would take some time off to compose something special. He had just bought a book about Masada, the ancient fortress of Israel. I wrote him a letter saying: “I think I found a theme for you for an opera or maybe a cello concerto. And if you want I can lend you my book. And the next week, at rehearsal, he stops and says, “Orin, thank you for your letter. It’s a very good idea”. And all the guys turned and looked at me and I thought, “My God, I’ll never write him another letter again. Never.” And I never did. I felt very ashamed and humiliated.

You say in the film that you chose the double bass because you liked being in the background. Was that a reaction to your parents’ fame? George O’Brien and Margaret ChurchillWho were movie stars in the 1930s?

That was definitely part of it. My brother and I would go out to dinner with my dad and fans would come up and ask for an autograph. We were bitterly resentful of that because it drove him away from us because he loved the attention. “I’d love to sign an autograph.” And then we deprived ourselves of his attention for a while and that hurt us. But you could see he was just reveling in it. He enjoyed the benefits of fame and fortune. And my mother probably did too: she was an actress on stage here in New York before she went to Hollywood. If you’re a bassist, you don’t expect as much attention. And that’s maybe one of the reasons I gravitated toward it.

What do you think about the future of classical music, as cultural institutions work to recover from the pandemic?

I am a little desperate because I see that the public is not as well informed as before and the programming is being diluted. I’m sorry to say, but not all compositions are great and great compositions are still basically the soul of an orchestra: Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Haydn, etc. YesSometimes I feel like the truly great repertoire is neglected in favor of other things. Musicians need to play the classics.

After you retired from the orchestra, you continued teaching and performing. How do you see the entirety of your career?

I feel so lucky to have been able to do something I loved my whole life, and I was so lucky to have landed in my favorite orchestra. When my father would pick me and my brother up, he would ask us, “Are you coming to church?” I was like, “No, I’ll stay in the car and listen to the New York Philharmonic.” And that’s when I decided that music was my religion.

If I can convince my students to love music like I was lucky enough to love it (throughout their entire lives) and if it gives them the same joy as it does me, that’s all I would really like.

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