Abbie Conant didn’t anticipate that taking a job with the Munich Philharmonic would also mean entering a 13-year legal battle for human rights.
But while she expressed discomfort at the term “trailblazer,” she said progress is sometimes just a matter of responding to daily injustices.
“It’s just sort of something that happens when you’re trying to live your life,” she said in an interview. “I just wanted to be a trombone player in an orchestra.”
The American trombonist, who continues to live in Germany, gives a lecture tonight on her successful fight against sexism in the Munich Orchestra. The free lecture — Alone among men: My relationship with the Munich Philharmonic — is held at Phillip T. Young Recital Hall as part of the University of Victoria’s Distinguished Women Scholars Lecture Series.
Conant will also perform two new music theatre works composed by her husband William Osborne, who will also be in attendance, on Thursday and Friday.
Conant applied to 11 trombone positions in Germany in 1980 and received one audition invitation from the Munich Philharmonic, addressed to “Herr” Abbie Conant. She played behind a screen in the first round of the live audition and ultimately won the position of first trombone against 32 men.
While her first indication of fractured support was word of a fist-fight between two existing trombonists on the basis of her appointment, Conant said she didn’t know the depth of the problem until she shared a taxi with maestro Sergui Celibidache in 1982.
Celibidache had ordered her to play a probationary year, during which any complaints against her should be recorded. Although none was filed, she was not only denied any solos, but also demoted to second trombonist.
Eager to improve, Conant asked from the back seat what she could do — she was trained to be flexible, to make any sound, to adjust her horns — she only needed guidance.
“Finally he said, ‘You know the problem, Abbie. We need a man for solo trombone.’
“I thought maybe there was something wrong with my playing. That’s when it really penetrated that, oh, there’s no way I can please him.”
What developed was a legal battle that, over the course of 13 years, ended with official recognition of discrimination. The process involved several appeals, physical tests to prove her strength was equal to that of her male counterparts, as well as informal battles — like when an older musician tried to embarrass her by asking if she had affairs, and she responded, “Why, are you interested?” to a roar of laughter.
“It was like the mouse that roared,” she said.
Four years in, she won back her position of first trombone. Nearly five years after that, she won the right to equal pay (despite regaining her title of first trombonist, she learned through a fluke that she was being paid less than her 15 cohorts.)
Conant said she had no idea that it would be such a lengthy fight when she first filed a complaint against her employer, the City of Munich.
But she said her love for the job kept her going, as did the simple fact that she knew she was right.
“It was just so unjust, that there was nothing else I could do. It was just a matter of persevering,” she said.
When husband Osborne called her in 1993 to let her know she had won, she was on a trip coaching the German National Youth Orchestra. She hadn’t told many people about the battle, so she pulled the viola teacher aside to share the news.
“I just said, ‘I just have to tell you this, I just won! After 13 years! I get equal pay!’ ” she said.
By that time, she had also won a professorship at a state conservatory and was already planning to leave the Munich Philharmonic.
Conant called her husband, whom she met at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, her bulwark. Not too long after, Osborne would launch another battle in the name of feminism, exposing sexist attitudes in the Vienna Philharmonic through an online campaign.
“I think he was a natural feminist,” Conant said. “He just saw what was going on and always thought it was outrageous and disgusting.”
The couple’s experiences inspired some of their original “music theatre” work, which blends musical performance with drama and visual effects. In a piece called Miriam, a woman waits in an asylum for her children to arrive so she can sing a piece for them. She sits in a chair with wrist clamps and each time she gets “out of control,” the clamps come down.
“That was written in response pretty directly to what happened to me at the Munich Philharmonic,” Conant said.
But Conant will perform two different performance pieces at Phillip T. Young Recital Hall. Thursday, she will perform Music for the End of Time, based on The Book of Revelation.
Friday, she will perform Aletheia, which is about an opera singer who can’t bring herself out of the dressing room to perform at a benefit gala.
Admission for both performances is by donation.