Hail the Violinistas

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Helen Wallace applauds equality in professional violin playing today

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Hail the Violinistas

News of lone women making it to the top of a profession are both cheering and depressing: if there were more of them, it wouldn’t be a story.

In industries like banking (Ana Patricia Botin, CEO of Santander), international finance (Christine Lagarde, IMF) oil (Maria das Gracas Silva Foster, head of Brazil’s national oil company) and conducting (let’s not rehearse that one again) these heroines are the exceptions. But there’s one high-profile field in which women have quietly achieved dominance without fanfare or favouritism.

Have a look at this year’s Proms guide, and you’ll notice the number of female solo violinists exceeds that of male. OK, you may say, that’s just one festival. But sit back and conjure the best-known violinists in the world today and you’ll find more female names than male. I’m thinking Lisa Batiashvili, Nicola Benedetti, Sarah Chang, Isabelle Faust, Julia Fischer, Vilde Frang, Hilary Hahn, Alina Ibragimova, Janine Jansen, Leila Josefowicz, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Tasmin Little, Midori, Viktoria Mullova, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Rachel Podger, Baiba Skride and Carolin Widmann… l could go on, but let’s end with the peerless violist Tabea Zimmermann.

Without exception, these musicians have risen through merit, studied hard, made good choices, showed entrepreneurial flair and built a distinctive set of relationships with conductors, repertoire and composers. The tired saw that ‘everyone sounds the same these days’ simply doesn’t hold, from Ibragimova’s classical transparency to Kopatchinskaja’s sizzling Bartók, Tasmin Little’s intuitive Elgar to Isabelle Faust’s gravely beautiful Berg. No one could mistake Josefowicz for Julia Fischer, or Anne-sophie Mutter for Hilary Hahn. All have developed their own voices, and many have excelled in leadership and directing too, notably Benedetti, Jansen, Mutter and Podger.

Yes, there have always been great female violinists: the legendary Ginette Neveu, Jelly d’Arányi and Ida Haendel are three, while the recordings of Kyung-Wha Chung and Iona Brown remain benchmarks for many. But they made up a tiny minority in their day, with men from Heifetz to Perlman to Bell dominating the recording catalogue. No one would want to be without them, or Nigel Kennedy, Frank Peter Zimmermann, James Ehnes, Barnabás Keleman, Pekka Kuusisto and Anthony Marwood today, and I’m not suggesting the women are ‘better’. But they have proved that parity is possible.

We’re at a tipping point in orchestras too. Women have long been a force to be reckoned with in the chamber music and Baroque world, from the influential Alice Harnoncourt through to Monica Huggett, Maggie Faultless, Rachel Podger, Nadja Zwiener (English Concert), Kati Debretzeni and Alison Bury (OAE), and Christiane Busch  ‘Konzertmeisterin’ of Herreweghe’s Collegium Vocale Gent. Formidable British female violin leaders include Clio Gould (RPO among others), Jacqueline Shave (Britten Sinfonia) and Janice Graham (ENO). When even the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra (coming to the Proms this August) has a female leader you know it’s time to dump the term ‘concert master’.

The wonder is it’s taken this long: you have only to look at the make-up of youth orchestras to see the future of string playing is a model of equality. In fact, the concern now is that fewer boys are taking up the violin. But in general education girls outdoing boys at GCSE and A level has not yet translated into them getting top jobs. Why has it worked in music? Youth is the answer.  To be a professional violinist, you need to start in early childhood and to know if you’re making it by the time you’re a teenager. This gives women a good 20 years playing time before difficult questions of parenthood loom. Many of these violinists have managed career and children, mostly because they were established long before they had them. (I’ll never forget one high profile soloist who revealed that in the 1970s she had had to leave her baby son in an orphanage when she decided she needed to build her career in America. Thankfully, those days are gone.)

Some grumpy male violinists complain that pouting good looks are the key to success here. Good luck to anyone who’d like to make that accusation in person. I’ve rarely come across such a tough or serious group of professionals – they have to be – and would defy any politician to match them for inscrutable diplomacy.  Let’s take a moment to celebrate their achievement, while pondering this: are they paid as much as their male counterparts? I hope so, but rather suspect not. 

Helen interviews violinist Tasmin Little in our August issue, out Wednesday 9 July

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Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

Helen Wallace