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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

The balance of the sexes or ...
conductors with their trousers down,
with classical music's agony aunt, ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,

Why is is that there seem to be more women in 'cello sections than men? Have you a theory on this -- and any other 'balance of the sexes' issues in orchestras?

A fellow 'cello

Dear Fellow cello,

Well, I know what you mean, of course. It would be idle to deny that all sections of British orchestras have become increasingly female over the past couple of decades. I am old enough (forty and holding) to recall when the only female on stage with the London Symphony Orchestra would be Midori or Anne-Sophie Mutter tackling the concerto, but even the LSO now has plenty of women, and more queuing up to join from the (now) female-dominated music colleges.

But I can't say I've noticed that cello sections are more female than most. There is still a perception -- largely shared by the London cabbie community -- that it is (or should be) a male instrument; they would probably be astonished to know that, in this belief, they are following historical precedent, because it was widely perceived as an unfeminine move, in the 1800s and early 1900s, for a female cellist to sit astride a cello. There were even some lady cellists who bowed to social pressure and attempted to play side-saddle!!!!!!!!!

Which is practically imposs, as I can tell you, because in my (mixed-sex) USA high school in the 1970s we all wore mini-skirts. Due to the positioning of the guys in the violins we were obliged to give this side-saddle idea a go and I am here to tell you that it is seriously lousy for your cello playing, not to mention your spine. So we mostly bought cello wraps and put those over our mini-skirts. (And if you're wondering why we didn't just nix the mini-skirts you are not, repeat not, a would-be with-it teenage girl).

But to get back to your question, well, if you check out the UK Musicians Union book, you'll find roughly as many male cello names as female. (Don't push me on the exact percentages: life is short!!!!!!!) My guess is that you've only noticed the high percentage of female cellists because (a) you're mainly thinking of semi-professional, amateur or regional orchestras or (b) you've only noticed professional women players more because they simply play with more noticeable levels of umph and pizzazz.

Oops!!!!!!!!!! Slip of the pen there!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Er, I meant to write: women players are better at pizzicato, not pizzazz. They are quicker to get pizzing and less likely to pull the string off the bridge due to a serious miscalculation of the ratio of strength v subtlety.

(Whew. Close one, huh, Keith?)

I do remember that, some years ago, a female conductor did found an all-female Women's Orchestra, for no very useful reason. These days, they call it the National Youth Orchestra.

Oops, sorry guys, low blow!!!!!!!!!!!!

I just mean that you notice the long dresses of the women players more, due to their sheen, length and colour, blah, blah, blah. I didn't mean that they're generally better at orchestra playing due to a more conscientious attitude towards practising, blending, giving their all for the greater good of the whole rather than their own personal fame and glory etc.

Not to mention that most women players don't just slouch back in disgruntlement and lose the will to live if they don't happen to be section leaders, unlike 99% of male players.

Right, I'm stopping this answer now before I get still deeper in trouble with (almost exactly half) my musician friends ...

[Note to Alice from Keith (sadly): Too late, too late, too late ...]


Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

In a week when we enjoyed headlines such as 'Sozzled mariner ran aground while upset at scrapped wedding,' and 'Conductor "had glazed expression"' what is your opinion of conductors who wilfully run their yachts aground while emotionally unstable/pissed?

Baroque-o-phile, North London

Dear Baroque-o-phile,

Now this -- in case any of you missed it -- this refers to the court case of Roy Goodman, currently principal guest conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra and poised to take over as leading conductor of the Holland Sinfonia (who they, ed????). He recently admitted in court sailing his yacht while completely sozzled due to being 'upset' at the scrapping of (one of his many) weddings. He was duly ticked-off and heavily fined.

I knew Roy when he conducted the Hanover Band, which he did for some years. Talk about a powerhouse, well, this boy could somehow conjure up an atmosphere out of an audience consisting of four blokes and a dog in Hicksville, at least three of whom had probably come with a view to enjoying a marching wind band, rather than a seriously authentic period-instrument orchestra. Even though he was never very nice to me (Roy was not generally friendly to anybody barring the principal winds, typical bloody conductor), I always enjoyed Roy's concerts, because he never failed to give it his all. If he was not big on finesse, then frankly that was all part of the grand sweep of period instrument excitement in those pioneering days. Roy's performances, especially the finales, were not for the faint-hearted (or the butter-fingered) but the rest of us found them frankly exhilarating, and so did our audiences.

Unfortunately, his private life was almost always catastrophic -- he's got (at least) two divorces behind him already and specialised in shouting at the current incumbant of that unlucky position in front of the rest of us -- and I can also remember him getting pretty completely legless at parties. But then, so did a lot of the guys, and to be honest, when touring annually for weeks at a time as we were, I find it is tough to criticise. Once a number of the Hanover Band, including Roy, went to a rodeo (you cannot contemplate how boring rodeos are unless you've suffered one: just one silly cowboy atop a bucking bronco after another) and it was so dull that I would not care to swear that a single one of us, taxiing hotelwards, was sober. (Makes you proud to be an American. Not.)

However, an innate inability to sort out one's love-life in no ways excuses endangering the safety of other people off the coast of Southampton. I mean, at first the whole story strikes one as purely and simply hilarious (remember: he never was nice to me, or to my friends either), especially the bit where -- apparently too blotto to see farther than the end of his own yacht -- Roy relieved himself into the sea in full view of already dumbfounded sailing safety officers. But when the Director of Marine Enforcement points out that he might easily have killed or injured somebody, it doesn't seem such a hoot anymore.

Seeing his picture in the papers (he still looks like the long sought missing link between primate and man) reminded me of all those concerts, and all those tours, and how musically vital and even inspirational he'd been. It also reminded me of a very small boy caught (literally, by all accounts) with his trousers down. And it made me think, with some impatience: come on, Roy; there's more to you than this. We were all idiots in our teens, and mostly idiots in our twenties. (Some of us, more stubborn than most, stuck to our guns and were pretty stupid in our thirties as well.) But at fifty three -- golly, he's already fifty-three!!!!! -- it's time to grow up and get act in gear. As my physics teacher wrote of my feeble efforts, years ago, 'You can do better than this.'

Cordially yours,

Copyright © 13 February 2004 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

[Notes to Roy Goodman from Keith: a) You've guessed it ... we're not worth suing. b) She's wrong, isn't she? About being time to grow up, I mean! c) Yes, I know ... they drive us to do these things, and then ridicule us! d) Did you know that we have a mutual friend? (And no, I don't mean Alice! Clue: it's another M&V contributor.)]




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