Excerpted from the Wall Street Journal, July 7, 1993
“Sexism In the Brass Section”
"Flagrant discrimination exists as well. Abbie Conant endured more than a decade of sexual politics at the Munich Philharmonic. Her career there began pleasantly enough, when she was a 25-year-old trombonist from Oklahoma and Sergiu Celibidache, the general music director, hired her in 1980 as one of two "solo" trombonists. It was only her second full-time orchestral job after earning a master’s degree from the Juilliard School in New York, and Ms. Conant was elated. "I felt I had a bright future," says this affable, down-to earth woman with frizzled reddish-brown hair.
The trouble started in May 1981. After her formal probationary period had passed without incident, she was informed that Mr. Celibidache wanted to demote her to second trombone. Shocked because no written warnings had been provided as required by the German Musician’s Union, Ms. Conant offered to repeat her probationary year to resolve any problems with her playing.
Months later, she requested a meeting with the eccentric Romanian maestro, known for his extreme tempos and revelatory performances. "You know the problem," Mr. Celibidache allegedly told her. "We need a man for solo trombone." (Mr. Celibidache declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Ms. Conant filed suit to regain her solo-trombone status. The union agreed to pay her legal costs, and litigation began in the summer 1982. During the ensuing trials and appeals, Ms. Conant was required to solicit testimonials from conductors and colleagues and to undergo a test of her breathing capacity at a nearby lung clinic.
She was also forced to play seven demanding passages from the repertoire for a court-appointed trombone specialist. His report included the following observations: "She is a wind player with an outstandingly well-trained embouchure ... which gives her the optimal use of her breath volume.... her playing, even in the most difficult passages, is superior and easy.... she has enormously solid nerves."
Mr. Celibidache remained obdurate. Ms. Conant now believes that he didn’t want to hire her in the first place. The audition invitation sent to her by the orchestra was addressed to "Herr Abbie Conant," and the first of three rounds was held behind a screen. Despite its surprise that "trombone 16" was a woman, the orchestra committee voted to hire her. Mr. Celibidache, newly appointed himself, did not veto the decision. Ms. Conant theorizes that he did not want to risk offending the orchestra or jeopardize his ongoing negotiations with the city of Munich. Since then, she says, no screens have been used in the Philharmonic’s auditions.
In 1988, the judge rejected the orchestra’s appeal of an earlier court decision in Ms. Conant’s favor and ruled that she be reinstated as co-principal trombone. The orchestra complied but placed her in a lower pay category than any of her male colleagues holding principal positions in the wind section. That led to a second suit that was finally resolved in her favor in March (1993). She was awarded the back-pay differential owed her from 1988. (Under German law, economic sanctions in such cases are rare.)
By that time, however, Ms. Conant had secured a higher-paying position as trombone professor with a music school near Stuttgart and negotiated a severance contract with the orchestra. Asked to comment on the court decision, Norbert Thomas, manager of the Philharmonic, would only say: "We are happy that Ms. Conant is no longer with us."
As for the trombonist, after she initially won the final appeal she felt "extreme joy and a sense of vindication." But, she adds, "when you’ve fought for something for a long time, you build certain defenses...that you don’t even know are there. Now they’re starting to relax," she observes, pausing to glance at a 23 page, footnoted document she provided for this article. "I was proofreading this a few days ago, and I thought, all this actually happened to me. And I wept."