Women Pioneers of the NY Phil

Meet the women who have been breaking the glass ceiling since 1842

New York Philharmonic

Women on Broadway (1868-02) by William S. JewettOriginal Source: New York Public Library

The Audience, Thanks to “The Matinee” (in 1842)

In 1842 the New York Philharmonic created a class of audience membership that provided access to select (daytime) rehearsals, inadvertently making it possible for women to attend events without a male escort. Subscriptions for “The Matinee,” as these events became known, boomed, though, as The New York Times noted 25 years later, it took some years for other impresarios to catch on to its success.

Maud Powell (circa 1910)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Maud Powell (in 1885)

Maud Powell (1867–1920) was one of the first American violinists to achieve international success. This was no small feat in the then male-dominated profession. At age 18 she became the first woman instrumentalist to appear with the Philharmonic as a concerto soloist, performing the Bruch First Violin Concerto. She would return to the Orchestra 25 times, including under the direction of a much-impressed Gustav Mahler.

Amy Beach (1901-04-15) by Elmer ChickeringOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Beach (1892), or was it Chaminade (1891)?

For many years the Philharmonic identified American Amy Beach (1867–1944) as the first woman composer whose music it performed. Newly famous from a success at Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, the New York Symphony (a Philharmonic forebear) programmed a scene and aria from her Mary Stuart in 1892.

Cécile Chaminade (1890) by Londres MendelssohnOriginal Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

However, that honor really belongs to the French composer / pianist Cécile Chaminade (1857–1944). The soloist, listed as "Mrs. Walter C. Wyman," had suggested a set of four songs, including one by Chaminade, which the New York Symphony performed in 1891. Perhaps they didn’t realize she was a woman?

Mary Seney Sheldon (1881) by George Peter Alexander HealyOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Mary Seney Sheldon (in 1908)

In 1908 the musician-run New York Philharmonic appointed Mary Seney Sheldon (1863–1913), daughter of a well-known philanthropist, as the first woman to serve as President. She brought new life to the institution by guaranteeing musicians’ salaries, establishing a group of Guarantors (today’s Board of Directors), engaging Gustav Mahler as Music Director, and expanding the number of concerts per season from 18 to 46.

Stephanie Goldner (1930-02-11)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Stephanie Goldner (in 1922)

In 1922 a 26-year-old harpist named Stephanie Goldner (1891–1962) became the first woman to join the Philharmonic, and would remain the only woman in the Orchestra during her ten-year tenure. She resigned in 1932 when she stopped performing and moved to Minnesota when her husband, Eugene Ormandy (now remembered for his tenure at The Philadelphia Orchestra), became music director of the Minneapolis Orchestra.

Stephanie Goldner (far right) with fellow New York Philharmonic principal musicians

Marian Anderson (1975-06)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Marian Anderson (in 1925)

The Philharmonic played a little-known but important role in the career of Marian Anderson (1897–1993). The American contralto, civil rights activist, and later recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal was at the beginning of her career when she made her Philharmonic debut at Lewisohn Stadium in 1925.

Marian Anderson (1925)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

The performance was part of her prize for winning a vocal competition sponsored by the Stadium Committee. This marked the first time a Black woman appeared with the Orchestra, and long preceded her appearing as the first Black soloist to perform at The Metropolitan Opera, in 1955.

A rare portrait of Marian Anderson in her youth, from the program from her Philharmonic debut

Antonia Brico (circa 1930s)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Antonia Brico (in 1938)

Antonia Brico (1902–89) was the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic, at Lewisohn Stadium in July 1938. The Dutch-born musician grew up in California, where she was the first woman to graduate from the conducting program at University of California, Berkeley. In 1933 she moved to New York, where she presided over the Musicians’ and the Women’s Symphony Orchestras. In 1948 she founded what would become the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, which she led until her retirement in 1985.

Nadia Boulanger (1962-02-15)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Nadia Boulanger (in 1962)

Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979) was the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic in subscription concerts in 1962. The Paris-born musician is best remembered as a notable composition pedagogue. Her students at the American School at Fontainebleau included Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Walter Piston, and Philip Glass.

Boulanger backstage after her Philharmonic subscription debut with her students (l. to r.) Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Walter Piston

Nadia Boulanger conducts the New York Philharmonic (1962-02)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Fauré Requiem "In Paradisum." Nadia Boulanger conducting the New York Philharmonic and The Choral Art Society.
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Having already made her Philharmonic solo debut as an organist in 1925, and conducting “special concerts” in 1939 and 1941, Boulanger made her subscription conducting debut, February 15–18, 1962, leading her teacher Fauré’s Requiem on a program that also included psalm settings by her sister, Lili Boulanger.

Philippa Schuyler (1959) by Fred PalumboOriginal Source: Library of Congress

Philippa Schuyler (in 1946)

The first Black woman to be an instrumental soloist with the Philharmonic was Philippa Schuyler (1931–67), who made her debut at Lewisohn Stadium in 1946 at age 14. The Philharmonic discovered the prodigy pianist / composer (and, later, journalist) through her submissions to the Young People’s Concert notebook contest. While most young attendees simply answered a few music questions, hers included her original compositions, two of which were performed by the Orchestra.

Orin O'Brien and Leonard Bernstein (October 1989) by Ron BarnellNew York Philharmonic

Orin O’Brien (in 1966)

Double bassist Orin O’Brien auditioned for the Philharmonic and joined the Orchestra in 1966, during the Bernstein era. Her arrival opened doors to the many women who would follow: today women make up about half of the Orchestra’s ranks.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (circa 1988) by Monroe WarshawOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (in 1988)

The first woman to whom the Philharmonic extended a commission was Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. The resulting work, Symbolon, received its World Premiere, led by Music Director Zubin Mehta, in Leningrad in 1988, the first time a major American symphonic work was unveiled in the Soviet Union. In the review of the New York performances that June, The New York Times called her work “a forceful, listenable piece, with rich, transparently orchestrated sonorities.”

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich in Leningrad with (l. to r.) Philharmonic Music Director Zubin Mehta and Soviet conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky

Deborah Borda (1994-09-21)Original Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Deborah Borda (in 1991)

When Deborah Borda became the Philharmonic’s Executive Director in 1991, she was the first woman to preside over the administration of a major American symphony orchestra. After a 17-year stint in Los Angeles, she returned to New York in 2017, in the post now titled President and CEO. Throughout her career she has been at the forefront of innovation, most recently responding to COVID-19 by launching new digital streaming series and NY Phil Bandwagon, “pull-up” concerts presenting Philharmonic musicians alongside a customized pickup truck across New York City.

Deborah Borda with her Philharmonic predecessor Albert K. Webster (far left) and Carlos Moseley, the Board Chairman who had appointed her

Tania León (1997) by Peter SchaafOriginal Source: New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Tania León (in 1997)

Cuban-born composer / conductor Tania León served as the Philharmonic’s New Music Advisor, 1993–96. Her Philharmonic conducting debut in 1997 marked the first time the Philharmonic was conducted by a Black woman. She is one of the 19 women commissioned through Project 19, and following the World Premiere of her Stride, she was appointed to its Board of Directors.

Project 19 composers (2019) by Chris LeeNew York Philharmonic

Project 19 (in 2020)

In February 2020 the Philharmonic launched Project 19, a multi-season initiative celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment by commissioning and premiering works by 19 women composers — the largest women-only commissioning initiative in history. On November 9–12, 2020, the Philharmonic continues the celebration with online activities. For more information visit nyphil.org/project19.

Project 19 composers Jessie Montgomery, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Joan Tower, Angélica Negrón, Joan La Barbara, Caroline Shaw, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Tania León, Ellen Reid, Caroline Mallonee, and Paola Prestini with Philharmonic President & CEO Deborah Borda; the other composers are Melinda Wagner, Nina C. Young, Unsuk Chin, Nicole Lizée, Olga Neuwirth, Maria Schneider, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and Du Yun

Credits: Story

Created by the New York Philharmonic Archives
Gabryel Smith, Director, Archives & Exhibitions; Bill Levay, Digital Archivist; Monica Parks, Director of Publications

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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