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The "First" Trap

The Lexington Philharmonic’s recent appointment of Mélisse Brunet as Music Director has been shared with the additional context that Brunet is the first woman to hold the position in the organization’s 61 year history. 

Of note is that she’s being called their first female “conductor” in that many years, which isn’t precisely accurate. She may be the first to be hired in the Music Director role, but the orchestra has been conducted by women in guest capacity many times over, and Kelly Corcoran served as Artistic Advisor to the ensemble as their search extended through the pandemic. Brunet is a well-loved conductor, and her rapport with the orchestra seems to be remarkable. Her time as Music Director is something to look forward to. But having marketing around the appointment highlight Brunet’s place as “first” is no surprise - a “first” sounds like an achievement.

When Marin Alsop left her position directing the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2021, none of the League of American Orchestras’ Tier 1 orchestras (25 in total) had a woman at the helm. But this gives an incomplete picture of the successes found nationwide by women in the role of conductor at the time. 

Just before the New York Times feted Alsop’s Baltimore tenure, the Buffalo Philharmonic took home its latest Grammy award for a recording led by JoAnn Falletta to little national fanfare - a reflection of the fact that audiences and critics outside of classical music don’t think it’s remarkable that a woman be in the lead. The rest of the world is used to it.

It’s also an indication that what the orchestra industry itself calls “major” does not necessarily align with public acclaim.

In the five decades that she’s been active Falletta has also been a “first.” Her 1998 appointment to the helm of the Buffalo Philharmonic designated her as the “first woman to conduct a major US orchestra.” In this role she has taken the orchestra from financial precarity to success. The 2020 Grammy award was Falletta's fourth. She was also the first woman to be appointed principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra in Northern Ireland.

Alsop’s replacement was just announced by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra - the 29 year old Jonathon Heyward, whose appointment was immediately noted as the first person of color to lead the orchestra in its century-long existence.

But it feels like a course correction, as having a Black Music Director is a reflection of 60% of Baltimore’s population. The orchestra shared that Heyward was a unanimous choice by the search committee. Louisville audiences may know him from his April visit to Whitney Hall, conducting Scheherazade

Not all “firsts” enjoy the designation, and some have begun to push back. Tenor Russell Thomas publicly called his "first" status in a recent performance in Verdi's Otello “no cause for celebration.” Thomas is the first Black tenor to be cast in the role at the Royal Opera House - a role for which the New York Metropolitan Opera only stopped using blackface makeup in 2015. Thomas noted that while he was the first Black man to be cast as Otello in the venue, many who could have succeeded in the role came before him and weren’t considered.

Meanwhile classical music is still celebrating “firsts.” We as an industry still mark our progress with excitement rather than sighs of relief and perhaps even questioning not just if it will lead to more, but how to help it lead to more. Conductors and performers all over the classical music profession who are not men and who are not white are often called trailblazers - which they have been, over and over again. Despite their ever-growing numbers and individual successes, the descriptor remains completely true. A trail only stays “blazed” as long as others are able to continue to travel it.

If a trail had been cleared, there would be more ethnic diversity among performers in our orchestras, and at least 10 of the 25 Tier 1 orchestras would have women at the helm. And maybe some with gender identities outside the binary. If the road of success was equally smooth and open to all, then Yuja Wang’s skirt length would be a far less frequent topic in reviews of her performances. If a course was open or even existed at all, then an expectant Lidiya Yankovskaya would not have been told “nobody wants to see a pregnant conductor.”

If anyone except those who have to travel the path were trying to pave the way, Angel Blue wouldn’t have withdrawn from an engagement at a Verona Arena where the racist practice of blackface makeup was not only allowed, but supported. And Blue certainly would not have stood alone in that moment, as she had to do.

Of course a “first” is a step forward, but it’s still exactly one step. It marks the beginning of an organization’s work, not the end of it. Because “first” is also “only.” It’s a place where we tend to send our most talented and hard-working musicians. And it’s the place where so often they are abandoned. As the first. The only.

Read more: Composer Florence Price was the first Black woman whose music was performed by a major US orchestra.

And sooner than classical music might imagine, the world will have moved far enough forward that the claim of “first” in a hire is no longer a badge of honor, but rather a trap that leads to the question: “What took you so long?”

Colleen is the Music Director and host for LPM Classical. Email Colleen at colleen@lpm.org.