Progress to Celebrate: Women and the Minnesota Orchestra

Progress to Celebrate: Women and the Minnesota Orchestra

by Wendy Williams

As the Minnesota Orchestra prepares for our Guarantors concerts from November 7 to 9, featuring Nathalie Stutzmann as conductor and our concertmaster, Erin Keefe, as soloist, I have been reflecting on the progress and success of women in the world of orchestral music, particularly in the Minnesota Orchestra.

A glance at the musicians’ roster in Showcase magazine reveals that women are quickly approaching 50 percent of our ranks, including a significant number in key principal roles. This mirrors a trend in the rapidly increasing number of women seated and serving in orchestras all over the country, but opportunities for women have not always been so abundant.

During the first four decades of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, as the Minnesota Orchestra was then known, only one woman was a full-time musician: violinist Jenny Cullen, who joined in 1923. After leaving in 1932, she returned to the Orchestra during World War II along with four women invited by Music Director Dimitri Mitropoulos to hold regular positions, including flutist Julia Denecke.

Like many female instrumentalists seeking work in the 1930s, Denecke joined an all-woman orchestra in New York and found work playing flute in movies. After moving with her husband to Minneapolis, she was an early example of a working mother, raising two young children while playing with the Orchestra from 1942 to 1944. Like other women at the time in many industries, Cullen and Denecke’s positions ended soon after their male counterparts returned from the war. Although Cullen was deeply admired as a soloist and leader, she was never given the title of the Orchestra’s concertmaster. Jorja Fleezanis holds the honor of being the first woman to be awarded the title in 1989—a position that has now been filled by women for 30 consecutive years, currently by Erin Keefe.

In 1945, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra flutist Julia Denecke took a break from practicing her instrument to play with her two children, Eric and Henry. Photo by Ted Miller, courtesy of Hennepin County Library.

A seismic shift in positions being won by women in orchestra auditions occurred in the 1960s and 1970s with a simple change in audition practices. Writer Malcolm Gladwell describes this development in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking: “Musicians were identified not by name but by number. Screens were erected between the committee and the auditioner…As these new rules were put in place around the country, an extraordinary thing happened: orchestras began to hire women.” Auditions in the Minnesota Orchestra continue to utilize a screen for most rounds, and a carpet is laid on the floor of the stage so that the audition committee cannot distinguish the gender of a candidate by the sound of their shoes.

In addition to the increased gender balance onstage, women hold Orchestra staff leadership positions in a variety of roles, including our President and CEO, Michelle Miller Burns. Not the first woman to lead the Orchestra’s staff, Burns was preceded nearly a century earlier by Verna Golden Scott, who served as manager of the Orchestra from 1924 to 1938. In addition to moving the Orchestra’s concerts to Northrop Memorial Auditorium at the University of Minnesota, Mrs. Scott hired music directors Eugene Ormandy and Dimitri Mitropoulos. In John Sherman’s book Music and Maestros, a history of the Orchestra’s first half-century, she is recalled as a “manager-showman of pronounced and proven gifts,” a woman well ahead of her time.

Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra manager Verna Golden Scott with the music director she hired in 1931, Eugene Ormandy.

Though progress has been slow for women in the world of conducting, our current Orchestra season features three women guest conductors along with many offerings led by our staff conductors, Akiko Fujimoto and Sarah Hicks. Indeed, it is in the realm of possibilities that the next Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra could be a woman. The world of composition has long been tough for women to break into, and yet the Minnesota Orchestra’s annual Composer Institute has been championing female composers for 17 years. Additionally, our subscription concerts this season offer works by no less than five women composers.

Women serve on the many collaborative committees within our organization, and the Minnesota Orchestra Board of Directors has long been served by woman in leadership roles, notably the Orchestra’s first female Board Chair, Luella Goldberg, as well as past Chair Nicky Carpenter and our current and immediate past Chairs, Margee Bracken and Marilyn Carlson Nelson. The Women’s Association of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (WAMSO) was founded in 1949 by Julia Denecke and Rosalynd Pflaum as the volunteer arm of the organization, and is known as Friends of the Minnesota Orchestra, with both women and men now serving the group’s mission.

Through the development of screened auditions and the progress of many women, the orchestral world is now seen as a model of opportunity and fairness. Of course this world isn’t immune to the issues of harassment that we see across industries, and although unions have assured fairness in base compensation, females still fight for equity in over-scale compensation for solo and principal roles. What I have observed in my female colleagues through these challenges is great resourcefulness, resilience, and strength in accomplishing their musical goals.

Great progress has been made in the orchestra workplace for women raising children. There is a designated room backstage for nursing mothers at Orchestra Hall, and parents with small children are supported by the orchestra in bringing a care-giver on tours. When my two children were young, they had the great experience of traveling in Europe with me as I fulfilled my duties to performing with the Orchestra.

As I look back at the history of the Minnesota Orchestra and my own almost 40-year career in this field, I feel fortunate that I have never been denied an opportunity due to my gender. I have been treated as an equal with my male colleagues by our music directors and guest artists. From my female perspective, I see an empowering and supportive atmosphere for the work of women here, and it is progress to celebrate.


Wendy Williams joined the Minnesota Orchestra as second flute following a decade of experience with the Houston Ballet, Houston Grand Opera and Houston Symphony. She has twice been featured as a soloist in Minnesota Orchestra subscription concerts and has participated in numerous chamber music offerings. Wendy has played many seasons of Friends of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Kinder Konzerts and has also served on Orchestra committees such as Artistic Advisory, Health Insurance, Marketing and Symphony Ball in her 27 years with the Minnesota Orchestra.

Photo at top of essay by Courtney Perry.

Minnesota Orchestra Staff