Not so long ago, the word "maestro" conjured images of imposing father figures, baton-wielding men who whipped orchestras into performing beautiful music. That image, at least in Bemidji, is changing. For the first time in its nearly 70-year history, the Bemidji Symphony Orchestra is being conducted by a woman.
Texas-born Beverly Everett leads some 70 volunteer musicians ranging in age from 16 to more than 80. Everett says her goal is to raise the performance level and stature of the orchestra to make it a stronger regional presence.
"I feel lucky to be where I am and to have an orchestra that is really on the upscale," Everett said.
Everett is tall and slender behind the podium. She has a commanding presence. Her gold-laced satin, Chinese-collared jacket brings a sense of exotic elegance to an audience long used to black ties and tuxedos. Everett was hired two years ago to usher the Bemidji Symphony Orchestra through a transition. Since the late 1930s, the group has been under the umbrella of Bemidji State University. Past conductors were mostly professors from BSU's music department. The orchestra is now an independent, non-profit organization. Since Everett arrived, ticket sales have more than doubled.
Everett considers herself a pioneer, of sorts. She has a doctoral degree in conducting from the University of Iowa. She's the first woman to earn that degree in the school's 100-year history. Everett says she's still one of few women conductors in the country.
"It's a sensitive subject, and it's not something people really want to say," said Everett. "But to me it's pretty obvious. I compare it to, there were times when even in this country there were not females, or not as may females, in the orchestras."
Everett says that changed when unions demanded that orchestras hold behind-the-curtain auditions. That way, hiring panels couldn't see the gender of the musicians. That boosted the ranks of women musicians. But today, women conductors are few. Nationally, less than 10 percent of conductors of adult orchestras are women.
Ann Hayes is violinist in the orchestra. She was chairwoman of the group's board of directors when Everett was hired. Hayes says gender was not on the board's radar when they were interviewing candidates. Hayes says the orchestra's audience has grown because Everett is an ambitious and effective leader.
"That should be a key factor in your search for realizing that this has to be a figurehead position," said Hayes. "Somebody has to make a splash. And that's something that she's done. Whether she was female or male, it didn't matter to us at the time that we did the search."
According to Everett, male domination in the world of conductors is based on outdated stereotypes of what it means to be a leader.
"When a man has a strong personality he's a great leader," said Everett. "And when a woman has a strong personality she's, you know, a word that I won't say on the radio. And so it's difficult. I've seen a lot of women get a lot of great opportunities. But I also know of orchestras who blatantly will not include a woman in their search."
Everett is determined to change that. Last spring, she and a group of other women conductors from across the country met at a conference in Los Angeles and formed a coalition. They've committed to visiting school children, creating mentoring programs and networking to encourage more female maestros. Their goal is to see a 16 percent increase in women conductors over the next five years.
"I think it's a doable goal," Everett said. "Every time I get a notification that someone has filled a position, at least 50/50 it seems that they're being filled by women right now."
Experts agree the tide is turning. Jerry Luckhardt is an associate professor of conducting at the University of Minnesota. Luckhardt says there are some trail blazing women out there who are becoming role models. Most notable is Marin Alsop, who next year will become the first woman to head a major U.S. orchestra when she becomes music director of the Baltimore Symphony.
Closer to home, the Minnesota Orchestra has appointed a woman to the position of assistant conductor. Sarah Hatsuko Hicks becomes the first woman to hold a titled conductor position in the orchestra's century-long history. She started the job Sept. 1.
It's going to take some time simply for some of these younger women conductors to make their way through the rigors of the profession.Jerry Luckhardt
Luckhardt says breaking into the field of conducting is difficult for both men and women.
"It is an extraordinarily competitive world," he said. "There are many more NFL positions than there are conducting positions. So it's an extremely competitive world. There is only one conductor. And the kinds of skills that a conductor has to possess are extraordinary."
Luckhardt says he's encouraged by a rise in the number of female graduate students pursuing conducting careers. He says the gender mix at the University of Minnesota's program is fairly equal.
"I think that demographic is going to change in the next five, 10 years," said Luckhardt. "It's going to take some time simply for some of these younger women conductors to make their way through the rigors of the profession."
Everett probably won't be in Bemidji forever. She says her career ambitions will hopefully lead her to a large, professional orchestra someday. Until then, Everett says she's happy to work with a volunteer community orchestra whose members are no less passionate about their love of classical music.
"If we play a Beethoven symphony, what our musicians see on the page is the same thing that the Minnesota Orchestra would see or any other orchestra would see," said Everett. "We certainly don't sound at their level, but if we reach our highest expectations, we're going to be able to play that with a lot of excellence and a lot of dignity. And I think that's real exciting to pull that off in a community."
Auditions for the Bemidji Symphony Orchestra begin in a few weeks. The first concert of the season is set for Oct. 15.