The True Story of a Symphony Player and the Time She Broke Through the Glass Ceiling


Evangeline Benedetti, cellist in the New York Philharmonic beginning in 1967 and certified teacher of the Alexander technique since 1991, combines her traditional musical training and experience with the principles of the Alexander technique of body movement and control in her approach to playing and teaching. She has performed in chamber music concerts with artists such as Efim Bronfman and Vladimir Feltsman, pianists; Stanley Drucker, clarinetist; and Philip Smith, trumpet soloist.

Benedetti has given master classes in San Diego, Tokyo, Kyoto, and Shanghai and at the Juilliard and Mannes Schools of Music in Manhattan. She recently taught a master class in Pyongyang, North Korea. She retired in 2011 after forty-four years playing in the New York Philharmonic.

Gena Raps, a concert pianist and recording artist who serves as music editor forPersimmon Tree, conducted the interview. Her conversation with composer Elinor Armer and writer Ursula LeGuin appeared in the Fall 2010 issue.

In the interview, you will have the opportunity to hear Benedetti play Shostakovich and watch her teach a student to play Bach.

Gena Raps (GR): Did you choose to play the cello, or did your parents choose the cello for you?
Evangeline Benedetti (EB): My father chose the cello. I didn’t even know what a cello was. When I went for my first lesson, I saw a cello for the first time.
GR: How did you come to study in New York?
EB: After a year at the University of Texas, I realized that I needed to come to New York. The Bach Aria Group came to Austin, Texas, that year to play a concert and I met Bernard Greenhouse, who heard me play and offered me a full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music.
GR: That’s a big moment. Were you nervous, coming from Texas to the class of the distinguished teacher, Bernie Greenhouse?
EB: That was quite an adventure. Figuring out how to live here was probably the scariest part. Manhattan School didn’t have housing to offer. I was so eager to study; I just wanted to do well and work hard.
GR: How much were you practicing in those days?
EB: His advice was “You must practice three hours every day.” In addition you would play chamber music or in the orchestra. But you had to have your own time of at least three hours.
GR: Were you encouraged to try out for the New York Philharmonic?
EB: The only encouragement came from my former husband, who saw an ad in Allegro, the union magazine, for a cello opening in the Philharmonic. At the time, we were both teaching in Muncie, Indiana, at Ball State University. I remember his quip, “Well, I think you’re worth a round-trip plane fare to New York to try to get this job.” I was given an audition time and came to New York the night before the audition. Greenhouse had cocktails every evening at 6:00 and we were always welcome. An encouraging or not-so-encouraging person said, “Why did you come to New York to audition? You’ll never get in. They won’t take a woman.” Those were his parting words the night before my audition.
GR: How did you prepare for the audition?
EB: Now, when you audition for the Philharmonic, they give you a list of pieces with the specific measure numbers that you will be asked to play and a solo work. When I auditioned, there was no list. You were just supposed to know. Leonard Rose had published three books of orchestral excerpts and I prepared every one of them from all three books.
GR: How long did that take?
EB: I’m a good sight-reader, so I could read them off pretty well, and I just started going through them. The other thing that was helpful was that my then husband is a trumpet player. When you study trumpet, you study the orchestral excerpts, more than you do as a string player. String players just studied concertos and sonatas. Now, conservatories have classes of orchestral excerpts. Then, orchestra was something you auditioned for when you couldn’t make a living another way. As a classical trumpet player, that’s about the only place you can go with your craft and art. You would learn the excerpts in order to be prepared for the audition. So he knew all the tempi and the styles and he coached me.
GR: You hadn’t had much orchestral experience up to that point?
EB: No; I had played in the American Symphony Orchestra when it was first beginning, and —
GR: Leopold Stokowski conducted?
EB: Yes. Manhattan School had a good orchestra then, with a conductor who’s not well known — a masterful conductor, Jonel Perlea — who worked the orchestra unbelievably hard. So I’d had that discipline, and then auditioned for Stokowski and was accepted.
GR: Did you feel well prepared for the New York Philharmonic audition?
EB: How can you be well prepared to go in and audition for the New York Philharmonic, when you’ve maybe played… how many concerts would that be in my life at that time of orchestral music? Not many. You just go and do your thing.
GR: Were you nervous?
EB: Of course. When I went to the audition, my cello fell over and broke.
GR: That’s a nightmare. It’s as if you give a concert and you dream you’re going to fall onstage. For your cello to fall and to break on stage is worse.
EB: My cello fell over when I took my coat off. The room was heavily carpeted; I think my coat must have brushed the case. I had a cello case that was purported to be able to be dropped from a two-story window without damaging the instrument. I said, okay, this fancy case will take care of my cello, because I didn’t hear any noise when the cello fell. Then I opened it up, and the neck was severed from the instrument. I had an out-of-body experience at that point… I was looking down from quite far above at this person from Texas, most recently Muncie, Indiana, auditioning for the New York Philharmonic, and she breaks her cello? And she’s a woman? What’s wrong with this picture? So, I started laughing. Both the members and the administration of the Philharmonic were extremely concerned, and Nathan Stutch, the associate principal cellist, went home to get a cello. They gave me only 45 minutes to get used to his cello and then I played my audition. I think in that situation you can’t do anything about it… may as well just play. When the audition was over, I went to the violin shop of Jacques Français — who was an extraordinarily good-looking man — who saw me crying in his associate’s office. He put his big, beautiful hands around my face and said, “What’s the matter, sweetie?”
GR: With a French accent.
EB: Yes, exactly. I start bawling and crying my eyes out, telling him what happened. He said, “Don’t worry, we will take care of you.” Which they did, royally. They gave me a wonderful old Italian instrument with a glorious sound, much, much better than my cello. Furthermore, they spent the afternoon putting on new strings, adjusting the bridge —
GR: How thrilling. It’s like a Cinderella story, “Here’s the gown, you can have these shoes”—
EB: I didn’t think of it that way, but it was.
GR: “Oh, you don’t have a coach, sveetie, to go to the ball?”
EB: They gave me all that. Then I really got some encouragement. I was practicing and trying the cello and playing my concerto and the excerpts, to see if the cello was suited to me. The great violinist Mischa Elman was in the next room listening. Jacques came in and said, “I think you should know this. Mr. Elman asked, `Who was that playing? He or she is a very good cellist.’” That was encouraging.
GR: Where did you get your dedication — to put in that kind of time?
EB: You know, when you’re passionate about something, you simply do it. It becomes a driving force; it drives you. When you love music, you become a disciple of music; by that, I really mean a disciple in the sense of following that path, no matter where it leads.
GR: Whenever I see old movie clips of orchestras, there are practically no women. Maybe you can spot one woman harpist, or a lone violinist. What are the differences between the makeup of the New York Philharmonic then and now? How many women applied then, and how many women are applying now?
EB: I don’t think many women did apply; many apply now. I don’t remember another woman at my audition. The year before, Orin O’Brien, the bassist, was accepted as the first woman to get tenure in the orchestra. There had been a harpist a number of years before, who was not given tenure. I believe that Orin auditioned three times, and this last time there were two openings. They couldn’t say there was only one man who was better, although she had probably been the premier player at the other auditions. Bernstein hired her, and the next year hired me. It became known that a woman could get in. Shortly after, other women auditioned and got into the orchestra, one a year for the first five or six years and then more kept coming. And now there’s possibly more than fifty percent.
GR: How many people try out for the Philharmonic for one opening?
EB: I think a very low number would be a hundred to one. It seems like there have been a few times where there have only been eighty applicants for the single job. In cases of instruments that are more popular, there can be more. Hundreds, for a trumpet audition.
GR: Have women influenced the sound, the structure or the politics of the repertoire?
EB: A good sound is a good sound. I don’t think the sound per se is modified by gender.
GR: I would agree with you. People are always asking if there’s a difference between the way a man plays and the way a woman plays.
EB: I think as far as the basic sound that would be the case. But when it comes to the interpretation of music, we bring to it who we are. So there’s going to be a different concept of joy, for instance, for a man than a woman.
GR: You believe that?
EB: Women have children, and men don’t. I’m sure that there’s some quality that’s slightly different, coming from those two perspectives. What you bring to your artistry, informed by your life, has a great deal to do with the interpretation.
GR: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Do you attribute the broadening of the composition of the orchestra to the Civil Rights Act? When did you join?
EB: I joined in ’67.
GR: Orin was accepted in ’66, and you in ’67… after the Act.
EB: That act certainly played a big role although I personally didn’t take part in the goings-on. There were two men of color who challenged the hiring of myself and a bassist who got in the same year. Both of us are Caucasian. They claimed that they were not hired based on color. It became a major test for the Philharmonic in its hiring practices. Bernstein had to defend his selection of players and testified in court for several days. Even though there are committees of players within the orchestra advising the conductor, the sole responsibility of hiring and firing is with the conductor. It’s not a…
GR: …democratic system.
EB: It depends on the conductor, how much he values what the committee has to say. It’s arbitrary. At the end of the day it was determined that the Philharmonic had a procedure in place, and hired based on musical and instrumental excellence.
GR: The African Americans lost the suit.
EB: Yes. But it was also found that the system of hiring substitutes and extra players for the orchestra was not as fair as it should be. Most of the players hired were students of the principal players of the orchestra. It was determined that that practice was a form of nepotism, and the lists were remade; they had to put people of color first, if they were qualified. As a result new people come in as substitutes. During the time I was in the orchestra, there were only two men of color, a violinist, Sanford Allen, and a French hornist, Jerry Ashby. There have been many, many more women. The other procedure initiated was that the first rounds of auditions are always done behind a screen, so you do not know gender or color; you are simply listening to the person. In our day, women often wore high heels. Now there’s a stipulation to use a carpet and instructions not to say a word. In my case, everything was out in the open. Now you cannot even answer, “Is the stand in the right place?”
GR: Were there other changes?
EB: Yes. Because of the short-sightedness of the architects and planners of Avery Fisher Hall, the first building on the campus, now called Lincoln Center, did not have women’s dressing rooms.
GR: What year was Avery Fisher built?
EB: 1962.
GR: And ’64 was the Civil Rights Act, and ’67 you were admitted.
EB: Orin in ’66. So, when Orin was there — she plays double bass, which is a very large instrument — she had to take her bass out of her locker and then slip into her locker to change clothes.
GR: I can just imagine Orin, who is tall, changing into concert clothes in a double bass locker!
EB: I didn’t have a big enough locker; a cello’s smaller. They put two metal gym lockers in one of the public bathrooms. We were changing clothes in the public rest rooms. When a few more women got in the orchestra, they added locker rooms for women.
GR: How did the old-timers in the orchestra treat you? Do you think they resented you?
EB: Some did and some didn’t. I’ve realized in retrospect that certain cellists were asked to play chamber music all the time, and I wasn’t. Certain people were on the list to do outside work, and I didn’t get on it. Things were not overt; looking back on the experience, I think it had a lot to do with gender and comfort level of whom you like to be with. The men who had been only with the men for all these years probably wanted to still be just with men. There were a few wonderful men who took me under their wing. I was only 25 when I got in the orchestra. They were accepting, and we’re still great friends to this day.
GR: In the late ‘90s the Vienna Philharmonic voted on admitting women. The vote came back in favor of exclusion. It was a huge scandal, even made The New York Times. The Vienna Philharmonic’s press release read, “There is no ban on women musicians playing here but the Vienna Philharmonic is by tradition an all-male orchestra. Our profession makes family life extremely difficult, so for a woman it’s almost impossible.” What do you think were the real objections to having women in the orchestra?
EB: I don’t know about the Vienna Philharmonic, but I know about our orchestra. There was a time, after I was in the orchestra, that many of the men were married to women who were equally accomplished musicians, and certainly as good as anyone for the sub list. Some of them even auditioned for Bernstein. We had a meeting about whether or not to take women on our tours, and it was voted down by the men.
GR: Why?
EB: I believe they felt that touring was their private time. It was a social thing; if anything was going to be done that was outside of the accepted moral norms, the women would be more likely to tell the wives.
GR: Dangerous Liaisons kind of situation, and they wanted it kept hush-hush.
EB: Exactly, they felt their male colleagues would keep it quiet, because they understood each other.
GR: The boys’ club.
EB: One man stood up at a meeting and said; “Taking my wife to Japan is like taking a sandwich to a banquet.”
GR: Would you characterize some instruments as either male-friendly or female-friendly? For example, it’s rare to have a woman horn player.
EB: The brass section and the percussion section have been the two that have had the fewest women. As far as size of the instrument goes, there are just as many women cellists and bass players now as there are men. When young people used to start studying instruments, girls played the flute and clarinet; boys played the trombone and trumpet. This is less true now. I do think those stereotypes are broken down.
GR: Let’s talk about conductors, 99 percent of whom are men. Why do they still rule the podium?
EB: Well, Gena, I don’t know. It’s politics, it’s what we’re used to, it’s the glass ceiling.
GR: It’s still in place.
EB: Or the glass ceiling for top executives hasn’t been broken through. The position of a conductor is authoritarian in principle.
GR: And so the patriarchal role seems de rigueur for anyone in that position. Do the women you’ve played under handle the power differently?
EB: When they’re fully developed and secure within themselves, they are not different. It’s just a person doing their job on the podium. There are some women who… are trying to say, “Look at me, I’m a woman, and I’m conducting.” But those who simply come in to do their job and know themselves, do fantastically with the orchestra.
GR: The New York Philharmonic is such a great orchestra, the players and the conductor are capable of working collegially. You can see in the body movement of certain conductors the sense of self importance and the permission they give themselves to be absolute rulers.
EB: Everyone brings to their job who they are. Although the Philharmonic has a distinctive sound of its own, it is able to reflect the musical ideas and even mold its sound to the concept of the conductor.
GR: Often a guest conductor has only one or two rehearsals with the orchestra. There are musical ideas as well as the more subtle qualities such as nuance and temperament that each conductor brings to the interpretation and performance. How is the vision of the conductor communicated to the orchestra?
EB: In my opinion, what I think happens between the orchestra and the conductor is that we become one mind when we play; one musical mind. When that happens, then it is a glorious experience, especially if your mind is a like manner as the conductor’s. Even if you don’t have a complete meeting of the minds, it’s your job as a player to match the conductor’s concept in this hierarchical system that the conductor has within the orchestra. For instance, if you have a youthful energetic person conducting, you will respond with like energy. If you have a person who is gentle, sensitive, thoughtful, creative, you hook into that. For me, the supreme example of that was Leonard Bernstein, who had the exuberance, as well as creative concepts and finesse.
GR: I was going to ask you who are your favorite conductors.
EB: Lenny seemed to respect each individual as an artist. Even though he was a very powerful leader, and gave clear directions about what his concept was, you had room to express yourself in an individualistic way, to find your way to match what he wanted. With a dictator-type conductor, he insists that you play exactly as he wants, which means your own artistic input has to be put aside.
GR: Did you ever want to be a soloist, or did you see yourself as an orchestral player?
EB: I wanted to be a soloist and a chamber music player. As I said earlier, the attitude at the time towards orchestral playing was that was what you did to make a living. I think people underestimated it then, and of course it’s changed. Musicians work hard to get in the orchestra, and it becomes their focus rather than a secondary goal. Many musicians who have not played in a great symphony orchestra don’t understand that there is nothing like it. The sonorities and the scope of the music is — you know, in chamber music, it’s gorgeous music, and big ideas. But the biggest ideas seem to be expressed through the orchestra, with that huge palette. It’s a very rewarding place to be.
GR: Were solo opportunities open to you?
EB: I did some solo work.
[Press the “play” button to listen to Benedetti performing Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata in D minor, Op.40, II, Allegro.]

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GR: It’s difficult to have a solo career. Certainly in my generation women were supposed to stay home and take care of the kids. Men could do what they wanted. If you were going to be a soloist, you had to break that mold completely. Thank goodness, the women’s movement has educated many men to become nurturing fathers, freeing up women to pursue careers.
GR: I imagine that touring as a single mom with two young children, which you became early on in your career in the Philharmonic, must have been difficult.
EB: Fortunately, when I toured my sister was willing to step up to the plate and care for the children. I’m indebted to her to this day. The tours were conveniently arranged then, always during the month of August. We would come back from a tour in early September, and be home one day before starting the season. Touring was mostly while the children were out of school. Now the orchestra tours a lot, and it’s got to be a hardship for families. There are two or three different tours a year; we go to Vail, for instance, in the summer for a week or more, and then at least two tours during the season. It’s changed considerably.
GR: What is the usual maternity leave?
EB: Since I was the first woman member in the orchestra to have a baby, I felt a great deal of trepidation. If I took too long to be out, they would be hesitant to hire other women.
GR: You had to set the standard.
EB: I played, with each child, up until two weeks before the baby came and returned six weeks after. I believe the average leave is three months now. The men are given two weeks’ leave.
GR: What does it feel like to play in a top orchestra like the New York Philharmonic?
EB: When I first got into the orchestra, we didn’t have stereo sound systems, only monaural. In high school, I had a Bozak speaker; it was a big speaker three to four feet high with woofers and tweeters. A glorious sound came booming out, and the whole floor vibrated. To this day it was one of the best electronic sound experiences of my life. When I got in the orchestra, I felt like I was sitting in the Bozak speaker. I was intimately connected with that sound and I was participating in it. I still feel the same way. It’s a unique experience to be in the middle of the orchestra, and, for me, a glorious one. The other thing about being in an orchestra like the Philharmonic is to hear colleagues play so fantastically well, day after day after day, no matter what the circumstance of their personal lives. That’s been astonishing. You come in and someone plays gloriously, and you speak to them at intermission, “I had a flat tire coming to work. The dog ran away before I got to the car” and blah, blah, blah. You know, they’re harried. Then they sit down and play like nothing happened. The everyday excellence has been one of the joys of the Philharmonic.
GR: I think that’s what it means to be an artist: to have the experience of awe on a regular basis. You’ve traveled the world with the orchestra and been seen in televised concerts internationally. What was your most moving concert and tour?
EB: The most moving tour had to be to North Korea. It’s amazing to play in a country like that, and to know that you’re bringing something very special to people who are totally deprived of great music. There was personal contact as well as the sharing of musical ideas. One of the highlights was giving a master class to a couple of cellists; they can’t get what we know any other way. I feel that was one of my greatest contributions; you never know where an idea goes; and hopefully the few seeds I left with them are flourishing. Another highlight: My first daughter, Serena, is an opera singer, and she and I were able to share the stage in a production of Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen. During my last week of the subscription series, she gave her debut with the Philharmonic. That was an exciting time.
GR: Playing a musical instrument requires enormous small-muscle control. How does age affect your relationship with the cello?
EB: Well, how does age affect a runner? Similarly. Physicality is physicality.
GR: You’ve had a successful career. What’s next?
EB: Teaching. I’m a teacher of the Alexander Technique, a body awareness discipline used by actors and musicians, in addition to being a cellist, and I’ve been able to combine these studies into one. I teach in a way that’s broader based than simply teaching the instrument and music. I’m writing a book and hope to express what that’s all about; it’s difficult to talk about what goes on inside you when you do something.
[Press the “play” button to watch Benedetti teach a student to play Bach.]

In addition I have two wonderful grandchildren and my two daughters. I like to travel, swim and exercise, and have good friends.
GR: What do you play for pleasure nowadays?
EB: Bach suites. They’ve always been my go-to. They’re my primary pleasure in playing.
Gena Raps’ performances and recordings, particularly of Dvorak and Mozart for Arabesque and Naxos, have received international praise, “building with quiet majesty” (NY Times). Raps recorded the complete Mozart 4-hand repertoire with Artur Balsam and Mozart at 8 with Carol Wincenc for Naxos. She created and produced the CDs Play Bach! and Mother Goose and More with Julie Andrews and Peter Schickele. She was featured on the PBS series, “Women Alive!” Raps’ new recording of the late piano works of Brahms will be released this fall. She has toured internationally and has taught at the Juilliard School, Sarah Lawrence College and is on the faculty of the Mannes College of Music.

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One thought on “The True Story of a Symphony Player and the Time She Broke Through the Glass Ceiling

  1. john lopes

    van do you remember playing a concert for a ladies music club in san antonio on a saturday morning
    one week end in 1960 or 1961 ? do you remember who went with you? that was a long time ago,
    kept up with you a little bit’ i knew then that you would reach the top and you did’

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