Last Saturday’s programme involved a lot of work, importance and exposure for the timpanist. Mendelssohn’s ‘Trumpet’ overture features timp interjections as much as trumpet ones. Haydn’s ‘Drum Roll’ symphony speaks for itself, by nickname anyway. The concerto, a premiere, Philip Sawyers’s Concerto for Trumpet, Strings and Timpani, has this much in common with the similarly-titled Shostakovich Concerto for Piano, Strings and Trumpet that the part carefully labelled not a solo by being placed after the string ensemble in the title nonetheless has in fact a near second-soloist role.
It so happens that the principal (on this occasion, only) percussionist of the Surrey Mozart Players is a woman. This is still sufficiently unusual in orchestral circles, even in the 21st century and with the diversity of ensembles I encounter as a roving freelancer, that I commented on the fact to her as something positive and unusual.
Her response was interesting, amounting essentially to ‘well, for most women, the amount of carrying and heavy lifting would be difficult or downright impossible’ (she is no international rugby forward – I worked with two retired ones of those at Oxfam – but certainly tall and in reasonable proportion).
Now that makes more sense as an argument than almost any amount of spiel about gender stereotypes and glass ceilings – and I say that as someone who has produced a lot of that spiel about the music business. But it does beg some questions.
When I was in county youth orchestra, the tuba player was a girl; and I’m aware (through my sometime brass band playing and always brass band aficionado brother) that the brass band movement is increasingly taking on a female-dominated aspect, though it does tend to largely be from the upper (and more portable!) instruments downwards.
Harp is a notoriously unportable instrument – six foot tall, requiring to be slotted into some sort of trolley to be moved at all and then needing a largeish car to be transported more than a hundred yards or so. It’s probably the second most inconvenient instrument (after percussion) that is never usually provided by the venue / organiser (OK, unless you’re a background / restaurant pianist, in which case requirement to bring your own stage piano and PA is, yes, becoming normal … ). And yet almost every harpist I have known has been female, slight, petite and Pre-Raphaelite-looking (exceptions for one bloke who I only very belatedly discovered played harp as well as viola; and my university friend who has just become Mrs Harriet Hanson, who as a teenaged harpist was presumably female, slight and arguably Pre-Raphaelite-looking, but about 6′ tall).
Situations are never straightforward; practicalities of manual labour might explain a paucity of female percussionists, but there isn’t much difficulty involved in carrying a baton (conductor’s scores of Bruckner might be a different matter … ). No one thing explains everything, but people with my kind of mind need reminding every once in a while to see the trees as well as the wood.