For decades, the New York Philharmonic, the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States, was an all-male bastion. Then, in 1966, came Orin O’Brien, who played the double bass.
Often described as the first woman to become a permanent member of the Philharmonic, O’Brien was part of a pioneering group of female artists who opened doors for other women. Last year, for the first time in its 180-year history, women outnumbered men in the ensemble.
O’Brien, who retired from the Philharmonic in 2021 after a 55-year career, has resisted speaking publicly about her life in music, preferring to stay in the background.
But a new documentary short, “The Only Girl in the Orchestra,” directed by her niece, the filmmaker Molly O’Brien, looks at her struggles and achievements. (The film premiered last week at DOC NYC, a festival that celebrates documentary film.)
The Philharmonic, which was founded in 1842, was long closed off to women. It was not until 1922 that it hired its first female member: Stephanie Goldner, a harpist. But she departed after a decade, and the orchestra became a male bastion once again until the arrival of O’Brien.
In a recent interview at her Manhattan home, O’Brien, 88, reflected on her early days in the Philharmonic, the strides made by women in classical music and growing up in California with movie-star parents. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You made history at the Philharmonic but you’ve avoided talking about your time there. Why did you agree to take part in this film?
I hate the idea of being photographed. I hate the idea of talking about myself. It’s just awful. In music, you’re part of a group and you enjoy the camaraderie with the other musicians. My niece begged me for years. She told me, “Maybe it will help the cause of classical music.” If she wasn’t my relation, I would just say no. It’s all her fault.
Your appointment to the Philharmonic was the subject of many news reports that focused on your gender. How did you feel about the attention?
I didn’t like it because, first of all, the difficulty was not being female. The difficulty was studying for years and practicing and also being encouraged by your teachers and being encouraged by your colleagues.
I felt there was undue attention on me, especially because the orchestra was so great and Leonard Bernstein, the music director, was so great. Bernstein would yell out once in awhile, “Bravo, Orin!” because I could count. And I felt so embarrassed. I felt my face turning red. He was trying to be nice and friendly and welcoming. But I felt that the other musicians would resent it because I was new. I mean, who was I? I was just a member of a section. I wasn’t anybody that important. But I was made important by the P.R. at the time, and I shrank from it.
Much of the coverage at the time was sexist. A Time magazine article said that you were “as curvy as the double bass she plays.” A New York Times article called you “as comely a colleen as any orchestra could wish to have in its ranks.”
It seems a little frivolous, doesn’t it? It doesn’t say anything about my background or experience or the fact that my teacher, Fred Zimmermann, was in the orchestra for 36 years before me, and that I had a tremendous working knowledge of the orchestra because I had heard every concert they played for two whole years when I worked as an usher at Carnegie Hall. I absorbed their style that way.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the maestro Zubin Mehta opined that he did not think women should be in orchestras because they “become men.” He also said that female musicians were “just not as good at 60 as a man is at 60.” He was named the Philharmonic’s music director in 1976. How did you feel about his remarks?
They were so unfounded and ridiculous and prejudiced. I thought it was laughable because there were so many talented women. One of the best musicians in the Philharmonic, although her name was very often not listed, was the pianist Harriet Wingreen, who could sight-read any score. And Marilyn Wright [a former concertmaster of New York City Opera], I remember the violinist Nathan Milstein came and sat in the front row to listen to her play the big violin solo in Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.” And she didn’t flinch and played perfectly.
When you joined the Philharmonic, there were no dressing rooms for women. At the beginning of the 1970s, there were only five women in the orchestra. How did you feel you were treated in those early years?
I felt I was welcomed in as a musician, as a member of the group. The feeling was “You’re a musician like us,” except they were my heroes. They were special people. I knew them by name. And now they were talking to me? I was very thrilled to be there.
Some women in the Philharmonic have said that they struggled to be paid as much as their male counterparts and were offended when male colleagues referred to them as “the skirts.” Did you encounter those issues?
I never heard that. They were too polite to say that to me, I think. Everybody has a different experience.
How do you feel about the fact that women now make up roughly half of the New York Philharmonic?
It’s an uncomfortable subject. It was when I joined, and it still is for me. I don’t think that it has anything to do with music. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I don’t think that female composers are any better than men or any worse. I have friends in the orchestra of both genders.
One of your fans was Bernstein, who led the Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969 and once described you as a “source of radiance in the orchestra.”
I remember when Bernstein said he was going to take some time off to compose something special. I had just bought a book about Masada, the ancient fortress in Israel. I wrote him a letter saying, “I think I found a theme for you for an opera or maybe a cello concerto. And if you want, I can loan you my book.” And the next week at rehearsal he stops and he says: “Orin, thank you for your letter. It’s a very good idea.” And all the guys turned and looked at me and I thought, “Oh my God, I’m never going to write him another letter. Never.” And I never did. I was so embarrassed and humiliated.
You say in the film that you chose the double bass because you liked being in the background. Was that a reaction to the fame of your parents, George O’Brien and Marguerite Churchill, who were both movie stars in the 1930s?
That was definitely part of it. My brother and I would go out to dinner with my father and fans would come up and ask for his autograph. We were bitterly resentful of that because that took him away from us because he loved the attention. “I’d love to sign an autograph.” And we were then deprived of his attention for awhile and we were hurt by that. But you could see that he just reveled in it. He enjoyed the perks of fame and fortune. And my mother probably did, too — she was an actress onstage here in New York before she went to Hollywood. If you’re a bass player, you don’t expect that much attention. And that’s maybe one reason I gravitated to it.
How do you feel about the future of classical music, as cultural institutions work to recover from the pandemic?
I’m a little bit in despair because I see audiences not coming as well-informed as they used to be, and the programming is being watered down. I’m sorry to say, but not every composition is a great composition and the great compositions are still basically the lifeblood of an orchestra: Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Haydn, and so on. Sometimes I feel that the real great repertoire is neglected in favor of other things. Musicians need to play the classics.
After you retired from the orchestra, you continued to teach and perform. How do you see the totality of your career?
I just feel so lucky that I was able to do something that I loved all my life, and I was so lucky that I landed in my favorite orchestra. When my father would pick me and my brother up, he would ask, “Are you coming into church?” I would say, “No, I’m going to stay in the car and listen to the New York Philharmonic.” And that’s when I decided music was my religion.
If I can convince my students to love music the way I’ve been lucky to love it — through their whole lives — and if it gives them the same joy it’s given me, that’s all I really would like.