The Trombonist Who Locked
Fighting Back With Her Art
By Mark. Adamo
to the Washington Post, March 14, 1994
In music, as in life, themes return. Introduction: In 1970, in New Mexico, Abbie Conant, a straight-A junior high student with an opening in her course schedule, is encouraged to take up the trombone by a couple of football players. She likes it. She becomes very good very fast. Her senior year in high school, she auditions for first trombone chair of her school orchestra. She gets it-"much to the chagrin of one of those players."
Ten years later, the reprise: Abbie Conant, with technique to burn and degrees from Temple and Julliard, tries out for the first trombone chair of one of Germany's premier orchestras - the Munich Philharmonic. Thirty-two players audition behind a screen, and No. 16 - mis-named on her application as: “Herr Conant” --is, overwhelmingly-- the orchestra's first choice.
But the directors of the Munich Philharmonic respond to their orchestra’s first female principal brass player in its 100 year history with something more than chagrin. And the games they play with Abbie Conant for the next 13 years – which include 11 years of lawsuits, enforced physical exams and the loss of $30,000 – isn’t football, but hard-ball.
Ordeal of a Musician
As she talked about it over a midnight dinner in Foggy Bottom last Thursday, Conant’s strong, square face – she’s 38 now -- looks a little weary “Oh, it was weird”" she recalls, “so Franz Kafka.” Nothing direct. You'd go up to the [Munich Philharmonic’s] office on some completely unrelated business, and they'd see who it was, and they'd just sidle around you and stare. And then say, ‘I see, Frau Conant, you have a lawsuit pending against the orchestra.
Maybe we won't renew your residence permit.’ Which means you're out. Your contract with the orchestra is for life; but if you can't live in the country…
The war of nerves went on. She was kept on as first chair -- but forbidden to play solos. She was set up to play yet another test audition, this time of the hardest pieces in the orchestral repertoire. The test audition was delayed for two years. Still, she withstood. She neutralized the deportation threat by moving to the next county from Munich where she got permanent residency. "And my teaching job now [with the State University in Trossingen] pays me more than the Munich Philharmonic ever did, even after I won equal salary. Now I have the time for 'Miriam.'"
"Miriam" is the chamber-opera-cum-performance piece that her husband, William Osborne, composed for her in 1990 -- and which, on one stop of their seven-week U.S. tour, she brings tomorrow to Annandale's Community Cultural Center at North Virginia Community College. They've been touring it for three years, mostly throughout Germany and mostly to stunning (and stunned) reviews. They brought "Miriam" to St. Louis last May for the Women's Brass Conference, convocation of the still somewhat scarce female instrumentalists of this nation's orchestras. That's where Sylvia Alimena, conductor of Washington's acclaimed Eclipse Chamber Orchestra and her-self a National Symphony hornist, caught up with it. And was overwhelmed.
"You cannot imagine the power of this piece unless you were there in the room," Alimena says. "All these professional women, just shaken to their cores by this piece. Of course it resonates particularly with other players, because-believe it--the kind of treatment Abbie went through Munich is not, by any stretch of the imagination, unknown in the United States. And that's all I'll say.... But there's something deeply, deeply human to it. Eclipse [under whose auspices "Miriam" is being presented] ordinarily doesn't present other people's work; we're still getting our own concerts off the ground! But I saw this and said, 'This must be seen.'"
In "Miriam," Conant gets to do and be everything she wasn't during her Munich years. A fierce wraith in a flowing nightgown, she raves, paces, stabs her hands until the blood flows. Sometimes she sings; sometimes she hisses; sometimes, only the huge voice of her tenor trombone is utterance equal to her rage. 'You know, studying acting, singing, mime [which she did for two years in preparation for “Miriam”] was so freeing. You realize how much you miss in the performances of most concert musicians, when they just walk out and bellow sound at you. They're putting forth a lot of energy, but they're not listening to their audiences; they're not accepting anything back. I wasn't originally going to do all of 'Miriam': just the trombone parts. But all the sopranos Bill worked with turned out to be pains..... Now I can't imagine going back to abstract music. It's so satisfying to do something different."
In "Miriam," Conant rules the stage; she's the Callas to Osborne's Bellini in a sort of postmodern mad scene with a feminist subtext. But the contrast with her behavior during the conflict in Munich couldn't be higher.
“You know, right up until about 1988, when I learned that even the newest guys in the orchestra were making more than I, I thought I could walk away from the whole thing," Conant says. "I was not a radical person. I was just finding my footing here in this strange culture; and, moreover, I was a professional. Even in my first conversations in '80, with [conductor Sergiu] Celibidache, when he demoted me to second trombone with no reason, I thought, well, it can't be just that I'm a woman. So I said to him, look, you didn't criticize me at all about my playing during my trial year. Tell me what you don't like. I've been trained, I have resources, I know I can play the way you want. What do you want me to change. And he turned to me and said, 'You know the problem. We need a man for the solo trombone.' And, you know, I thought, well, maybe second trombone wouldn't be so bad, I could do that. But I promptly got extremely depressed for about two weeks, and decided, no. It was just so obvious. They had not one legitimate criticism of my work."
Unlike the anti-heroine in "Miriam," Conant gathered her forces and worked the system. Her first choice of lawyer wasn't wise; she says he neglected to tell her about a statute of limitations on her salary claims, which resulted in her losing $30,000 of back pay. But her husband generated an avalanche of letters on her behalf. Conant took her case to the Munich municipal government. "We were, literally, fighting City Hall," she remembers. At one surreal moment, in response to the Philharmonic's claim that she wasn't physically strong enough to do the job, Conant found herself nude in a doctor's office breathing into a tube and having blood drained from her ear.
"Afterward, they asked if I was an athlete, because my blood was so well oxygenated," she recalls proudly. (She passed the test; the courts rejected the orchestra's case for lack of evidence.) "But the whole process was so degrading... not just that stuff, but other guys in the orchestra saying, 'Gee, I can see your nipples tonight' right before you walk out on stage, just to throw you off... primitive .… After '88, I was in it for the long haul. I was going to stick this out even if I did get another job. And after all those years, I was beginning to enjoy the fight, a little. But then I got the conservatory job; and by that time, I was more interested in the music theater work Bill and I were doing."
"The whole process was so degrading. After '88, I was in it for the long haul."
As to what's next for her, she's not sure. Osborne's finished a new piece-"bag ladies on their way to a Big House"-including, of course, a part for acting trombonist. She's a little weary of Europe. "It's a very narrow-minded place. And I eat too much there." Meanwhile, though, "Miriam" is her life. 'The name means 'bitter.' And she's certainly defiant. But she's also the first composer the Bible mentions. And she's not ruined, the way Violetta in 'I,a Traviata' is. At the end, when her wrist cuffs clamp down on her and she's silent, she seems defeated. But there's something in her stare that lets you know she knows what's happening to her, and isn't giving in. And that's a start."