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Classical 101

One Woman in a Hundred: New Book Tells Story of Musical Pioneer

Above: Edna Phillips, former principal harpist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, performs Paul White's Sea Chanty with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Edna Phillips didn't set out to shatter glass ceilings or to change the world. But that's exactly what she ended up doing. A new book tells the phenomenal life story of Edna Phillips, principal harpist with the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1930 to 1946 and the first woman to hold a principal chair in a major U.S. orchestra. One Woman in a Hundred: Edna Phillips and the Philadelphia Orchestra (University of Illinois Press, 2013), by Mary Sue Welsh, a longtime friend of Phillips' and former executive director of the Bach Festival of Philadelphia, chronicles Phillips' life, from her younger days as a struggling pianist through her final season as principal harpist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and her varied career beyond. In an era when the professional world was ill-disposed to welcome women's unique talents and to see value in the inherent differences between the sexes, Phillips' career demonstrated that a woman - and a young one at that - could hold her own amid the unjust presuppositions and sexual advances of the proverbial boys' club, even at the highest levels of the classical musical profession. Auspicious Beginnings Perhaps the most astonishing thing that Welsh's narrative brings to light is the series of unlikely events that brought about Phillips' career with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The first such event was Phillips' random-seeming introduction to the harp. At a time when Phillips' interest in the piano was flagging, her mother saw a harp in the window of a music store one day and bought it for her daughter as a birthday gift in an effort to revive Phillips' interest in music. "She chose the harp because she saw it and it looked pretty and she thought that would be nice," said Welsh, at one time a fellow trustee with Phillips of the Bach Festival of Philadelphia and a longtime friend of Phillips. "She really thought that would relax (Phillips), she would play it, and she just wouldn’t let the love of music die in her." At first Phillips had no real interest in playing the instrument, but she picked it up and took to it quickly. After studying the instrument for three years, she was admitted to Philadelphia's prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in the studio of the legendary French harpist Carlos Salzedo. Within another three years, Salzedo had tapped Phillips to audition for an opening for second harpist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Phillips resisted the suggestion on the grounds of her inexperience, but Salzedo persisted. "Salzedo told her, 'If we cut your veins, you would bleed music, not blood,'" Welsh said. "She was just highly musical, and he thought her talent was worth promoting." Salzedo arranged for a private audition with the Philadelphia Orchestra's music director, Leopold Stokowski. Later, Phillips received a contract not for the second harp position, but instead for principal harp. Phillips thought a clerical error had caused her to be issued a contract for the wrong position, but no: the orchestra's principal harpist, Vincent Fanelli, had developed hand problems, and Stokowski had released him from the orchestra and now needed a principal harpist. Phillips took up the matter again with Salzedo, who told her, "I cannot be disloyal to your future. You must do this." With that, Phillips took the job and at the age of 23 became at that time the only woman in the Philadelphia Orchestra and the first woman ever to hold a principal chair in a major orchestra in the United States. A Lamb in the Lion's Den Phillips' landing a job that today thousands of harpists would kill for at first brought Phillips to despair. Welsh's narrative conveys a certain sense of doom with which Phillips allegedly took her first steps into the big leagues, fearing that if her inexperience as a harpist and her almost total inexperience as an orchestral player weren't enough to get her permanently blacklisted in the musical community, then certainly her age and sex would. But Welsh's biography also records the providential guidance with which Salzedo shepherded Phillips through her early years with the orchestra: Salzedo's taking Phillips shopping for attire suitable for the lone professional woman in the elite boys' club that was the Philadelphia Orchestra - and instructing her not to consent to romantic overtures from any of her colleagues, especially Maestro Stokowski. And the romantic overtures did come - including from Stokowski. Welsh's narrative portrays Phillips as not only scrupulous in avoiding the bait, but also shrewd in extricating herself from the situation without deflating or offending the maestro, and hence without jeopardizing her job. The Baby As a player in the Philadelphia Orchestra Phillips was in a dicey position when she and Sam Rosenbaum, a member of the orchestra's board, CHECK THIS began dating and eventually married. As separate as Welsh claims Phillips aimed to keep her personal life from her work in the orchestra, the two were inextricably linked, so much so that at the end of the orchestra's first rehearsal after Phillips and Rosenbaum's wedding, Stokowski and the orchestra surprised Phillips with a surprise performance of the wedding march from Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream.   whose book is informed not only by years' worth CHECK THIS of interviews with Phillips but also by years of friendship forged while the two served on the board of trustees of the Bach Festival of Philadelphia, of which Welsh is a former executive director