Saturday, February 6, 2010

Abbie Conant: Behind the Screen


In 1980, Abbie Conant auditioned for the Munich Philharmonic behind a screen.  The orchestra voted for her appointment to the principal solo position, though the conductor, Celibidache, was opposed.  Celibidache ordered that she play a "probationary year", in which any complaints to her playing could be recorded. No complaints were recorded, but he did not award her any solos.

In 1982, Abbie was demoted to second trombone, which required a greater work load for less pay.  Celibidache provided no written criticism but simply stated, "You know the problem: we need a man for solo trombone." 

Abbie spent the next six years playing second trombone, but she did file a lawsuit to hopefully regain her solo position.  Her opposition stated that she did not have the necessary strength to lead the trombone section, and since the court would need actual proof of this, Abbie elected to take extensive medical, physical, and musical tests to prove her strength.

In 1984, the court ruled in her favor, but the city of Munich appealed.  The court then ordered that both sides must find a reputable source to evaluate Abbie's physical strength, endurance, and durability to play the most difficult passages according to the conductor's instructions for length, intensity, and loudness.  It took about three years to find a conductor to evaluate her (no one wanted this task for fear of being denied the opportunity to conduct the Munich Philharmonic)- Heinz Fadle.  In 1987, Fadle gave her this review:

"She is a wind player with an outstandingly well-trained embouchure, i.e., lip musculature, that enables her to produce controlled tone production in connection with a controlled breath flow, and which gives her the optimal use of her breath volume. Her breathing technique is very good and makes her playing, even in the most difficult passages, superior and easy. In this audition she showed sufficient physical strength, endurance, and breath volume, and above and beyond that, she has enormously solid nerves. This, paired with the above mentioned wind-playing qualities, puts her completely in the position to play the most difficult phrases in a top orchestra, holding them out according to the conductor's directions for adequate length and intensity, as well as strength."

Abbie was then re-awarded her solo trombone position in 1988; however, she did not receive the salary of a solo trombonist or the back pay that she was entitled to throughout the court battles.  In 1990 the Munich Philharmonic placed her is a lower salary position than all 15 of her male brass and wind colleagues.  Abbie took them to court and won in 1991, but of course, Munich appealed.  Abbie won the appeal in 1993-- thirteen years after winning the solo trombone position with the Munich Philharmonic, she was re-awarded the solo position and received the same pay as her male counterparts. 

After thirteen horrendous years with the Munich Philharmonic, Abbie left the orchestra to accept a tenured position at the State Conservatory of Music in Trossingen.  The Munich Philharmonic then hired a seventeen year old male trombonist with no orchestral experience. 

I am in complete admiration of Abbie Conant for what she endured with the Munich Philharmonic.  She could have easily given up from the start, but instead she stood up for what was right. 

My rendition does not do Abbie's story justice, so for a more detailed account, visit

Also, check out to see information on Miriam, a musical theater work composed for Abbie Conant by William Osborne. 




  2. I am not surprised by the treatment she received in Munich.Their leaders do not hesitate in condemning whole countries ,so this only seems natural for me.They are still camouflaged nazi supporters.Avoid and condemn them !

  3. First of all Celibidache is Romanian and not German (or Nazi). Second of all the most of her career will remain hidden by the fact that she will be remembered as the one who filed a lawsuit instead of going somewhere else from the beginning ... It is unnecessary stubbornness.

  4. Celidibache was, as all real artists, concerned about a coherent and unified artistic expression rather than the physical strength and perfect technique of the members of the orchestra. Abbie Conant seems like someone unable to see music beyond the technicality of playing notes perfectly, fast and powerfully. Obviously she did not fit into Celidibache's vision. Obviously she failed to understand why. And obviously she won the law suits, where only measureable quantites like breath volume will be valid arguments.

  5. "though the conductor, Celibidache, was opposed" -- this sentence fragment neglects to answer the crucially important question: whether the composer knew who was behind the screen when he opposed her appointment.

    Also, to the previous anonymous poster: in your assumption that "coherent and unified artistic expression" is unrelated to "perfect technique", we find a clear, strong note of what people without your heightened artistic sense might well describe as "transparently self-serving pomposity".

  6. Interestingly, I was watching a 1983 video on Youtube of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.5, the Fourth Movement when I spotted a woman in the Trombone section. No as a trombonist for most of my college career, there were always women trombonist in band and symphonic ensembles, but rarely was there one in as a professional trombonist in a philharmonic setting. Even today in 2021, there are not many seen in philharmonic settings all though I'm sure there are some. So I set out to find out who this person was on the internet and I quickly found the heroic story of Abby Conant.