Just days after an equal pay lawsuit by the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s principal flutist went public, her performance Sunday in Tanglewood drew raucous applause — not just from the audience, but from her stage-mates as well. After a performance of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, which features recurring flute solos, music director Andris Nelsons asked Elizabeth Rowe to stand. Orchestra members who solo during a symphony are frequently asked to take a bow after the performance, but Sunday afternoon’s rollicking applause for Rowe may have also signaled coded support for her unprecedented legal fight for equal pay.
The boisterous applause for Rowe onstage stands in contrast with the quiet public reaction from her fellow musicians offstage. Comments by members of the orchestra, and by some staff members, all sounded very much like “no comment.” “Good for Liz” is about the only non-generic response given during multiple conversations about the matter.
“They’re probably in shock,” Rowe’s attorney, Elizabeth A. Rodgers of Boston’s Gordon Law Group, LLP, said in a recent interview. An orchestra is like a family, and disputes are inevitable. Lawsuits are hardly common, however.
Without any direct comparison to other musicians playing her own instrument, Rowe used principal oboist John Ferrillo as a comparison in the equal pay suit. Ferrillo and Rowe sit next to each other in the BSO’s wind section. Hardly confrontational, their relationship is deeply collegial, according to Rodgers and various sources within the orchestra.
In a rather anomalous development for equal pay lawsuits, Ferrillo released a supportive statement of Rowe. “I consider Elizabeth to be my peer and equal, at least as worthy of the compensation that I receive as I am,” read the formal statement that Ferrillo provided to the BSO, and which was first reported in the Boston Globe.
“It’s a very rare thing that a comparator would agree in a complaint like this,” Rodgers said about Ferrillo’s comments. “In all my years of doing this, it’s only happened once—in 1981.”
Rowe has been frustrated for years by the stark difference between her salary and that of Ferrillo. The oboist joined the orchestra in 2001, and he makes $286,621, according to court documents. Rowe’s salary is about $70,000 less, according to those same documents.
According to Rodgers, Rowe approached the BSO multiple times over the years seeking equitable pay.
“She first asked for a raise in 2007,” said Rodgers. “She wanted to settle this matter internally.”
Rodgers has filed suit in Suffolk Superior Court on Rowe’s behalf demanding $200,000 in unpaid wages, seeking to rectify what they see as ongoing gender discrimination. Rowe’s requests for a raise gained more teeth on July 1, when the Massachusetts Equal Pay Law took effect after a two-year waiting period. Rodgers filed the complaint on Monday, July 2—thought to be the first equal pay claim under the new statute.
Rowe joined the BSO in 2004, winning a blind audition for the principal’s chair. Since then, she has become one of the most recognizable faces in the orchestra—not only because she’s been a featured performer in world premieres and gala events, but as a marketing image for the orchestra’s promotional brochures and media outreach.
“A major star of the orchestra,” one BSO staffer is quoted as saying about Rowe in the complaint. Few orchestra observers would disagree.
Neither Rowe nor any other musician dispute that Ferrillo deserves his $286,621 salary. He came to the BSO directly from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra—considered one of the finest, and hardest-working, orchestras in the world. At the time he negotiated 200% of the base principal’s salary, to adjust for his prior salary, taking a strong stance on his value.
Rowe came to the BSO from Washington’s National Symphony orchestra. When she was hired, she negotiated 154% of the base salary for principal flute. Although she has been requesting raises to create some equitable situation for a decade, it wasn’t until this past year that the new law gave her legal support.
Although the discrepancy in salaries has strong precedent—Ferrillo was in his right to argue for his salary when he came on board, as was Rowe—the new law specifically addresses injustices that are based on such precedent.
“Prior salary was something that was allowed in arguments up to this point,” Rodgers said. “But that just perpetuates the problem. With this bill, everyone has to be paid the same for comparable work.
“Most statutes go into effect in 90 days,” she adds. “For this statute, employers were given two years. It was the safe harbor period. All they had to do was make some reasonable steps toward resolving this disparity. The BSO has done nothing.”
According to Rodgers, Rowe has tried repeatedly to get the BSO to appreciate the new law. “She asked again in September for a raise. She met with management on Feb. 14, and again in March. She provided them with the attorney general’s guidelines. All they had to do was make a good faith effort.”
The BSO management has only released an official statement following the filing, stating that they cannot not comment on an ongoing legal matter. The orchestra's trustees meet this month at Tanglewood, and Rodgers is hopeful a resolution is forthcoming.
“Elizabeth loves her job,” Rodgers said. “She wants to resolve this amicably. She regrets that litigation was necessary and hoped she could have resolved it internally.”
In general, orchestras are faring poorly when it comes to equality in gender issues. Multiple issues are in the forefront: the lack of women composers being programmed during subscription seasons (the BSO performed one work by a female composer last season), and the lack of women on podiums—conductors for professional orchestras are overwhelmingly male.
One development that has made a change for the better: the blind audition process. Judges listening to candidates for orchestral openings are required to do so without seeing the applicants. Hopefuls even have to remove their shoes during the process, so that judges cannot hear the clicking sound of high heels.
But these are music industry matters, generally outside the purview of the law. Equal pay for equal work is another matter. As the Equal Pay Act directly addresses the issue of prior salary, Rowe’s case could be a milestone for other professions.
“Around the time of Anita Hill, they passed an affirmative defense for sexual harassment,” Rodgers pointed out. “Almost immediately, employers began firing sexual harassers. It didn’t solve the problem, but it made great changes.
“Elizabeth could be like Anita Hill,” Rodgers said. “She’s going to be the face of it. She gets along with the other musicians. She gets along with the music director. She just hopes that the BSO will do the right thing.”
Keith Powers writes about classical music for the ARTery and for the GateHouse newspapers.
Follow on Twitter at @PowersKeith.