Retiring in November, the SSO musician looks back at a career spanning seven Chief Conductors.
Her children used to dread her putting on her black clothes. It meant she was going out. Janet Webb has been Principal Flute of the Sydney Symphony for some 34 years and is stepping down from her position in November. Some of her last concerts include Symphony No 9 by Beethoven with former Chief Conductor Ashkenazy, whom she respects “with every ounce” of her being, and Symphony No 4 by Tchaikovsky with conductor and violinist Pinchas Zukerman.
It’s been quite a journey for the 59-year-old Avalon resident, who joined the orchestra as a single woman. Her husband proposed after she won the job – at the time she was one of only two women to be appointed to a Principal position in the orchestra – and they married and had three children.
Janet Webb, Principal Flute of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra
With most concerts taking place at night, her three boys knew that when Webb started putting on her black orchestral clothes it meant she was going to work and they probably wouldn’t see her until the next morning. “It was something that took me away from them… it cost me in childcare what I earned for years, but I knew it was only for a short time.”
Back in the 1980s it was generally expected that female musicians would leave the orchestra after a few years to have children, so Principal section positions were usually (unofficially) reserved for men. In an effort to combat this attitude (which is no longer prevalent) Webb took special precautions to make sure no one knew she was a woman when she played in the first round of the audition for the Principal Flute position, which is held behind a screen.
“It was a man’s world. I knew I had to make sure they didn’t know I wasn’t a man: I wore Ugg boots so they wouldn’t hear heals walking on the floor and a tracksuit so they didn’t hear the whoosh of a skirt, and I made sure not to cough,” she said. Times have changed a lot since those days, when players would often go next door to the RSL for an alcoholic drink in the break of a rehearsal.
Few people can manage the pressures of holding down a full time role in an orchestra, especially as a solo wind player, and even fewer can manage these pressures while being married and three children. Yet Janet Webb has done just that. So, how did she do it?
“You have to pick an understanding partner. Colin knew when he proposed that he was taking on me and the orchestra. I’m lucky that he’s been so understanding. If someone had to take a day off, it was always him. Our life has never had any routine but this has made the boys flexible and resilient.”
When she was eight months pregnant with her second son, her first child was in hospital vomiting blood. “I slept in the hospital next to him and got up every hour to feed him a tablespoon of water. Then I had to get up a go to work. You just can’t call in sick when you’re a Principal player. In 34 years I’ve taken 10 days of sick leave and in both cases I was in hospital.”
Her three sons, Tristan, Harry and Liam, are aged 27, 25 and 19 respectively. Tristan is an industrial designer, Harry is about to launch a coffee business but has also walked the catwalks in New York and Sydney as a male model, and Liam is an apprentice cabinet maker. There have been lost of ups and downs along the way, being a classical musician with children, including the moment when one of her sons (who was two years old at the time), put down his $20 flute, and picked up his mother’s 24-carat gold flute – worth $50,000 – and dropped it on the slate floor.
Another consequence of joining the orchestra in the 1980s, when it was largely a man’s world and women were expected to stay for only a short time, was her superannuation. “No one bothered to tell me about superannuation because I was a woman. I missed out on 10 years of super.”
Webb has experienced seven Chief Conductors during her career: Charles Mackerras, Stuart Challendar, Zdeněk Mácal, Edo de Waart, Gianluigi Gelmetti, Vladimir Ashkenazy and David Robertson. She speaks most fondly of Ashkenazy.
“I respect every bone in his body. He has respect for the musicians. He was by far the most famous and he was by far the most generous and human. Conductors are often very insecure people. Ashkenazy would make a whole piece as one. You start on a journey, and you’ve got no idea how you got to the end. You’re swept up in his whole vision, in his architecture. It’s pure music making. It’s a fantastic experience for the musicians and for the listeners. He brought music back to the orchestra and opened up all kinds of doors for us. We played in the London Proms, Lucerne Festival, Edinburgh Festival and Stresa Festival Japan.
Her second favourite conductor was Australian Stuart Challender, who died of AIDS in December 1991. “His Mahler was amazing. He was a wonderful musician, and starting out his career as I was, he often referred to the Principal Clarinet and myself as ‘The Young Principals’. The orchestra had such a down period after he died.”
Ageism is an issue for many Australian workplaces and Webb admits there are only a couple of people in the orchestra who are her senior. What does the future hold for this highly intelligent and accomplished musician?
A relatively new resident of the Pittwater area – she and her family previously lived in Pymble for more than 20 years – Janet is planning to start a High Tea chamber music series overlooking Pittwater. She will also continue a project that is already in motion: touring new flute works from the Australian Music Examinations Board syllabus across Australia with pianist Jocelyn Fazzone.
She will also continue tutoring students at the Australian International Orchestral Institute in Tasmania, which she helped set up 11 years ago.
“It’s made me realise how little the students know about getting a job in an orchestra. There are a lot of people from overseas who do, and they’re auditioning and getting some of the jobs in Australian orchestras. I really want to make sure Australians keeping getting positions in our orchestras. I have 35 years of experience as a Principal Flute and I look forward to passing that knowledge on.”