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Doriot Anthony Dwyer, flutist who broke the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s gender barrier, dies at 98

Ms. Dwyer, with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, performed in the world premiere of Bernstein's "Variations on an Octatonic Scale" in Boston.Walter H. Scott/Boston Symphony Orchestra via AP

The pioneering flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer, who shattered gender barriers by becoming the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s first-ever female principal player in 1952 and occupied her post with distinction for more than four decades, died in Lawrence, Kan., on Saturday. She was 98.

Ms. Dwyer was a legendary figure in the flute world, renowned for the glittering eloquence of her playing and for her trailblazing status as among the very first female principals in any major US orchestra. Sitting among a sea of tuxedoed men, she became an instantly recognizable symbol of the BSO, and loomed still larger in the ensemble’s distinctive sonic profile. She formed perhaps the shiniest quarter of the orchestra’s fabled quartet of woodwinds that also included oboist Ralph Gomberg, clarinetist Harold Wright, and bassoonist Sherman Walt.


In one Boston Globe review, Globe critic Richard Dyer called her playing “as diaphanous and rainbow-colored as mist pierced by sunlight.”

"Doriot’s legacy has always been deeply meaningful to me,” the BSO’s current principal flutist, Elizabeth Rowe, told the Globe on Monday. “As a young girl, I looked to her as a rare example of a woman holding one of the very top positions in our field. Seeing her in that principal chair helped me believe that this kind of achievement was possible.”

Ms. Dwyer lived in Brookline until moving in 2015 to be closer to her daughter, Arienne Dwyer, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Kansas. Over the years, she also performed as a chamber musician and soloist and taught at numerous schools, including New England Conservatory and Boston University.

“She was a real symbol for my generation of what persistence and determination could mean for a female musician,” Leone Buyse, assistant principal flute of the BSO across the final years of Ms. Dwyer’s tenure, said on Monday. “And as a member of the section, it was extremely inspiring to always hear her.”


One of four siblings, Doriot Anthony was born in 1922 into a music-oriented family in Streator, Ill. Her mother was a professional flutist who became her first teacher. Yet while her mother performed occasionally, Ms. Dwyer as a girl also witnessed at close range the fate of a skilled female musician whose professional potential had been eclipsed by the era’s gender norms.

As a gifted flute student, Ms. Dwyer went on to study with Ernest Liegl, principal flute of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As she neared graduation from high school, Liegl told her father succinctly where Ms. Dwyer could expect to go with her flute: “nowhere.”

The era’s major orchestras were almost exclusively male.

Nonetheless, after graduating from Eastman School of Music in 1943, Ms. Dwyer played in the National Symphony, freelanced in New York and Hollywood, and eventually secured a position as second flute with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In summers, she played principal flute with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, conducted by Bruno Walter.

In the summer of 1952, Ms. Dwyer learned of an opening for the principal post at the BSO, and — after recommendation letters from Walter and violinist Isaac Stern — she was invited for an audition. Arranging her brief leave, she told the personnel manager of the L.A. Philharmonic that she needed a week off for “elective surgery.” Apparently familiar with the ruse, he replied, “Which orchestra?”

At Tanglewood, the BSO’s music director Charles Munch had convened what was dubbed a “Ladies’ Day” to hear the female candidates. In an interview for a doctoral dissertation on her life, Ms. Dwyer said she approached the audition with a combination of unvarnished realism and fierce determination, as she recalled thinking to herself: "'I don’t have a thing to worry about because I know they have some European flutist waiting to come in, because they always do that, and it’s a man. They don’t need me at all.' So I felt, well, this time I’m going to play a real audition for myself.”


Ms. Dwyer prevailed and was offered the position. After fielding the orchestra’s initial salary offer, she later told the Globe, she asked for higher compensation and eventually received it.

"It's a lot of money for a little girl," the BSO manager said at the time. "It's a big job," Ms. Dwyer replied.

Her arrival, succeeding acclaimed BSO flutist Georges Laurent, caused a sensation. “Woman Crashes Boston Symphony” read one headline in the Globe. The BSO’s own press release called her a “superb flutist” while also noting that she was “young, with a dimpled chin, careful coiffure, smallish stature, and an absence of the Domineering Female suggestion.” Other voices took issue with the BSO’s decision on principle. Boston Herald critic Rudolph Elie wrote that “the breaking of a tradition considerably older than the mere 72 years of the Boston Symphony seems to me a serious matter, and I am not a little dismayed by it.”


Elie need not have worried; the orchestra still largely honored its tradition even after Ms. Dwyer’s arrival, as the next female principal was not appointed until 1977, a full 25 years later. In the meantime, Ms. Dwyer said, her male colleagues made their peace with her inclusion, at least in the manner of the era. “I was never harassed," she told the Globe in 1990, "though of course the men played jokes on me. One of them turned a live lobster loose in my dressing room, and sometimes when I would talk to the conductor, they would imitate my voice on their violins.”

Ms. Dwyer was known to parry gender bias with what her daughter, in an interview on Monday, called “twinkling, rambunctious humor.” In one instance, she replied to a critic who had painted her arrival in Boston as radical by explaining that change was indeed possible: “Gradually, during my life, I’ve gotten used to the idea that I’m a woman.”

Over the years, Ms. Dwyer introduced new works by Walter Piston, William Bergsma, and Leonard Bernstein, whose “Halil” she performed in its American premiere under the composer’s direction. As a farewell to the BSO in 1990, she performed a concerto by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, commissioned by the orchestra in her honor. She won wide praise from critics. Reviewing a 1954 performance, New York Times chief critic Olin Downes wrote, “Young as she is, with only two years’ experience with the Symphony, she showed in all that she did her worthiness of the traditions of the famous orchestra.” He went on to praise her “wonderful legato and breath control and a singing tone that the finest singer might envy.”


In many ways, Ms. Dwyer’s career initiated a struggle for gender equality that is still playing out in the orchestral world. She remained optimistic that the battle would be won, even as she realized the cause would need to be taken up by future generations — as it has. Rowe, the BSO’s current principal flute, recently settled an equal pay lawsuit with the orchestra. In a joint statement announcing their undisclosed settlement, Rowe and the orchestra cited Ms. Dwyer’s example.

Ms. Dwyer’s marriage to Dr. Thomas Dwyer ended in divorce. In addition to her daughter Arienne, of Lawrence, Kan., whom she once called “the biggest miracle of my life, an even greater miracle than being a member of the Boston Symphony,” Ms. Dwyer leaves a granddaughter.

Across the decades, Ms. Dwyer played under four BSO music directors. She also made dozens of recordings, appeared frequently as a soloist, and worked with conductors in the field’s highest echelons including Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado, Pierre Boulez, and Bernard Haitink.

As a teacher Ms. Dwyer also spoke about the virtues of musical versatility, in comments that seemed to reflect back on her own example. “A player should be able to take on any role, any character, like an actor,” she told the Globe in 1991. “And quantity of sound should never take precedence over beauty of sound.”

She added, in summary: “The quality of sound we make is a statement about us."

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.