Michelle Walter, executive director of the Richmond Symphony, is used to standing out in a crowd. She first got practice as a third-grade oboe player the only oboe player in her Northern New Jersey elementary school. Today, when she walks into a room of peers from orchestras across the country and is often the only woman, she can look back to the lonely start of her musical career.
"Large orchestras ... are still very male dominated," she says. "That is true all the way down to orchestras like Richmond."
Although Walter gave up the oboe after spending her junior year of college abroad in Aix-en-Provence and deciding the intense, all-encompassing life of a musician wasn't for her, she eventually returned to music after spending six years at the helm of the French Culinary Institute in New York.
After she worked briefly for a public relations firm that handled classical musicians, she took a marketing and public relations job with the Long Island Philharmonic in 1989 and in 1991 moved to Richmond to become marketing director of the Richmond Symphony.
In 1995, when the symphony's Executive Director Katherine Wichterman left the job, Walter filled in. "They did a national search, but I did not apply for the job," she recalls. "I was pregnant with my third child."
Soon, though, Walter realized that she liked being executive director of a symphony and threw her hat into the ring. In July 1995, she was appointed to the position permanently. On July 25, she had her third child, a son. "My first official action was to go on maternity leave," she says, laughing.
Although it is considered fairly unusual for a woman to manage a symphony the size and caliber of Richmond's, Walter says she has seen an influx of women into the field, both as musicians and administrators. "People compare a symphony like Richmond to a AAA ball club," she says. "There's a lot of turnover. You see a whole new generation of women coming in almost too many. The violin section is almost all women now."
For the past four years, Walter has watched both the symphony and her children thrive, and has faced the challenge of working mothers everywhere: how to balance a family and a career. "There are some serious compromises, but what keeps me satisfied is that everything is shortchanged by the same amount," she says. "As long as that balance is OK, emotionally I can handle it." Walter credits her husband, a teacher, with providing invaluable support.
Although the next logical step in Walter's career is to move to a larger orchestra in a larger city she says that with three young children, she is not yet ready to take that step. "As long as I am personally challenged I am happy," she says. "I don't have to be in the biggest orchestra in the world." For a while, at least, she plans to stay in