Women conductors are not so rare, but they have had difficulty competing for the profession's top job: music director with an orchestra. On the long list of American orchestras, women tend to be relegated to work with small municipal orchestras, student orchestras or university ensembles; with larger orchestras, they're generally assistant conductors. Two of the most prominent women in the field, Sarah Caldwell in Boston and Eve Queler in New York, conduct opera companies of their own invention, rarely appearing with symphony orchestras. English violinist Iona Brown heads the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, but her season is not extensive and her presence is diminished in a city dominated by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
All of which makes the success experienced by the 43-year-old Comet (pronounced ko-MAY) worth noting. Having completed her second season as music director in Grand Rapids, she says, "I am in the right place at the right time." And like most modern music directors, she isn't in that place full-time. "I live about 22 weeks in Grand Rapids," she explains. "I commute."
This last season, she occupied an apartment about halfway between the orchestra's De Vos Hall and the airport, but she has given it up and will find another in time to start her third season in September. Her commuting seems not to be a problem in Grand Rapids, which has adopted her eagerly.
"I think her audience is more understanding than most," says Susan Schwartz, the symphony's director of marketing.
As a music director, Comet is fulfilling an ambition that has been with her since she was a child. "My mother loves music and played orchestral records at home," she says. "I was about 4 when I realized that I loved that sound. I told my mother I wanted to conduct an orchestra to make that sound. She did not laugh, but she saw to it that I began musical studies quite early.
"I was admitted to the (Paris) Conservatoire quite young. I won't get started on American music education now, but I will say I was fortunate to start my studies in Paris. I have perfect pitch, but I think everyone in France has it. You see, we all learn solfege; we learn to sight-sing intervals so young and so naturally that no one thinks about that.
"I was taken to study with Nadia Boulanger when I was 11. I needed to earn some money to pay for those lessons, and Madame suggested I might want to teach young students. I did, and found that I could teach music very well. I told my 5-year-old students, 'Look, here is your friend, la (the note)!' They could find la on the keyboard and hear it. Soon they knew all the notes and could hear them without the piano."
But for all its virtues, the Conservatoire had some drawbacks. "The library has scores, of course," Comet says, "but we could not use them. The only scores I had were those I could buy. When I was 17, I decided to audition for the Juilliard School. Since my father worked for Air France, I could fly to New York to audition. I was eager to work with Jean Morel, who was teaching conducting then. I was accepted and left my family to study in New York.
"Can you imagine how I felt when I went into the Juilliard library? There were thousands of scores. I could study them there, but better yet, I could check them out and take them home. Such things never happen in Paris."
She spent four years at Juilliard, studying with Morel and Vincent Persichetti. Then came the difficult part: entering the male-dominated conducting field. After winning guest appearances with the BBC Orchestra in London and the Paris Opera's ballet, she found a job at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, teaching all aspects of music and conducting the orchestra. "I could not adapt to the American system of 50 minutes and a bell," she recalls. "I told them that if they could let me sit in a corner and teach as long as I liked, I would be OK."
It was in Madison that she met her husband, Michael Aiken, a sociologist who was an associate dean at the university. And it was there that she developed a body of experience in conducting that won for her one of the Exxon/National Endowment for the Arts conducting fellowships in 1981. That program placed her with the St. Louis Symphony for four years as assistant conductor - and began her career as a constant commuter.
"In St.Louis, she was terrific," says Joan Bricchetti, general manager of the symphony. "She is an unusually intelligent musician, and she was frequently asked to step in to conduct on short notice. She has great authority. There was never any question about her being a 'woman conductor.' She has such poise and authority that the question never came up."
In 1985, Comet moved to the Baltimore Symphony as associate conductor during the interim between music directors Sergiu Comissiona and David Zinman. Says John Gidwitz, the symphony's executive director: "She was highly respected by our musicians. She conducted everything in those two years. She was always very professional, very strong. But when Zinman took over, she decided to leave. You can't be an apprentice forever."
Her husband, meanwhile, had become an administrator at the University of Pennsylvania; because of the intensity of her schedule, they lived in Baltimore. Their daughter, Caroline, was learning to adapt to new cities. "He commuted then," Comet says with a smile. "Now, I commute."
When Semyon Bychkov left the Grand Rapids Symphony, Comet was the first choice to succeed him. According to Stuart Vander Heide, president of the symphony, "our search process was so thorough that after we found Catherine, our committee was asked to discuss our method at the Symphony Orchestra League convention. We are convinced that she is here because the cream came to the top."
"I am very excited about the symphony," Comet says. "We are about to become a major orchestra" - which means, according to the categories established by the Symphony Orchestra League, that the orchestra has climbed above an annual budget of $3.6 million.
"We have established a new 'casual classics' series, which I conduct," she says. "It is in a 600-seat hall, and we have attracted a new, younger audience. I speak about the music, and we play an American piece on every concert. Next year, we play Lukas Foss, Joseph Schwantner, Barbara Kolb, Stephen Albert and some regional composers.
"But we play an American piece on each of our 10 subscription pairs of concerts, too. There is so much good American music to perform. Our audiences have come to expect to hear it.
"Last year, we won the Governor's Arts Award, and now we have won the ASCAP award for programming American music. I am very excited for this orchestra."
The Grand Rapids Symphony has become a staging point for substantial careers, but Comet - whose contract runs through the 1990-91 season - deflects talk about her own ambitions. Says Vander Heide: "She has a lot of future, but she's very humble. She tends to explain her own success in terms of our orchestra."
Comet does report that next year she will be doing more guest-conducting. She already has conducted the Buffalo Philharmonic, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the National Symphony, the Vancouver Symphony, the American Composers' Orchestra and the American Symphony. "I will conduct in Singapore, and New Zealand, and I may be doing things in Europe later," she says. "I have scarcely been back to Paris, although my mother still lives there.
"I don't think of myself as a symbol," she concludes, "and I don't think my career has been affected by my being a woman."
Vander Heide agrees. "She has made us gender-blind," he says with a laugh.