Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

WPA President as Orchestral Cellist

by Liane Curtis - May 21st, 2015

BARS-Logo-RGB-300-Square_400x400“I’d like to play in that,” was my immediate reaction on hearing about the program planned for June 6, 2015, by the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony in San Francisco.   I’d been communicating with BARS about how to obtain the score and parts for Ethel Smyth’s monumental Serenade of 1889.  Part of WPA’s work is to help make orchestral works by women more readily available.  Smyth’s case, unfortunately, is typical:  even for a composer whose name is well-known, it can be difficult or even impossible to obtain the performance materials.  When I learned that BARS (a community orchestra) would perform the Smyth, together with Vítězslava Kaprálová’s Partita for Piano and Strings and Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto – all of them favorite works of mine! — I determined to grab my cello and head to the west coast.

Ethel Smyth’s (1858-1944) Serenade in D major was the vast orchestral work that the composer used to launch herself as a fully-fledged composer.  At age 31 she had written many chamber works, songs and piano pieces, but this was her bold leap into the world of the orchestra.  And she would never look back – she would go on from there to write other orchestral works (such as her Concerto for violin and horn in A), her Mass, and six (SIX!) operas.

The Serenade is in a luscious post-romantic style, with harmonies that are sometimes sensuous, other times edgy and tense.  The writing is often bold and heroic, but there are also sensitive melodies, and tunes that you just might leave humming.

The Czech composer Vítězslava Kaprálová was born 100 years ago, into a musical family, and she started composing at a precociously young age.  She was 23 in 1938 when she started the Partita for Piano and Strings, Op. 20, and it was her third major work for orchestra.  At the time she was studying with Bohuslav Martinů in Paris, and according to him the Partita was an exercise in neo-classicism: in this case, formal procedures such as ritornelli — repeating passages performed by the full ensemble, between which the soloist (with light accompaniment) spins out new ideas — and the vigorous rhythmic propulsion so common toAllegro tempos of the baroque.  The Partita is her only surviving work to explore this style.  Kaprálová left Paris for southern France, and she died on June 16, 1940, on the day that the German army marched into Paris.  The cause is usually described as a rare but acute form of tuberculosis, but one doctor stated the cause was unidentified.

Clara Schumann (née Wieck, 1819-1896) started writing her Piano Concerto at age 13.  Robert Schumann (who would of course become her husband) orchestrated the first completed movement, which later became the third movement of the full Concerto, op. 7.  Clara then composed and orchestrated the first movement herself, and chose to score the lovely second movement, Romanze, for piano and solo cello alone.  This remarkable idea may have influenced Johannes Brahms when he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, which features a cello solo in the Andante movement.  The Concerto was a brilliant and powerful vehicle for Clara as a young pianist.  Following her marriage, Clara did continue to compose, but never wrote again for orchestra.  And following Robert’s death, she devoted herself to promoting his music, through her concertizing and teaching.

Living in an era when women were not seen to be capable of  creative ability, Clara composed, first at the instigation of her domineering father, and then as part of her creative partnership with Robert. In this partnership, however, she could never truly be an equal, since the status of wife defined her as secondary to her husband.  But much of her music, including this breathtaking concerto, reveals that her talent was a significant one.

The opportunity to perform in a concert featuring these three distinct and powerful examples of works by women is, indeed, wonderful.  The heyday of my experience as an orchestral musician is now long ago, but it was devoted to the traditional “masterworks” – led by the traditional male Maestro.  The whole vocabulary of the rehearsal is much altered by having the composer be a female.  It’s “what she wrote,” “what she wanted,” “what she was after,” “her idea here is …” — hearing the female pronouns so prominently, instead of the masculine ones – what a huge change that is.  And (I’m sure, not coincidentally) we have the added bonus of also having a woman conductor, Dawn Harms, so to have a woman in that authoritative position of the Maestro is another extraordinary factor. This results in a different vocabulary in the comments by the musicians: it’s “what she (the conductor) wants,” “what she told us,” “her approach here.”  And having these female pronouns so prominent in every aspect of the musical discussion causes nothing less than a very subtle loosening of the confines of patriarchy – bonds that you might not even have even been aware of, until you feel yourself breathing more freely as they ease.

Saariaho Premiere at Library of Congress

by sarah - May 20th, 2015

Kaija Saariaho1415-kaijasaaraiho has another new work being premiered this week.  The Library of Congress has co-commissioned Light and Matter, a new work for piano trio, which will be premiered Friday, May 22.  The same concert will also hear Saariaho’s Aure for violin and piano.

For those of us who aren’t able to attend in person, program notes for the concert are available online, and listen online to the WETA interview with violinist Jennifer Koh as she discusses her experiences working with Saariaho and performing new works.

More information about the concert available here.


News Round Up

by sarah - May 19th, 2015

Here are some headlines worth paying attention to:

Though the LA Philharmonic didn’t promote Saariaho’s world premiere, it received an excellent review in the LA Times:

The performance was strong. Dudamel remained constantly attuned to Saariaho’s vastly changeable instrumental colors, a cosmic sonic background for Finley, who handled each song with operatic intensity, part of a grand psychodrama of searching for meaning, for words that can obtain meaning through music but can also become emptied of meaning when sung. This is a profound, important work.

The New York Times offered a profile of Susanna Malkki before her conducting debut at the New York Philharmonic on Thursday.

The Juilliard String Quartet is facing the retirement of cellist Joel Krosnick who has been with the ensemble for 40 years – Astrid Schween will be his replacement, becoming the first woman to join the ensemble.

Read Alex Ross’ thoughts on the drama surrounding the Berlin Philharmonic and the search for a new conductor.  Though the classical music world was #WaitingForBerlin  just a week ago, perhaps the choice of conductor doesn’t really matter for the reasons people suggest:

Not the least of the challenges that classical music faces is the increasingly unworkable celebrity-maestro model—a twentieth-century mutation, stemming from a disproportionate emphasis on the music of prior eras. It is fundamentally irrational for musicians to play the same passel of pieces over and over. Conductors serve to generate the illusion of novelty: as Theodor W. Adorno wrote, in his “Introduction to the Sociology of Music,” the maestro “acts as if he were creating the work here and now.” That top-tier conductors are almost always men is less an indication of institutional misogyny—though that certainly exists—than an inevitable consequence of the play-acting ritual: because the canonical composers are entirely male, so are their stand-ins. The modern orchestra concert is not entirely unrelated to the spectacle of a Civil War reënactment.

Be sure to also read about the partnership between Parsons School of Design and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in an effort to redesign orchestra attire.


What did I miss?  Leave a link to your favorite news story from the past week in a comment below.

AMY Award to be presented to Community Women’s Orchestra

by sarah - May 15th, 2015

Community Women’s Orchestra of Oakland, CA

Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy will present the prestigious AMY award to the Community Women’s Orchestra of Oakland, CA, at their concert this Sunday (May 17).  Celebrating their 30th anniversary, CWO has included works by one or more women on all their programs since their inception.  The award, which consists of a beautiful sculpture (by artist Rita Blitt) and a cash prize, will be presented by WPA President Liane Curtis.

CWO was founded in 1985 by Nan Washburn, also one of the founders of The Women’s Philharmonic  and now serving on the Board of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy.   That CWO Music Directors Ann Krinitsky and Kathleen McGuire also are members of WPA’s Board speaks to the intersection of the mission of the two organizations.  CWO puts into action the goals and ideals of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy.  In their 30 years, every concert has featured a work composed by a woman, ranging from the Concerto 12 Instruments, composed by Anna Amalia Duchess of Saxe-Weimar in the 18th century, to premieres of exciting new pieces like the work we will hear on Sunday’s concert (commissioned new work, Concerto for Four Bassoons by June Bonacich).  We are happy to celebrate the 30 years of the Community Women’s Orchestra by the presentation of our AMY Award.  Information on the two previous awards is here and here.

More information about Sunday’s Concert, “Sirens of the Stage”, is available here.  Congratulations to the Community Women’s Orchestra for 30 years of inclusive programming and educating your audiences!


Featured Guest Blogger: Laura Seddon

by sarah - May 14th, 2015
Laura Sesson

Laura Seddon

Today’s Featured Guest Blogger is Dr. Laura Seddon.  A musicologist working in the UK and author of British Women Composers and Instrumental Chamber Music in the Early Twentieth Century published by Ashgate, Dr. Seddon is the creative director of Contemporary Connections – a grassroots feminist music- commissioning organisation – started (and remaining) around her kitchen table.  She ponders: 

Do institutions use the Day (and week) of ‘celebration’ to justify the lack of works programmed by women the rest of the year?


March 8, 2015.  Sunday morning. International Women’s Day. Radio 3 has programmed a full day of women’s music, the Women of the World Festival (WOW) at London’s Southbank now extends over a week and is expanding globally, there are over 300 events promoted on the International Women’s Day listings site in the UK alone. Competition for attention is fierce. There is a sense of something historic and important taking place. Something fizzing, connecting through social media and the radio airwaves. I feel overwhelmed at the multitude of choice.

March 9. Monday morning. I am receiving feedback from other musicians on which pieces they particularly enjoyed yesterday on Radio 3, the BBC’s classical music radio station in the UK. Since I was not personally involved in the programing, this must be because I research women’s music. I feel as if I am being patted on the back, by people who suddenly realize that there are women composers (and decent ones at that!).  Although I wonder that they are unaware of the increasing bulk of musicological work on women’s music since the 1980s, I do find their excitement tangible and heart-warming. A festival contacts me about possible collaboration; they have decided next year’s theme will be women. I wonder aloud if ‘women’ are not really a theme. An image of glass specimen cases cements itself in my mind – exhibit 1: Ethel Smyth; exhibit 2: Amy Beach; exhibit 3…

Sunday morning. A month later, and I am attempting to assess the impact of International Women’s Day in the context of the lack of women’s music programmed in the UK. This issue occasionally circles and sneaks into the mainstream press (often presented as if it had never been argued before). Of the 366 events listed in the UK for International Women’s Day (2015) many incorporate live music as part of celebratory festivals and multi-media events, however only 12 are solely music events. Of these only 4 seem to focus on ‘classical’ music. While this year’s WOW, the multi-arts, interactive festival of women’s experiences at London’s Southbank does not have a particular focus on women composers, the Cambridge WOW features a concert with clarinettist Emma Johnson, local press also interview her on her experiences as a woman in the music industry. Yet the programming of her concert with the European Union Chamber Orchestra is an all-male line up: Holst, Mozart and Grieg. There are twinkling glimpses of some women’s programming in other International Women’s Day concerts such as the woman composers recital featuring sopranos Eleanor Cramer and Lara Gisbourne but these are exceptional. Indeed, women DJs, punk musicians and singer/songwriters fare much better.

Frustration.  Is International Women’s Day really effective as a vehicle for ‘celebrating’ women composers, much less for spurring critical engagement? There is certainly some innovative programming that day and in the following weeks from Radio 3.  Some musicians, presenters and audiences positively engaged with women’s music. The interviews with five young (under 35) women composers — Charlotte Bray, Anna Cyne, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Hanah Kendall and Dobrinka Tabakova — provide an insight into the challenges and highlights of being a professional composer generally and indeed being a woman. At the very least they provide an excellent educational resource. Cheered by this I consider press reviews of the programming. A piece in The Independent online by Sara Mohr-Pietsch written ahead of Radio 3’s day of programming presents an interesting but standard debate on the lack of women composers gaining commissions and funding, and highlights that ‘six of the main music publishers have only between three percent and 17 percent women on their books’. The public comments, however, on this piece take my breath away:

This really is a childish argument to put forward. Sara Mohr-Pietsch is attempting to somehow use gender politics to be of more importance in the classical music world than artistic merit. Balderdash! On the one hand I don’t believe that publishers are even remotely interested in the composers gender over musical content and I would seriously hope not (Philhorn1).

The simple fact is that there have been NO women who are indubitably top composers. Ethyl Smythe was good but she was no Brahms nor an Elgar (Corbycom).

I dont think women feel pain the same way as men.
The pain of love the pain of beauty. Having said that though, there are some simply amazing female composers!
  (Helen Wheeler).

And while women composers and feminist musicologists have heard these arguments many times before, they are indeed stark reminder that this is what we are up against. A glance at the remaining  concerts in the orchestral 2014/15 season in London shows that the London Philharmonic Orchestra have programmed Paulina Zalubska, a member of the LPO Young Composers Programme but no women’s works in the main Festival Hall programming (and none for 2015/16) and while the London Symphony Orchestra commissioned Sally Beamish to write Equal Voices premiered in November 2014, they have no further women programmed. Jennifer Fowler’s revealing annual round-up of statistics indicates that the 8 of 124 composers at last year’s Proms were women and at the Southbank classical music concerts for 2014/15 the figure stands at 6 of 140. The percentages improve when considering living composers, and perhaps this is part of the responsibility of contemporary women’s music as it has the potential to readdress not only the statistical imbalance but also the emotional reactions of audiences and commentators towards women as composers.

I cannot escape my feeling that International Women’s Day programming (spanning a week in some cases) is being used as an excuse by institutions to justify their lack of women’s music activities throughout the rest of the year. If this makes me –  as someone who is involved in grassroots women’s music – want to disengage, then how does this ‘ghettoization’ of both women’s musical output and work dealing with what are perceived as women’s issues, affect those who are discovering women composers for the first time or even those who are still to be convinced of their worthiness? What does it say about the feminist cause in music, in all its multiplicities, if institutions are easily manipulating it for their own purposes?

I am not arguing that there should be less women’s music as part of International Women’s Day celebrations (I have to acknowledge here that my own commissioning organisation avoids planning events at this time of year for fear of becoming lost in the multitude of audience choices). I suggest instead that the day should act as a springboard to further engagement. This requires innovative collaborations, and modes of presentation and legacy creation, in addition to single transitory live concerts.

Fast forward a year:  let’s ask, will Radio 3 repeat their day of women’s programming?  Bear in mind that in 2014 Radio 1, the BBC’s flagship popular music station, presented a 39 hour female takeover, however, this year provided a full 24 hours of male presenters.

And then I find a jewel. It comes from curator Poulomi Desai, of the Usurp gallery in a suburb of north London, who was commissioned, for International Women’s Day, by Sound and Music and the Google Cultural Institute, to create an online exhibition of women’s work in music and sound A Wo(man)’s Work is Never Done. Women were encouraged to submit work, which was juxtaposed with women’s work which is already is part of The British Music Collection archives at Huddersfield University. This project was instigated by a sound artist/curator rather than a musicologist and thus the contemporary sound-based works are perhaps more engaging than the presentations of historical works. Yet the site is playful, tactile and indeed remains as an evolving platform. Desai explains: “I am exploring what might be considered, ‘feminist’ and ‘radical’ from everyone who considers themselves to be on the margins – artistic, social, cultural, political”.

The curation of the site builds from start of Ethel Smyth’s March of the Women. Does this iconic reference reduce her to a single work?  Possibly, but the rest of the structure is nuanced and thoughtful.  As a viewer/listener progressing through the multimedia presentations, you become aware of inter-generational groupings – radio work by Anna Fritz, Nicola LeFanu, Magz Hall and Rebecca Saunders; a perhaps less connected grouping of Phyllis Tate, Erollyn Wallen, Diana Burrell, Yumi Hara Caukwell and Jo Thomas. The exhibition, then, acts on multiple levels:, a site of musical activism, an educational tool, an instigator of debate on how the works relate to each other through time and genre. Perhaps even an example of Julia Kristeva’s concept of women’s time in action? My own highlight is Desai’s description of finding the graphic score of Dancing on Moonbeams (1980) by Janet Beat, unobtrusively tucked between volumes of scores by male composers in the Huddersfield archives – a powerful reminder of the treasures to be found in archival research!

Another Sunday morning. Full circle. A reminder to myself to keep an eye on what will now transpire in women’s music programming and the need to evaluate as well as celebrate International Women’s Day, from a musical perspective. A general call out to the feminist music community – time to start thinking what might be possible in 2016?

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