New York City’s premiere classical music station, WQXR, is presenting a 24-hour marathon of “Emerging Female Composers”. A poll that they ran in July asked listeners to suggest and then vote for a theme for the most recent installment of the series. (The 24 on the 24th is a long running series.)
When the votes came in, 50.9% of listeners voted to hear the voices of women.
The program will feature “emerging” female voices, to coincide with WQXR’s mission, and will be heard on August 24th with a repeat performance on August 28th. Though the music historian in me is a bit disappointed that historic voices wont’ be represented, I’m thrilled that the program is happening, that the theme came from an audience poll, and that so many different women will be featured. Listeners are promised 24 hours of “distinct, no-repeats programming”, and are looking for input as to who should be included in the playlist. Visit the website to make your suggestion, and be sure to listen in on the 24th and 28th and support women’s voices!
The Guardianjust reviewed a new recording of three works by Unsuk Chin which will be released August 19 – the Piano Concerto, Cello Concerto, and Šu, which was written for the sheng, a Chinese mouth organ. Chin’s Šu will be heard August 27 at the BBC Proms. For more information and tickets, see the official Proms website.
Here is the first movement of the Cello Concerto from its premiere at the 2009 Proms:
Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy is working to level the playing field when it comes to the representation of works by women in the classical music repertoire. But it goes without saying that there is a need for equal representation not only of works by women, but also works by people of color. The recent article in the New York Times calling out the severe lack of representation of works by black composers in repertoire echoes many of the difficulties that women have faced in their efforts to have their works heard.
Having works relegated to Black History Month/Women’s History Month
Being criticized for not sounding “Black” enough/sounding too feminine, or not feminine enough
And, perhaps above all, wanting to be recognized for their own work, creativity, and skill — not qualified with race or gender.
We have encountered this quite a lot from many different voices who object to the qualification of “women” composers versus a composer who happens to be a woman. However, the continued and blatant inequality that persists throughout the field requires attention be called to the issue, and such descriptors (though I caution to use the term “qualifiers”) are necessary to highlight just how far we are from hearing a range of different voices in the musical landscape. In order to advocate for more works by people of color and by women to be added to concert programs, and studied in classrooms, we first must acknowledge the lack of presence — that they are unjustly ignored — to begin with. The Times article asks: if there still is a racial divide, where does it come from? The divide is relatively simple — though it is not caused by any overt racist or sexist motivations, it is the lack of innovation in artistic programming that continually promotes Bach, Beethoven, and the boys and neglects any voices that have not been cemented into the Canon of “great” western music.
The defense of the Canon seemingly always dissolves into a discussion of worth and greatness – if the works by women/people of color were as magnificent/valuable/important as the “great” works that have been performed repeatedly, then they would surely rise to the top and stand on their own. But how can that possibly take place if these works aren’t ever heard?
The article, which features several of today’s prominent composers, doesn’t include the voices of any contemporary black women. It does, however, recall the life and work of Florence Price who achieved an amazing amount of recognition, in particular considering her role as a black woman working as a composer in the 1930s and 1940s. The article also recalls a time when women, and people of color, were gaining ground in the field of classical music – writing, having their works heard, receiving not only acknowledgement but even accolades. But that time has passed, and the voices that had been gaining such prominence in the repertoire of American orchestras have disappeared completely from the repertoire. Instead, the expectation is to hear Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler (again, and again) and to ignore the voices that are no longer around to advocate for their own works. Though, as Price knew all too well, there were and will always be barriers:
At the height of her career, Price tried to convince Serge Koussevitzky — conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra — to program her music. “To begin with,” she wrote in a 1943 letter, “I have two handicaps — those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins. I should like to be judged on merit alone.”
The Boston Symphony has yet to play a note of her music.
In building off of the Times article, let’s also acknowledge the other black women who made their mark with their additions to the American musical canon, though they remain un- or underperformed. To name a few:
Well. We knew it couldn’t possibly be that easy. When Judith Weir was announced to be the next Master of Queen’s Music the news was met with some excitement and praise for Weir and her well-respected work. We first addressed the news here, and after the official announcement from the Palace, Weir also responded directly in The Guardian where she shared her plans to travel the country, get to really know the status of music education, speak to musicians, composers, and educators and work to make music more accessible to the masses.
But on Sunday David Mellor, former Culture Secretary and Daily Mail classical music critic, stirred the pot with a “scathing attack” against the appointment. In an article in the Daily MailMellor said:
Rather than focus on her being the first woman to hold the post, would it not be better to concentrate on whether this is a job she is capable of doing?
I’d rather be thrown into a pit of scorpions than have to sit through another of her operas.
Charming. And, charming, too, were the trolls that came to the surface in the comments section of the article. My favorite comment thus far:
We all know it is a politically correct appointment – a token woman (doubtless with all the nutty, left-wing views of Cameron). There are NO great composers from the female gender and there NEVER will be.
Many have added to the conversation in support of Weir and to reaffirm the appointment - even Weir’s predecessor, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, sang her praises. Though there is always the matter of personal taste, there is little doubt as to how well-qualified she is for the position, but that has never stopped the criticisms that appear all too often in situations like this. Mellor certainly knew what he was doing when making such accusations and stirring the pot to rally support against Weir. As the first woman appointed to this position Weir is automatically accused of being a “token” appointment, and thereby unworthy of the title and role. And who says that women have reached true equality?
The string of summer music festivals continues with the Mostly Mozart festival in New York City presented annually by Lincoln Center. Already in full swing (the festival runs from July 25-August 23) there are two concerts in the wings that are of particular interest. Though I’m never one for concerts only highlighting the work of one composer (especially one whose works are already well represented in the standard repertoire), exceptions can be made for two contemporary composers who are rarely programed.
August 19 will again feature the International Contemporary Ensemble, this time performing the works of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. The program will include Intro-Second Self; Shades of Silence; and In the Light of Air:
Disappointing to not see historical women included in the numerous concerts and events in this year’s Festival (and why not also inclusion, or at very least mention, of the fabulous stage work that just completed its run in NYC based on the life of Mozart’s sister?). Though there is clearly more work to be done to bring the work of women of the past into the light, it is heartening to see contemporary works being featured this year, especially the works of Thorvaldsdottir, whose work is new to me.