Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

2014 BBC Proms

by sarah - July 21, 2014

The 2014 BBC Proms kicked off on Friday, July 18, with another very full roster of concerts carrying through September 13.  This cultural treasure has been a staple of the British musical landscape since 1895, often featuring the works of UK composers, actively commissioning new music, and introducing a diverse audience to innovative programs and new composers and compositions.

A look through the 2014 lineup reveals 6 works by women composers – which is 6 more than  most major American orchestras can manage to fit into an entire concert season!

The first concert with a work by a woman was yesterday evening.  The World Orchestra for Peace performed Roxanna Panufink’s Three Paths to Peace.  You can read a review of the performance in The Guardian, and have a listen for yourself to the concert.  (Forgive the first two minutes or so of the recording, there’s overlap from a previous radio show.)

The rest of the Proms lineup that includes work by women are:

Prom 20 – Friday, August 1
Sally Beamish: Violin Concerto

Prom 31 – Saturday, August 9
Helen Grime: Near Midnight

Prom 41 – Saturday, August 16
Dobrinka TabakovaSpinning a Yarn

Prom 55 – Wednesday August 27
Unsuk ChinŠu

Proms Chamber Music 7: Monday, September 1
Judith WeirDay Break Shadows Flee

Nannerl Mozart, No Longer Forgotten

by Liane Curtis - July 15, 2014
The Other Mozart
Written by Sylvia Milo
Sylvia Milo as Nannerl Mozart
Directed by Isaac Byrne
Review of performance July 8, 2014 at HERE Arts Center in New York City

The Other Mozart tells an archetypical story—of musical brilliance, ambition, dedication and talent—thwarted by oppressive and insurmountable societal factors. This vividly dramatized portrayal of Maria Anna (nicknamed Nannerl) Mozart, is a story of ambition thwarted and talent crushed.  Through Nannerl’s eyes we get a glimpse of what might have been—but wasn’t.  That Nannerl, like her younger brother Wolfgang, was a precocious talent is clear. But she faced limitations from earliest childhood, specifically because she was a girl. That the story is true—as is stated in the theatrical prologue—makes it even more powerful. 

Author and actress Sylvia Milo is the creative force behind the 75-minute play, which has had several prior productions in Europe as well as the US and garnered rave reviews, earning a ‘strikingly beautiful’ from The New York Times. A musician and composer herself, the Polish-born Milo researched primary sources for years and drew heavily upon the Mozart family’s own words, set down in voluminous correspondence that documented their closeness and need for connection to each other, even when separated by travel.

To call this a “one-woman show” seems woefully inadequate and inaccurate, as Milo brings to life with such multi-dimensional physicality an array of characters: the stern Leopold; the dour, guttural mother; the bubbling Wolfgang and his chortling wife, Constanze; even a mention of Haydn. While the HERE Arts Center is an intimate venue, the intensity that Milo creates would carry to a larger setting as well; her presence gives power and momentum to this sweeping drama.

Sylvia Milo as Nannerl Mozart in the 18-foot-wide dress that serves as the play's central metaphor.

Sylvia Milo as Nannerl Mozart in the 18-foot-wide dress that serves as the play’s central metaphor.

The background soundscape for the play has been created by composers Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen. They draw on a varied palette of percussive sounds—clinking, chiming, clanging—suggesting of clockwork mechanisms, a metaphor for social structures constructed with rigidity and continuing with inflexible inevitability, moving inexorably, immune to human emotions and desires.

That Nannerl wrote music, we know. None of it survives, but she plays a piece, described as her own, on a tiny music box, supportive by additional sounds. It is delicate and melancholy; Chen and Davis evoke a wistfulness, and Nannerl can then bask in the praise, the effusive praise recorded in a letter she receives from her brother: “My dear sister! I am in awe that you can compose so well, in a word, the song you wrote is beautiful.”

The 18-foot wide dress (designed by Magdalena Dabrowska from the National Theater of Poland) is the central prop, and metaphor, of the play. It serves, ultimately, as a restraint. But at first it is the canvas for her life, a back-drop, and multipurpose stage-prop. As young Nannerl, she does not yet wear it. Dressed in modest undergarments, she capers around it, pulls out objects from under and within its elaborate folds, and, jumps over and hides behind the corset frame. It serves as both a landscape and an interior.

At first young Nannerl enjoyed and benefitted from her ancillary status with Wolfgang. Her father taught them both, and they performed together on the harpsichord or piano.  For years, the family toured widely (Paris, London, Vienna, Munich), showing off the talents of both children. But once Nannerl was too old to be a child prodigy, this could not continue. With the family focused on climbing in social status, it was determined that she should be groomed for marriage.

In order to serve as an appropriate spouse, Nannerl was withdrawn from the public stage. Her distress at this loss of the exhilarating life a performer was visceral—months of retching and vomiting—as she was confronted with the end of her touring career. The curtailing of her horizons was a grim, even brutal development.  At home in provincial Salzburg, the sounds of ratcheting gears accompany the gesture of pulling the embroidery needle, in mundane repetitiveness; at the same time Wolfgang is being applauded in the great European capitals and having his operas commissioned and debuted.

The intersection of gender and class is sensitively revealed as a factor silencing Nannerl.  She exuberantly recalls composer Marianne Martines (1744–1812), who had autonomy and success: composing, publishing and performing, and who thus was an inspiration for Nannerl.  But this was possible for Martines only because of her inherited noble status and financial stability.  And Nannerl’s mother viewed Martines as a failure because she never married—her social status was only marginal.  In the background, we hear a piano performance of her work mutating into her grand symphony, showing that Martines had some traction even in the sphere of large-scale orchestral works.

Nannerl might have attained a success like Marianne Martines. But as a woman it is unimaginable that she would have ever reached the same level of success as Mozart. The Other Mozart is a poignant reminder that, for many centuries, and even millennia, one precondition to the status of genius was being male—and we have lost uncounted works of genius by that arbitrary fact.

And for Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, the corollary realization is that we continue to be denied works by all of Mozart’s “sisters” if we ignore the output of the women who, despite the many obstacles, DID manage to write music and leave a record of their creative legacy. The Other Mozart will help to generate interest in the music of the female contemporaries of Mozart, and, in fact, a complementary pairing of a concert with the play (featuring composers such as Martines, Maria Antonia Walpurgis, Maddelena Sirmen, Maria Theresa Agnesi, Maria Theresa von Paradies, Francesca Le Brun, etc.) would be an exciting artistic offering.

The Other Mozart has now finished its New York City run, and will play in various European locations this summer.

Sylvia Milo introduces the play in several videos, here.


The Other Mozart

by Liane Curtis - July 9, 2014

The Other Mozart – a one-woman play about Wolfgang’s sister Nannerl, is a stunning work in its final week of an off-Broadway run.   It’s amazing and you should get to it if you can.  I’m just back from it and will try to offer a few thoughts on it soon.


Congratulations to Judith Weir!

by sarah - July 2, 2014

It was just announced, though unofficially, that Scottish-born Judith Weir will become the first female Master of the Queen’s Music. Described as the equivalent of Poet Laureate, the position dates back to Charles I, who appointed Nicholas Lanier in 1625, and has been held by William Boyce, Sir Edward Elgar, and most recently, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who vacated it in March 2014. (The once lifetime post has since been changed to a 10 year appointment.) A formal announcement is expected from the Queen in coming weeks.

The position has no official duties—perhaps some ceremonial music for a royal event (wedding, coronation, etc.), but is generally seen as a “musical advisor” to the queen.
After Sir Maxwell Davies announced his retirement, British newspaper The Independent published a piece calling for the Palace to name a woman to the position—no doubt springing from the recent conversations about just how lacking in representation women are in the classical music scene, and on the heels of yet another embarrassing moment wherein a male conductor spoke publicly about how women just aren’t suited for the job. In her piece columnist Claudia Pritchard includes Judith Weir with Sally Beamish, Nicola LeFanu, and Judith Bingham as possible contenders for the role—all of whom fit the “appropriate” age/experience range that is associated with the position. Also included were several up and coming composers who would be prime contenders in the future: Kerry Andrew, Tansy Davies, Lucy Pankhurst, and Rosanna Panufnik.

Another great piece by Jessica Duchen of The Guardian published just after the announcement reminds everyone of the importance of the appointment, even in a symbolic and ceremonial position:

      Women composers face a ceiling made not of one sheet of plate glass, but a multicoloured mosaic of issues. Classical music is still dominated by works written well before women were given the vote. The perceived “difficulty” of contemporary music in the postwar years did not help to endear it to sales-aware promoters, and even now opportunities to air new compositions remain limited. This year’s Proms include music by eight women composers and songwriters – a relatively large number, believe it or not, yet still only a fraction of the 88 concerts on offer.
      Another major problem is that the paucity of successful role models has made it rare for younger women to consider becoming composers. I remember arriving, in the 1980s, for my first term at university in great excitement at the idea of trying to compose, having been encouraged to do so at my school, one alumna of which is Weir herself. It did not take long to discover that women would-be composers were doomed to a series of patronising putdowns by resistant faculty and arrogant male students.
       The strongest – I wasn’t one – survived despite this environment rather than because of it. You had to be tough and believe in yourself, because nobody else was going to believe in you. Most people need a star by which to navigate and, though women composers did exist, they were few in number and far, far away. I hope all that has changed now.
       As Master of the Queen’s Music (let’s not worry about redubbing her “Mistress”, a word loaded with the contradictory atmospheres of schoolroom and boudoir), Weir becomes a necessary figurehead: visible, high-profile proof that women not only can compose, but can rise to hold the same title as Elgar himself. This is a vital step that can help to encourage a new crop of aspiring composers – and ensure that someday we may never have to talk about their gender again.

Since the announcement there has only been praise and anticipation of what might be to come for the UK’s music scene with a woman (if only figuratively) at the helm. I absolutely agree that it’s about time—and that Weir’s position as Master of the Queen’s Music will mean an opportunity for innovative and diverse programming, and will do a world of good (especially with the BBC’s new initiative) to encourage young people to engage with music.

If you’re unfamiliar with Weir’s work, be sure to also visit Tom Service’s guide to her music.

For a taste right now, here is Weir’s “Airs from Another Planet”:


Symphony Guide Featuring Louise Farrenc

by sarah - June 24, 2014

In case you missed it, Tom Service, music critic for The Guardian, featured Louise Farrenc’s Third Symphony in his running Symphony Guide series on his blog.  It’s always wonderful to see a historic(!) woman(!)’s work being featured in a serious column—but this piece is a personal favorite, so it was an even more meaningful surprise.

Of the fourth movement Service says:

There may be referents here, above all Mozart’s G minor symphony, no. 40, as well as Schumann and even Chopin, in the flexibility of Farrenc’s tunes, but the result is something distinctively her own: a uniquely expressive and significant voice that needs to be recognised and heard.

Couldn’t agree more.

Be sure to take time to listen to the symphony in full here:


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