Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

The Importance of Innovative Programming

by sarah - January 15, 2015

There should be no surprise that we at Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy are enthusiastic about supporting innovative ideas for concerts.  But though we are among the relatively few voices that acknowledge the absence of works by women and advocate for their inclusion on concert programs, we are in good company with many who would like to see more than the standard repertoire on season lineups.  Though I don’t believe that classical music is dying or dead, I do feel that it could use a bit of perking up.  With so many ensembles going through their own financial woes, lacking ticket sales and interested donors, the time has come to reevaluate which works are heard, and how they are presented.

That is why the Spring For Music festival was so commendable.  The core of the festival was to allow orchestras to experiment and explore. The artistic philosophy was, in comparison to the Beethoven that we expect to see on every season brochure, a thrill to read:

Spring For Music provides an idealized laboratory, free of the normal marketing and financial constraints, for an orchestra to be truly creative with programs that are interesting, provocative and stimulating, and that reflect its beliefs, its standards, and vision. Spring For Music believes that an orchestra’s fundamental obligation is to lead and not follow taste. As such, programming needs to advance, and not just satisfy, expectations. An artistic point of view must infuse everything an orchestra does, with programs that not only reflect but validate that point of view. Great programs have imaginative, meaningful and deliberate thought behind the selection of pieces, the sequence of pieces, the program structure, and the presentation of pieces. This does not mandate a rigid program “theme” or simply a healthy dose of contemporary music; rather it reflects a stimulating mix of pieces, styles, artists and composers that engages the listener in an absorbing adventure – a journey that seduces, thrills, and moves, and where the program’s totality becomes greater than the sum of the individual pieces. A great program provokes gasps, sighs, tears or smiles, but above all creates a sense of the unexpected – the listener is never sure how it will actually turn out; it is imbued with an inherent risk of uncertainty.

As a result, the risks that were taken in the concerts that were presented included adventurous works and rarely heard performers – including a surprising percentage of women.  In 2011 the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra presented a new commission from Maria Schneider (Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories for Soprano and Chamber Orchestra); the Albany Symphony performed Bun-Ching Lam’s “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and Tania Leon’s “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel”; and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performed Melinda Wagner’s Little Moonhead.  In 2013 the Baltimore Symphony performed Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto 4-3.  In 2014 the Rochester Philharmonic was originally invited to perform a concert which included Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony and other to-be-announced works by women, but the program changed when the conductor was unexpectedly removed and replaced.  Spring For Music allowed conductors to take risks without worrying about how many tickets were sold or what the immediate donor base would consider.  And the concerts themselves were designed to be very accessible with flat, affordable ticket prices.

The idea was inspired and deeply relevant to the need to change the current tides of classical music.  Which makes it all the more unfortunate that Spring For Music was, ultimately, unsustainable.  The intentions were excellent, and the concerts it produced in its four year run were superb – but there was lack of funding to continue the experiment any longer.  As Alex Ross noted on his blog, “This series will be missed and mourned.”

All the more reason why I was thrilled to learn that the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts will collaborate to bring back a reimagining of Spring For Music in SHIFT: A Festival of American Orchestras.  Read the full press release here.

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There are key differences between the former and future iterations (participating orchestras will be chosen not just for artistry but for their demonstrated relationship with their communities; an overall stronger emphasis on education, including community events, workshops, etc.) but the core is the same – acknowledging, applauding, and encouraging more innovative programming.

The website for applications will be open as of next week, and we can anticipate the first iteration of the festival in 2017.  I look forward not only to what programs and events/opportunities for engagement will be offered, but how this momentum from Spring For Music and now SHIFT can continue to encourage and inspire conductors and arts administrators that it is worth taking risks and offering audiences something new, exciting, and engaging instead of the repertoire we all may love, but have heard perhaps far too often.

 

BBC’s Top 10

by sarah - November 20, 2014

In light of the Mrs. Bach controversy (which is still ruffling feathers…) the BBC has put together a list of 10 women who”changed music”.  Check it out here.

The usual suspects are on the list – which raises the question, who would you add?

 

 

Concerning Race

by sarah - August 13, 2014

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:

Julia Perry:

Undine Smith Moore:

Eva Jessye:

Margaret Bonds:

Attack on Judith Weir

by sarah - August 7, 2014

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 Mail Mellor said:

Weir-Judith-06[Dietmar_Mathis]

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?

and:

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?

 

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.
JUDITH WEIR
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”:

 

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