Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

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:


A Round-Up of Recent Headlines on the Fat-Shaming Incident

by sarah - June 10, 2014

The current role, and expectations, of women in music have been in the headlines as of late—all surrounding reception of a recent production Der Rosenkavalier and the size (not the talent) of the singer playing Octavian.  The critical reviews of acclaimed mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught have been big news, and raised many red flags, as they focused almost entirely on the physical appearance of Erraught and not her vocal performance.

The critiques of the critiques have also brought to the fore conversations about expectations for women’s bodies in performance, as well as just how different the expectations for men and women are, more often than not.

Here’s a short list of some of the articles framing the story:

Anastasia Tsioulcas at NPR’s Deceptive Cadence as the story broke and with some additional reflections.

Anne Midgette at The Washington Post

Alex Ross at The New Yorker

Barney Sherman at Iowa Public Radio (which also address the wider facing women inequities throughout the arts)

And, it just so happens, the performance Der Rosenkavalier (from Glyndebourne) with Erraught is available streaming online until June 15.

These links to YouTube recordings are provided on Erraught’s own website:


Joan Tower Performed (and Recorded) by Nashville Symphony

by Liane Curtis - November 23, 2013

Tonight! (Nov. 23)  Not only will WPA Performance Grant recipient Nashville Symphony present two works by Joan Tower—Stroke (2010) and Violin Concerto (1991)—it will also record them for a 2014 release by Naxos, the same label that released Tower’s Grammy-winning  Made in America.  Bravo!!

A Few Words on the RPO

by sarah - February 5, 2013

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra has been making headline after headline as of late—and not for the same reasons that it did just a year or so ago. The orchestra that was only months ago presented with the first Amy Award for programming excellence has now fired the Music Director that made the award possible. The situation surrounding the termination of conductor Arild Remmereit is becoming increasingly complicated and frustrating for the RPO musicians and Remmereit’s supporters.

While I am not qualified to speak directly to the circumstances, and the extremely divided viewpoints on the matter, I do have a great concern regarding the future programming of the RPO.

Maestro Remmereit’s programming choices made a significant impact for Rochester and the larger classical music community, even with his extremely abbreviated tenure.  A recent editorial in the Democrat and Chronicle spoke to the difficult situation that now exists in Rochester, and acknowledged among Remmereit’s achievements the inclusion of work by women and minority artists. In fact, his programming choices were so innovative as to warrant an invitation for the RPO to performing during the 2014 Spring For Music festival at Carnegie Hall. The original press release proudly announced that their performance, scheduled for May 7, 2014, would include Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony and other works by women composers. It seemed only logical that RPO would perform Beach at Carnegie Hall—the honor of participation came as a result of their adventurous and innovative programming. In other words: because Remmereit dared to feature under-performed works by women composers.

Imagine my surprise when I read in a press release from January that the RPO has changed their repertoire for the Spring For Music festival – instead of presenting the rich concert of works by women, the RPO, under the direction of Michael Christie, will perform Howard Hanson’s opera Merry Mount.

I am confused why the decision would be made to so dramatically change the programming for participation in the Spring For Music festival, particularly when the inclusion of works by women was a significant factor in the invitation to participate at all.

Regardless as to the personal and/or political factors of the recent dismissal, the RPO Board is gravely remiss to not acknowledge the positive developments in programming and engagement that have resulted from Remmereit’s vision. They were happy to acknowledge the ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming (due in part to including works by Karen Tanaka and Margaret Brouwer), as well as the Amy Award from Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy. Why suddenly ignore and dismiss the progress that has been made and the national recognition that has been garnered from diverse programming?


Jennifer Higdon (photo credit Candace di Carlo)

Jennifer Higdon’s piece “Machine” was recently included in an RPO concert.   The program was originally meant to also include a work by Margaret Brouwer, which the management cut for budgetary reasons.  Having two works by women on one program was another example of Remmereit’s visionary decisions.  My colleague Liane Curtis mentioned the situation to Higdon, and Higdon observed:

Maestro Remmereit looks like an incredibly inventive programmer of fascinating concerts. These are the kind of concerts I dream about being able to attend. (email, Jan. 25, 2013)

I second her opinion. It would be a terrible turn of events if the RPO Board, and every orchestra Board, didn’t recognize the value of innovative and diverse programming and build on the past RPO successes. Instead, I fear, they will be advocating for more of the all too familiar, with the result that  those innovative concerts that we’ve been dreaming will go unheard.

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