Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

Classical Music Moonlighters

by sarah - March 24, 2015

The Guardian has a great piece up highlighting “Classical Music Moonlighters“.

The list of composers who worked on music after they finished their day jobs includes:

  • Ethel Smyth (who was a composer first and turned to writing books – including a multi-volume autobiography – later in life)
  • St. Hildegard of Bingen (abbess, mystic, healer, author, composer)
  • Lera Auerbach (a novelist and visual artist, she is also well-known in Russia as a poet)

Which makes me think: who else?  Clara Schumann was a pianist first and a composer second, and Nadia Boulanger was an educator first.  How many women were first wives, mothers, and homemakers before they could spend time composing at the keyboard?

Why don’t we all take a listen to Spotify’s collection of works by women and add some other names to the list!

Boulanger Premiere!

by sarah - February 25, 2015

I was thrilled to learn that a long-lost work by Lili Boulanger will finally receive its premiere on Thursday, February 26.


The Royal College of Music will present the work at the Royal Festival Hall.  The Philharmonia Orchestra’s website provides more information as to its origin from scholar Caroline Potter:

In her all too brief career, Lili Boulanger composed a number of works that have not survived. One missing piece, Marche gaie, resurfaced in short-score form in 2011 in a private collection in North Carolina; the owners of the manuscript are the grandchildren of the work’s dedicatee, Jeanne Leygues. As Marche gaie was registered with the French copyright society SACEM as a work for chamber orchestra in 1916, we can assume it was composed in that year. While the manuscript is in an unknown hand, there is musical and circumstantial evidence that shows beyond reasonable doubt that this is a missing work by Lili Boulanger. The piece has been orchestrated in appropriate style by Robert Orledge.

Jeanne Leygues, daughter of the French politician Georges Leygues (briefly Prime Minister in 1920-21 and a great supporter of the arts), married an American, Paul Rockwell, who fought with his brother in the French Foreign Legion in the First World War. We can assume that Marche gaie was composed for their wedding in December 1916, not least because the piece alludes to Mendelssohn’s famous Wedding March; Lili Boulanger was fond of quotation and allusion. Marche gaie was originally paired with a Marche funèbre, a work yet to resurface.

This is a great discovery – and I have my fingers crossed that Marche funèbre and other works will be found, performed, and recorded.  What a fabulous addition to the repertoire!

Marche gaie will be heard along with Ravel and Stravinsky as part of the “City of Light: Paris 1900-1950″ Festival.  More information and tickets are available here.


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.



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:

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