Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

Fanny Hensel at the Ballet

by Liane Curtis - October 22nd, 2016

“Fanny for ballet!!” read the text message. I blinked and did a double-take at the accompanying photo. Indeed, selections of Fanny Hensel’s “Das Jahr” — The Year — a cycle of piano pieces composed in 1841, were the music for a new ballet, “Her Notes,” chorographed by Jessica Lang and being premiered by the American Ballet Theatre in New York City.

img_7986 How exciting to think of Hensel’s powerful piano music being used as the basis of an expressive dance work.  In a video about the making of “Her Notes,” Lang explains “when I hear music, I see movement, and when I heard this piece “The Year” [Das Jahr] it inspired a very classical reaction in my mind … and I thought it would be great for ballet, and it would be the perfect piece for American Ballet Theatre.”

Fanny Hensel (1805-1847) is perhaps still best known as the sister of Felix Mendelssohn, but increasingly called by the name she preferred, her married name.  In creating “Das Jahr” she collaborated with her husband, Wilhelm Hensel, a painter and artist, in creating a multimedia work illustrating the months of a year: a special year of travel, discovery and reflection.  The surviving manuscript fair copy is a fascinating visual work of art, with each of the pieces copied onto different colors of paper, and illustrated with detailed drawings by her husband and framed with stanzas of poetry.  This completely original concept, and the overall power of the work, mark Fanny Hensel as a major figure of the 19th century.  Yet the piece was unknown and unpublished until 1989.  [illustration: January from Das Jahr.  The music was published by Furore in Germany, who also offer a facsimile of the manuscript version.]Das Jahr-January

Jessica Lang uses five of the movements of the cycle in the ballet “Her Notes,” the pensive January, the spritely February (as effervescent as Fanny’s brother’s “Midsummer-night’s Dream Overture), then June, a wistful heartfelt  song,– a “song without words,” the genre she and her brother pioneered. Finally December—a cascading flurry of activity before the introduction of the somber hymn, “Von Himmel hoch” ( From Heaven on High), which begins meditatively, but then becomes more emphatic and bold.   It is this hymn section we see being danced to in the video about the making of “Her Notes.”  And finally, with the Postlude, the return to inward, thoughtful reflection, and a sense of resolution.

An article in the Wall Street Journal notes ballet’s struggle “with a lack of diversity and a lack of female choreographers.”  Lang was attracted to the music of “Das Jahr,” but also the resonances of Fanny’s struggle, to overcome the opposition of first her father, and then her brother, to her taking her composing seriously, have particular meaning for any brilliant and hardworking female artist seeking to make inroads in a male-dominated profession.jessica-lang

To me as an observer of women composers who,  even in the case of a familiar name like Fanny (Mendelssohn) Hensel, still receive so much less recognition than they deserve, find this incorporation of her music into another major art-work as a great step forward, a real landmark of progress.  After all, there is the iconic Misty Copeland  dancing to Fanny’s music — that’s exposure and recognition of another level!  OK, I’ll admit that I don’t follow dance at all, but I know about Copeland from hearing her on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” — so that is really iconic!

So while we still hope to have more performances of Hensel’s music including orchestra — her Overture, her cantatas and oratorios — here is a real celebration of her music on another (and unexpected) great stage.

And here is Das Jahr in its entirety, performed by (pianist) Sarah Rothenburg.

Remembering Ursula Mamlok

by sarah - May 6th, 2016

It is with great sadness that we share the news of Ursula Mamlok’s death.

Born in Germany in 1923, Mamlok and her family fled the Nazis to Ecuador when she was only 17.  She received a scholarship to study at the Mannes School of Music in New York City.  Her compositional style included use of serialism and experimentation with tone color.  Throughout her career Mamlok taught composition at Temple University, New York University, and the Manhattan School of Music.

In 2006 she moved back to Berlin, the city of her birth, which is where she passed on May 4 at age 93.  More information about her life, career, and compositions can be found at her website.

Remembrances are beginning to be shared across the classical music community.  Be sure to read Christian Carey’s thoughts at Sequenza21.

Many of her recordings are available through Bridge Records, that has a 5 disc compilation available here.

Listen below to a conversation with Mamlok prior to the performance of her Concerto for Oboe and Chamber Orchestra:


Olivia Block on NPR

by sarah - January 8th, 2016

NPR’s Morning Edition shared the work of Chicago based composer Olivia Block as part of the series, “Musicians in their own Words.”

In a story that ran on January 7th, Block walked listeners through the soundscape of downtown Chicago and shared how she discovers and records sounds in her day to day life to incorporate in her electroacoustic compositions.  Listen here:

And this morning, January 8, Block invited listeners to learn more about her new collection of used cassette tapes, and the recordings from the past that she discovers still on the magnetic tape:

Read more about Block on her professional website or listen to more of her work on her SoundCloud page.

2015 In Review

by sarah - December 30th, 2015


This was an exciting year for those of us following women’s work in music.  We’ve already talked a bit about the tremendous opportunities and advancements women have made in conducting roles.  But Let’s also take some time to look at the plethora of “Highlight” lists that have been shared online and see how they compare to our favorite stories and concerts:


Sinfini Music was very deliberate in highlighting the achievements that women have made in the UK in the past year – including the appointment of Xian Zhang, the first woman to have  a titled role at a BBC Orchestra, Jessy McCabe, who successfully petitioned Edexcel to include works by women in their A Level Music curriculum, and Tansy Davies premiered a new opera, Between Worlds.


The 2015 Staff Picks of music at NewMusicBox includes works by  Du Yun, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and winner of the 2015 Pulitzer for Music, Julia Wolfe.


From The GuardianAndrew Clements’ top 10 concerts included Tansey Davies Re-Greening, a new commission by the Nation Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (read the original review here).  Tim Ashley included an exciting production we missed – the revival of Francesca Caccini’s La Liberation di Ruggiero done by the Brighton Early Music Festival (original review is here).  However, no works by women appeared in Tom Service’s, Fiona Maddocks’, or George Hall’s list.


NPR’s list of top 10 classical albums for 2015 includes Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s In the Light of Air, featuring the International Contemporary Ensemble.


Thorvaldsdottir was also featured in Alex Ross’s annual year in review at The New Yorker, with mentions in the Performance category (“In the Light of Air” at the Ojai Festival) and in Recordings (“In the Light of Air” as recorded by the International Contemporary Ensemble).  Ross also took note of Laurie Anderson’s installation at the Park Avenue Armory, and recordings of works by Rebecca Saunders, Liza Lim, Helena Tulve, and Paula Matthusen.  Read more here.


It was disappointing to see that no works by women were included in Fred Plotkin’s list at WQXR’s Operavore blog acknowledging the new operas that premiered in 2015.  There was no mention of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, the first fully staged performance of Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers, or Tansy Davies’ Between Worlds.


As we move on from 2015 we can reflect on and be glad for the dozens of great concerts, new opportunities for women as conductors and performers, and greater attention being generally brought to the work of women in music – as well as to look ahead for more excellent programming in the year to come!

New Associate Conductor for LA Phil

by sarah - August 12th, 2015

mirga-175The Los Angeles Philharmonic has announced that Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has been promoted from Assistant Conductor to Associate Conductor.  The LA Times has the story here.

Gražinytė-Tyla, Lithuanian by birth, was a Dudamel Fellow in the 2012-2013 season, after already making a name for herself by winning international conducting awards.  Her continued rise shouldn’t be shocking to anyone who has watched her developing career.  She has received praise from Alex Ross in The New Yorker when conducting the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl, from Christopher Morley in the Birmingham Post when conducing the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (UK), from Melinda Bagreen in The Seattle Times (when conducing the world premiere of Mason Bates’ Cello Concerto), and from Mark Swed in The LA Times.

Be sure to read David Ng’s profile from December 2014.

Here is a video of Gražinytė-Tyla in action conducting the rehearsal of Georg Druschetzky’s Concerto for Oboe and Timpani: