As I became involved with Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy I wanted to determine for myself what the current programming of today’s American orchestras suggested in the reception and recognition of music by women. I will here add a note (and disclaimer) to state that my enthusiasm to advocate for the works composed by women is not done blindly. To say that works by women need to be heard simply because they are women is just as naïve as to suggest that they don’t need to be heard for the very same reason. And though I caution against qualitative or quantitative methods for determining what is “good” music, I do firmly believe that it is important to include and recognize the diversity that exists in Western Art Music and value its historical worth as an important piece of a greater whole. The standard repertoire of symphony orchestras not only suggests what music deserves to be heard, but is also the impetus for musical education for the average layperson and is representative of the history of all Western Art Music. Those of us invested in the preservation and promotion of this history are more than aware of the problem – but to help reinforce this point, we need some hard data.
Thankfully, the League of American Orchestras (formally the American Symphony Orchestra League) collects repertoire data from participating orchestras throughout the United States, and parts of Canada, and makes this information free and available to the public through their website. Some notes here now as to my data collection: I decided to limit my research to American orchestras due to the availability of information as well as the large scope of orchestras that are heard throughout the country – from regional ensembles with volunteer members to some of the most acclaimed ensembles in the world. Sorting through this data was an interesting experience; at times tedious, exciting, or truly disheartening. However, it did provide some insight into where and how audiences are gaining exposure to a more inclusive repertoire of Western art music.
It can be easy to make widespread generalizations about the presence, or absence, of diverse programming choices. But with this collected information it is clearer to see not only what orchestras appear to be more conscious of inclusion in their programming choices, but also what composers and even pieces are heard the most throughout the country. As with all things, this information is more likely to leave us questioning “why” than finding solace in data neatly compiled in figures or graphs. And though the data does not deny that those of us who have been decrying orchestral programming have every right to be upset, it also provides some important and useful information that will help further advocate for these works that deserve to be heard.
To start, I believe that we should honor the good news that can be found in this information. After sifting through eight years of repertoire reports, I was able to count roughly 530 performances of works by women composers, not including multiple performances by any ensemble in the same calendar year, (i.e.: the same program played multiple times). A total of300 pieces were heard, sharing the work and talents of 126 composers, from Fanny Mendelssohn to Melissa Wagner. Just as diverse as the pieces heard were the ensembles that performed them – 218 in total, from the Honolulu to Brooklyn, with many stops in between.
Works by women are being heard across the country – and in increasing numbers. The earliest repertoire report, from 2000-01, listed a total of twenty-one performances of works by women, out of a total of over 10,000 performances. In the 2005-06 season the number peaked at 138 performances. The most recent statistics available, from the 2007-08 season, reveal that there were a total of 116 performances of individual works.
Though quite an optimistic leap from only a few years before, it still represents only a fraction of the total body of works heard. The LAO reported a total of 16,343 works heard in the 2007-08 season – the 116 performances of works by women represent only .7% of the total.
When I began collecting data I focused first on the repertoires of what are largely considered to be the best orchestras in the country. As I mentioned before, these orchestras, with the largest budgets, longest histories, and deep commitment to music preservation and education, as well as the funding to commission new works, are an important force in the identity of American music. One would imagine that their repertoires would not only honor what are generally considered to be “great” works of time gone by, but also a diverse representation of the rich history of Western art music … right?
My findings suggest that at least some of this is true. For example, throughout eight seasons of full concert schedules, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra proved to be the leader in total number of performances of music composed by women, playing more works than any other orchestra in the United States. Yes – the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which was honored last year as the greatest American ensemble by Gramophone, and is continually being recognized as such, also appears to have an understanding of the importance in providing a more complete representation of composers on the concert stage. I can say this because in eight seasons they performed a total of fourteen works penned by women composers. True, this is not even two per year – but at least it’s more than can be counted on two hands, which says a lot compared to most other ensembles.
Unsurprisingly, few of what are considered to be the most reputable orchestras in the United States included more than a couple of pieces every few years. In eight seasons, Boston, the first American orchestra to ever perform a work by a woman composer, performed five works, Cleveland (runner up to Chicago in Gramaphone’s list and in works performed) heard eleven, New York seven, and Philadelphia nine. With Chicago, these “Top Five” orchestras are referred to continually as representative of musical excellence throughout the world, but fail to provide an accurate portrayal of the history of western art music, and the diversity that exists within it. The figures for other “top” orchestras are perhaps just as expected – in those same eight seasons Baltimore and Houston performed three and Cincinnati and Dallas performed two works by women composers.
So, works by women composers are being performed – though not necessarily by the orchestras that are most heard. That is, of the 218 orchestras that the LAO has listed as performing works by women, most are regional ensembles with few performance dates and budgets that are fractional compared to that of any one of the “Top” ensembles, and a total of almost twenty were specifically “Youth” ensembles. The obvious question is, “why”?
Though we can all be glad in the success that these pieces have found, and undoubtedly will continue to find in the years to come, we should also ask why these two works have made their mark so concretely in the greater consciousness of the American music scene. That both Joan Tower and Jennifer Higdon are incredibly talented, accomplished, and respected contemporary composers is, perhaps, only part of the puzzle. The significance that each of these two works inherently carries was also an important part of the process. Tower’s Made In America was the most performed work because it was part of a large-scale commissioning project, involving sixty-five smaller-budget orchestras, making history as the largest consortium commission in America – itself an important distinction. No doubt the work, which has been praised in reviews from around the country, has also reached special significance with listeners due to the thematic material that Tower incorporated into the work: the tune of “America, the Beautiful.” And, Tower’s desire to incorporate so many ensembles into the creation and performance of this work for the purpose of educating a wider audience as to the achievements of women in the field of composition.
Though Higdon’s Blue Cathedral was not part of a joint commission, the significance that is attached to the work hits, perhaps, even closer to home: the work is dedicated to the memory of Higdon’s brother, Andrew Blue Higdon, who passed away at the age of thirty-three from melanoma. The deep personal connection that the composer has to the work is evident in its beauty. Perhaps it is because of the personal significance of the work, not only to the composer but to audiences, and the connection that it creates that this work to be so heavily programmed throughout the United States, and the world. Higdon’s personal website states that the work has been heard by over 150 orchestras since its debut in 2000. These works may attribute some of their success to their special significance, which helps audience members to connect with them in direct and powerful ways.
But there are numerous factors that come together to create a concert program, let alone a concert season. We cannot forget the power that the conductors themselves have in choosing repertoire, based not only on personal interest but also with an ear to the audience, and donors. In the tally of which conductors perform the most works by women composers it was a numerical tie between Franz Welser-Moest and JoAnn Falletta who each performed nine, again in those eight seasons. To their credit, each of these composers has built and sustained friendships with living women composers; Falletta did so in part with her decade of work spent with The Women’s Philharmonic.
We can also acknowledge the power that soloists carry in the repertoire that they choose to perform. A third of the total works by women composers heard featured soloists who chose to include works by women in their working repertoire, carrying the music with them to different orchestras throughout the country, and the world. This past year Hilary Hahn and Anne-Sophie Mutter both premiered violin concerti composed by Higdon and Sofia Gubaidulina, respectively.
When it comes to the performances of works by women composers, we are moving forward – yes. But at what pace?
Perhaps the most important question is where to begin. How do we find a well-deserved place for this music without “othering” the works, or the composers? How many more “women’s music” concerts should we plan to hear before this music and its creators are given the same merit and recognition without a specialized concert program? How do we encourage more orchestras from around the country to perform diverse repertoires, including not only modern compositions, but also works of historical value and importance? How do we best support the work of contemporary composers, as well as encourage the work of rising composers, while also advocating for the works of women who have long since passed? How do we support the efforts of orchestras throughout the country that have performed, or would like to perform a more diverse repertoire but don’t know where to start?I would like to reiterate that we should be proud of all the accomplishments made in the past hundred years or so – our foremothers would be proud! Along with the increasing numbers of works heard, the extreme popularity of works by women like Jennifer Higdon, Joan Tower, Kaija Saariaho and Chen Yi, we can also acknowledge the tremendous amount of new music being written and heard. In those same eight seasons, the LAO reported 78 world premieres, as well as 12 U.S. premieres. We must also acknowledge the women who have served as composers-in-residence in orchestras across the country. However, we also cannot sit satisfied with the current state of affairs.