Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

A View from Germany: Classical Music is so Sexist

by Liane Curtis - July 30th, 2018

Inge Kloepfer‘s striking article “So sexistisch ist die Klassik  — Classical Music is So Sexist” appeared on June 13, 2018 in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.  We wanted English-speaking readers to be able to read this important journalism, so we asked Elizabeth Osman to translate it for us, and then I polished her translation.  Thank you to Inge Kloepfer for permission.   (Liane Curtis)

(this image appeared in the E-paper version of the article)


“If enough castrati were available, women would not even have roles as singers: in the classical music establishment, the obstinate patterns of perceptions maintain that feminine can be merely the muse, while genius is only masculine.”


The Berlin Philharmonic program for the upcoming concert season is outdated – to an extent that you wouldn’t think possible in 2018. Because the next season will be predominantly enacted by men. Women are almost only allowed on the big stage of the Berlin Philharmonic as singers. Because the music scene no longer has Castrati for the high voices, and not everything can be done with Countertenors, the strictly conservative program writers cannot ignore Sopranos.

But that is not all: not once does a female conductor stand at the podium of the [Berlin] Philharmonic [in this season].  Also, new music composed by women is almost never played. Of all things, for the Berlin Philharmonic, which makes such a big fuss of their role in youth development, one would expect otherwise, especially since they have had Andrea Zietzschmann as the (female) artistic director for the past eight months.

This top operation of German classics is no exception. The Elbphilharmonie (Hamburg) is only a bit more modern and forward looking. We, the audience who are inclined to the classics, are still predominantly entertained by men in the large concert halls. And we can hardly stand it.  “There is a need for progress, especially in the area of female conductors and composers” admitted Director Zietzschmann. But it does not appear that anything  is happening with them.  At least she promises that “in the season after next, female soloists will play a larger role.” Numerically, women remain accessory parts to this day in the top classical music scene, [and even that role is] not guaranteed to them. This discrimination is systematic – it is part of a deeply rooted and rarely acknowledged set of beliefs and practices.

It has already been a year and a half since the survey by the German Cultural Council. The result of the analysis of the past twenty years showed one thing above all for the world of classical music: it has a sexism problem. And it cannot get it under control.  Olaf Zimmermann, President of the Cultural Council, says “patriarchal structures have become deeply entrenched in the pattern of artistic work.” The male genius cult had never been challenged. And it will not be even today. Men are still the geniuses, women still the muses. The artistic leaders have been reassuring the public for years that a lot has already been done, that progress has been made. Statistically, that is false.  The classical world had made more progress, more than a hundred years ago. For example, in the 1908-09 season in Vienna, almost 40 percent of the official soloists or chamber musicians were women. It was after that the women disappeared from the main stages.

The directors regard the women question as obsolete, at least for soloists, and claim that equality prevails here. But once again, the numbers show this is also not true: one only needs to count the concert programs. And female conductors are not good enough (it is claimed) for the big stages. “Unfortunately, the number of female conductors is much less than the number of male conductors, and so the selection is limited,” said Zietzschmann.

This is not plausible: for 25 years, more women have studied singing and instrumental music than men. For 15 years, 40 percent of the conductors and 30 percent of the composer classes have been female. Assuming a normal distribution of talent, the degree programs should produce in percentage terms just as many excellent, mediocre, and bad female musicians as male musicians. But on the biggest stages this is not the case – we see only a very few female superstars like Martha Argerich, Barbara Hannigan, Hélène Grimaud, or Yuja Wang. Natural distribution laws apparently do not apply here. Why?

The American neuro-scientist, Vivienne Ming, has been researching this very phenomenon [the prejudice that is discussed in the previous paragraph] for years, though not in the field of fine arts, but in rather in economics. Not without reason does she elevate the issue to the level of human cognition; after all, she has determined that the male or female first name of a start-up founder determines the chances of receiving financing. Our brain, she explains, is lazy when it has to make a decision. When an investor has mostly encountered male engineers, then his brain will resort to this usual assessment of business model and will tend to judge the men’s models positively. The women simply lose the game due to these bad statistics. In other words, people – men and women alike — are prejudiced, and they are most often not aware of it.

A whole novel about this cognitive phenomenon was written by American bestselling author Siri Hustvedt, called The Blazing World. It deals with an artistically talented but unsuccessful gallery owner’s wife, who decides (after the death of her husband) to restart her career as an artist with the help of three men. Behind their masks, the perception of her art changes 180 degrees. There is, Hustvedt said, a perceptual reality: art is assessed very differently depending on whether a male or female name stands by it. And she knows that countless studies have long since proven that. This perceptual reality is not different in music – it is just that it simply not believed.

The consequences of this bias are significant: If women do not get to the big stage at the same rate proportion as men due to obvious bias, then they will never win the game against the statistics. A perpetual show of this distorted perception is the important Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, which is worth 250,000 Euros. In its 45-year history, it has only been given to men – with only one exception: in 2008, Anne-Sophie Mutter. The foundation has brought four women to the Board of Trustees, including Director Zietzschmann and her colleague from the Zurich Tonhalle, Ilona Schmiel. So far (to date), they could not or would not produce any change. At the beginning of May, another man was rewarded and thus removed from the sphere of semi-visibility. The prize went to Beat Furrer, who once sat on the Board of Trustees himself. Women do not have such a situation. “A timidity exists, about being seen to bend to the pressure of quota,” says the Foundation. Every time there are serious, remarkable females competing for the prize. But unfortunately, no women are perceived as having the same level of  accomplishment as  the top level of men. There are other curious arguments, for example, that women who have children would have problems maintaining the quality of their work. Mostly, composers are the target here. “The Board of Trustees retains the absolute right to award the prize according to artistic criteria.”

Maybe they should advertise a highly paid composer competition, in which the submissions are anonymous. Like the curtain for auditions that was introduced in America to eliminate the problem of skin color. The trick revealed something amazing — it brought more women into the orchestra and made the body of sound of the orchestra even better. Not because the women played better, but because fundamental pool of talent was increased greatly.

One cannot measure quality the way that distance is, in meters, says the Viennese music historian, Melanie Unseld. A Beethoven Symphony does not have a value of 80 and one by Mozart 79 or 81. Does a Beat Furrer compose better than the grand Sofia Gubaidulina? Unseld has always addressed these issues of women in music and how they are perceived. “There are mechanisms supporting the belief that the question of quality is gender neutral,” she says. Because it is based on an aesthetic criteria that has been developed for centuries,  in (thought-)structures in which men call all the shots.

“What pieces does a female piano student get to learn?” one can ask.  Only on rare occasions does she learn [music by] Fanny Hensel. And then what will she then learn at the conservatory?

Gender obscures the perception of quality in such a way that more than a few people have adopted the assumption that women cannot conduct. That is the way it has been for decades. What deficits have not been attributed to all female musicians? For example, intonation difficulties and rhythmic insecurity – a death sentence in serious music; or shortcoming in contrapuntal technique, which is a basic prerequisite for composing. In the meantime, the professional niveau is out of reach: women could not conduct male music like that of Bruckner or Stravinsky; or they exude too much sexual energy at the podium – the musicians who had their concentration impaired would, of course, play poorly. It goes without any explanation: women at the podium? “Just not my cup of tea,” said acclaimed Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons a few months ago. Outrage followed, and the poor guy, certainly not a misogynist, backpedaled meekly, then let himself be carried to a very true statement: he just comes from another time. Right – Jansons comes from the world of yesterday – at least in the issue of women.

And he can’t get out of there [the world of the past]. Just as we can’t get out of there, when it comes to the fine arts. Jansons’ brain plays him the same statistical trick with him as ours does, or as anyone’s brain does if we let it: what he sees and has seen are mostly men on the important stages, and therefore it is very clear to him that they can and do play better.  [What he experiences becomes his reality, and what he knows is simply better than what he does not know]

Can that ever change?

Only if the men decide to follow suit with Tonhallen boss Ilona Schmiel: although this coming season offers their audience no female conductor, but certainly comparatively strong female soloists. “The head conductors must, on their part, insist on finding outstanding female conductors and engaging them.” After all, it is also crucial to “who will be discovered and pushed by whom.” Alexander Steinbeis, director of the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin for more than a decade, which shares the Scharoun building with the Berlin Philharmonic, will feature three female conductors in addition to several female soloists on the big stage. “I would like to have more,” he says, especially those who have an excellent reputation and a lot of experience on the big stages. But how are there ever going to be more, if so few famous orchestras are willing to trust them for an evening?” Here is the circular reasoning of the problem [“the cat bites its tail,” is the German expression], that he understands.

Meanwhile, the Minister of State for Culture, Monika Grütters, has initiated another mentoring program for young women in art and culture. The Siemens Foundation now wants to look after women more, she says, and Jansons is now all about young female conductors. The crux of it is: aid support programs nurture the old patterns of perception that women still need help, because they are not good enough. It does not lie with the quality of the female musicians, but that the men in the classical music industry set still the tone. In 2018, women will belong on the conductor’s stand, and they will be rewarded. Their music deserves to be played.

Not promotion, but recognition is the solution – it could be that easy.


CD Review: Ruth Lomon, Shadowing

by Liane Curtis - May 18th, 2017

While we rarely publish CD reviews on our blog, we decided it was important to give coverage to a recent CD by composer Ruth Lomon.  Ruth’s music ranges from expressive and lyrical to electrifyingly engaging.  But not only that, Ruth has always been seriously dedicated to promoting the work of other women composers, through projects such as pioneering work (in the 1970s and 80s) with American Women Composers, Inc. (which in 1995 became part of the IAWM) of researching repertoire and organizing concerts and conferences, to her more recent work of orchestrating the Viola Sonata by Rebecca Clarke (info here, recording here).  —  Liane Curtis


RUTH LOMON: SHADOWING   (2017, Navona Records)

by Chris A. Trotman

This recent 2017 CD, Shadowing, features four works by acclaimed composer Ruth Lomon (b. 1930, Montréal).  They include her Shadowing piano quartet and three solo piano works, one of which is a set of variations; the other two consist of multiple movements.

An accomplished pianist herself, Ruth Lomon employs many diverse styles and challenging piano techniques, such as repeated notes and dampened strings, in the theme and ten variations of her solo piano work, The Sunflower Variations (my favorite work on the album).  The lyrical theme (which is based on her song The Sunflower), the eclectic rhythmic patterns and the colorful harmonic sonorities are progressively varied within each consecutive variation, and each section naturally continues to the next with the theme returning at the close.  Also, the work is dedicated to the album’s pianist, Eileen Hutchins, and it is quite satisfying and appropriate to hear the intricate and passionate masterpiece expertly performed by its dedicatee! The same care and skill in terms of clarity, phrasing and rhythmical nuance by Hutchins is clearly evident in the other piano performances, both solo and chamber.

The three movements of Lomon’s Shadowing piano quartet are essentially programmatic, that is, intended to evoke images or convey the impression of events.  According to the liner notes, she was influenced by the “magical passages of movement and color” found in the book Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés.  “Shadowing” is explained as “having such a light touch as to move freely without being observed or manifesting only to become like smoke and then manifesting again.”  The second movement, with its seemingly random pizzicato notes, gives the impression of suspended time and space.  These impressions are vividly brought to life by Eileen Hutchins (piano), Katherine Winterstein (violin), Scott Woolweaver (viola) and Patrick Owen (cello).

Like the variations, Esquisses (Sketches) contains diverse motivic and rhythmic elements as well as exquisite tonal sonorities.  Also, like Shadowing and other works by Lomon, parts of the work contains programmatic elements, such as the tolling of bells in the opening movement Les Cloches (The Bells).

In Five Ceremonial Masks, Lomon stimulates the mind with images and events based on five Navaho masks used in the Yeibichai Night Chant ceremonies.  The album booklet includes a color photograph of the five buckskin masks.  Like The Sunflower Variations, Lomon uses advanced techniques within this work, such as having the performer dampen the strings and even performing glissandi directly on the strings with a timpani stick or leather mallet.  As a bonus, there is a second recording of this work by the composer!

These works are among Ruth Lomon’s finest solo and chamber works, and they wonderfully demonstrate her extensive palette of harmonic colors and her expressive rhythmic flexibility as well as reveal her sense of musical narrative and sound painting in depicting diverse images and events through program music.  Brava!

Audio clip here    Publisher’s page

–  Chris A. Trotman, M.M./M.L.I.S.
Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy
Director of Music Publications and
Editor-in-Chief of Amy Beach Project



New Work by Libby Larsen performed by North State Symphony

by Liane Curtis - February 26th, 2017

Last night (Feb. 24) in Chico, CA, the North State Symphony gave an enthralling area premiere of a new work by composer Libby LarsenDancing Man Rhapsody was written for violinist Terri Baune (Concertmaster of the North State Symphony) and commissioned by the NSS together with several other California orchestras.  Baune was the Concertmaster of The Women’s Philharmonic and has known Larsen for many years.  Maestro Scott Seaton is in his second year as Music Director of the NSS, and is infusing a new energy into the orchestra with his innovative programming, and lively rapport with audiences and the musicians.  The program also featured another recent work, Schism, by David Biedenbender, as well as Rimsky-Korskaov’s Snow Maiden Suite and Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 (Spring).

Dancing Man Rhapsody  has five sections, with descriptive titles, played without a break.  The opening (“Dancing Man”) is playful, with its startling offbeat finger-snaps and a swinging line in the solo.  Then “A Sudden Conga” breaks out with a Latin percussion riff, and violin and brass in vigorous exchanges.  A jazzy plucked string bass gives a continuous pulse to the next section, while the strings soar in searing melodies. Here, the intense lyricism infuses the music with a rich, building, philosophical introspection.  The warmth of the string timbre, and the musicality of the entire orchestra in shaping the long lines gave depth and insight to this central passage.

Composer Libby Larsen

Some spontaneous cadenza-like solos transition to a faster repeated rhythm, and a section (“Backwards in High Heels”) rife with quotations – the repeated notes become the “Chopsticks” theme, and there are references to children’s songs, Mozart, Gershwin (and others). The solo violin interjects with jazzy riffs, and as if (paradoxically) the quotations have unleashed the music, it builds with a wild, exhilarating energy.  The last section (“Dancin’ with Kravitz,” a reference to Funk musician Lenny Kravitz) cavorts and spirals with a stomping, fervent drive until ending with one final explosive violin solo.  Terry Baune was incandescent as the soloist in this demanding work, incorporating jazz, classical and rock idioms, and Maestro Seaton led the orchestra with great flexibility and power.

Dancing Man Rhapsody is an engaging work I want to hear again, so I hope it will be dancing across the country soon!

The Performance: Beach’s Concerto Comes to Life!

by Liane Curtis - November 16th, 2012

Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in area premiere of rare, remarkable Concerto. [update added at end after hearing second performance]

Amy Beach was 33 years old when she gave the premiere performance of her own Piano Concerto (op. 45 in C-Sharp Minor) in April 1900. Although her husband had restricted the pianist-composer to one public performance per year since their marriage in 1885, she had experience under her belt performing concertos by Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns,  Moscheles, and Chopin, mostly with the Boston Symphony. Her Concerto is a work of monumental proportions, demanding the utmost of virtuosity from  a fiery  soloist.  Would the 23-year old Saet Byeol Kim emerge not only unscathed but heroic in this vigorous battle of soloist vs. orchestra?   

She did indeed, and after the final majestic chords, the audience was on their feet in an ovation to affirm that fact.

The orchestra begins the first movement with a brooding motive (shaped insightfully by Remmereit). The soloist’s first entrance is a huge assertion—here is the 19th century concerto tradition, in all its stormy, extrovert glory.  And counterbalanced by lyricism, as the second theme—an evocative, haunting phrase, stated first by the soloist, and developed warmly by a violin solo (Concertmaster Juliana Athayde). For this theme Beach borrowed a melody from one of her own earlier songs (I’ve provided the poems for these songs in an earlier post).Saet Byeol KIM

Saet Byeol Kim infused the Scherzo with relentless sparkling energy. Here Beach took the staid melody of another of her songs, stating it in the lower strings where it serves as the background for the playful Pertetuum mobile, a fantastically energized version of the song’s simple arppegiated accompaniment. It was breathtaking!

Beach described the Largo as a “dark, tragic lament.”  She borrowed from her own early song “Twilight,” setting her husband’s poem about darkness setting over a dense forest scene. Beach’s re-use of her creation offered her an opportunity to place these musical ideas in a rich, multi-layered context (sculpted gorgeously by the orchestra). The melody was introduced by a poignant clarinet solo (Kenneth Grant). Here I thought Kim might have had more depth of emotion and meshed more tautly with the orchestra; her Chopinesque flourishes were brilliant emotional outbursts.

The final line of  the poem “Twilight” is about light and brightness returning to the land; the mood is captured in the final movement, Allegro con Scioltezza.   Scioltezza—nimbleness or agility—heard in the  soloist’s vivacious energy dominating the musical landscape. The soloist opens alone, with a driving motive akin to a  Mazurka. While Kim played  with great energy and musicality throughout, this movement especially had great flair and momentum.  The center section recalls the soulful Largo theme; the soloist winds back to this Largo idea with an almost jazzy meditation, and then has an evocative duet with a solo cello (Stefan Reuss). Handfuls of big cascading chords lead to the vigorous conclusion,  and the powerful and expansive grandeur of the final cadence.

Mussorgsky’s atmospheric Introduction to Kovanschchina was a perfect concert opener, and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony —well, we know that piece, don’t we?  It was a thoughtful and well-balanced program. For me, the chance to hear a remarkable work like Beach’s concerto was well worth the travel.

For  her U.S. debut, pianist Saet Byeol Kim has made a definite mark on the artistic landscape, and I hope she will have many other opportunities to bring this work to audiences.  And Arild Remmereit and the RPO continue in their remarkable, essential mission of bringing such great—but little-known—masterworks to the ears of audiences!

–––––* * * * * * * * *

Update — after hearing the Saturday (Nov. 17) concert — Saet Byeol Kim again impressed with the energy and freshness she brought to the piece, it was not at all a carbon-copy of the Thursday performance. She reached real lyrical heights in the third movement, Largo. The first movement, with its imposing length, had moments of solo and orchestra careening into imprecision, but these were (fortunately) very brief. The overall effect was powerful and exhilarating, and the Saturday audience could not contain their applause after the first movement.  And at the conclusion Kim, Remmereit, and the  orchestra received a lengthy and insistent standing ovation!

Oh, and that Tchaikovsky—the Sixth needs both understanding of the underlying architecture, as well as fiery passion; Remmereit and the orchestra had an inspired chemistry throughout. Particularly striking was dance-like grace of the second movement, with its almost-waltz of 5-4 time. And the overwhelming power of the fade-to-nothing ending, which I heard, not as tragic resignation, but rather as a determined resolve. I certainly have not ever experienced a large audience all holding their breath for so long, so complete was the spell of the peroration, one I will not forget.

Beach’s Concerto Comes to Life!

by Liane Curtis - November 15th, 2012

It’s one thing to know a piece from recordings and quite another to hear it come to life in the fluid process of rehearsal, with the 100 or so musicians involved in the give and take, the learning process of  bringing an unknown work to life—I was very privileged to hear this morning’s rehearsal of Amy Beach’s Piano Concerto!  Saet Byeol Kim is absolutely brilliant as the soloist in this virtuosic  work that Amy Beach composed to showcase her own formidable skills at the piano. For those of you who are attending the RPO’s performance  (Nov. 15 and 17), I thought I would provide here the poems of the three songs that Beach drew on for themes. These are her own songs that she wrote around the time of her marriage, and then returned to more or less 15 years later to use these rich melodies in the larger, monumental context of  the Concerto.

Jeune fille et jeune fleur   (1832) by François-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand 
Beach, Four Songs, Op. 1, no. 3     Translation from The World’s Best Poetry  (J.D. Morris & Co., 1904)  [original French below]
The bier descends, the spotless roses too, 
 The father’s tribute in his saddest hour:
O Earth! that bore them both, thou hast thy due,—
The fair young girl and flower. 

Give them not back unto a world again,
Where mourning, grief, and agony have power,—
Where winds destroy, and suns malignant reign,—
That fair young girl and flower. 

Lightly thou sleepest, young Eliza, now,
Nor fear’st the burning heat, nor chilling shower;
They both have perished in their morning glow,—
The fair young girl and flower. 

But he, thy sire, whose furrowed brow is pale,
Bends, lost in sorrow, o’er thy funeral bower,
And Time the old oak’s roots doth now assail,
O fair young girl and flower! 

* * * **** * * * * * * **** * * *

Il descend ce cercueil, et les roses sans taches
Qu’un père y déposa, tribut de sa douleur,
Terre, tu les portas, et maintenant tu caches
Jeune fille et jeune fleur.
Ah! ne les rends jamais à ce monde profane,
A ce monde de deuil, d’angoisse et de malheurs.
Le vent brise et flétrit, le soleil brûle et fane
Jeune fille et jeune fleur.
Tu dors, pauvre Elisa, si légère d’années,
Tu ne crains plus du jour le poids et la chaleur:
Elles ont achevé leurs fraîches matinées,
Jeune fille et jeune fleur.
Mais ton père, Elisa, sur ta cendre s’incline:
Aux rides de son front a monté la pâleur,
Et vieux chêne, le temps fauche sur sa racine,
Jeune fille et jeune fleur.


Empress of Night   (Dr. H.H.A. Beach)

Amy Beach, Three Songs, Op. 2, no. 3  (1887)

Out of the darkness,
Radiant with light,
Shineth her Brightness,
Empress of Night.

As granules of gold,
From her lofty height,
Or cataract bold
(Amazing sight!)

Falleth her jewels
On ev’ry side,
Lighting the joybells,
Of Christmastide.

Piercing the treeboughs
That wave in the breeze,
Painting their shadows
Among dead leaves;

Kissing the sea foam
That flies in the air,
When tossed from its home
In waves so fair;

Silv’ring all clouds
That darken her way,
As she lifts the shrouds,
Of breaking day.


Twilight   (Dr. H.H.A. Beach)

Beach, Three Songs, Op. 2, no. 1

No sun to warm
The darkening cloud of mist,
But everywhere
The steamy earth sends up
A veil of gray and damp
To kiss the green and tender leaves
And leave its cool imprint
In limpid pearls of dew

The blackened trunks and boughs
In ghostly silhouette
Mark grimly in the coming eve
The shadows of the past. All sounds are stilled,
The birds have hushed themselves to rest
And night comes fast, to drop her pall
Till morn brings life to all.