Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

BBC Proms 2018: By the Numbers

by sarah - July 12th, 2018

The 2018 BBC Proms kicks off today, Friday, July 13 and continues with extensive programming through September. The annual event features what is considered the best of the best in contemporary classical music programming with ensembles, soloists, and conductors from around the world. The schedule of events is enormous, with paid and free concerts, lectures, workshops, radio broadcasts – not a dull moment until after Labor Day.

Others have already shared their thoughts on the choices in programming for this year’s Proms, but we felt it important to add our thoughts, and figures, to the conversation as the Proms officially get underway.

There are a lot of ways that we can account for how works by women are represented at the Proms – and we can start with clear figures.  For example:

  •  Of the 127 composers represented this year (in all of the programming, both numbered Proms and “Proms at…” concerts, symphonic and chamber music) only 22 are women. (17% representation) Of those 18 women, only four are historic (Lili Boulanger, Hildegard von Bingen, Morfydd Llwyn Owen, and Dame Ethel Smyth.)
  • Of the roughly 103 hours of music (that’s 4 ¼ days straight), women’s work only accounts for 4 hours. (4% of the overall time)
  • Of the 296 individual works being performed (again, at both symphonic and chamber music events), there were 28 individual works by women. Only two had more than one work being performed (Lili Boulanger, who has an impressive six pieces throughout the schedule, and Caroline Shaw who has two). (9% of the total works)

    This Proms 2018 graphic features men and women in equal proportion — unfortunately very misleading

All told, this is tremendous progress over the figures from last year! Which, sadly, only continues to highlight just how underrepresented women are in so much classical music programming.  But this year the BBC Proms proclaims they are championing women in their discussion of “What’s new and extraordinary”!

The Proms, and the UK music scene in general, has been making great effort in working towards more equality in the representation of women in classical music – and we can, I’m sure, look forward to more good things to come. There are notable celebratory moments throughout this season in the work towards inclusivity and representation. For example, works by women are featured in both the “First Night of the Proms” and the “Last Night of the Proms.” Many of the women composers who are having works heard were commissioned by the BBC, and we are always delighted in organizations making an effort to be inclusive in supporting new music. In fact, of the 24 works by women being heard, five are World Premieres of a BBC Commission. (There are also two world premieres and two UK premieres being heard as well.)

For such a British affair it’s remarkable how much Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday is being celebrated, with music being featured in a total of nine events, including a full performance of West Side Story.  Scottish composer Thea Musgrave, who marked her 90th birthday just a few months ago – and was honored by the Queen herself – is also included in this year’s events. But with just a single work being performed, (Phoenix Rising in Prom 33, paired with Brahms in a concert titled “Brahms’s A German Requiem”) it’s hardly a comparison. It can also be noted that zero works by Judith Weir, Master of the Queen’s Music, are on this year’s program.

Prom 8 is the only event to include works by multiple historic women composers. Titled Youthful Beginnings, the program includes two works by Boulanger, Felix Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto, Nocturne by Morfydd Llwyn Owen, and Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4. An innovative program to be sure – but the interest of the event is lost in the description:

Mendelssohn’s precocious First Piano Concerto joins Schumann’s forward-looking Fourth Symphony and music by Lili Boulanger and Morfydd Owen – both of whom died tragically young – in the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s first Prom of the season.

So Mendelssohn is precocious, Schumann is forward-looking, but Boulanger and Owen just died young?  Certainly their music has admirably qualities other than the early death of the composer?  Or would sharing that Lili Boulanger’s “Youthful Beginnings” include being the first woman to win a Prix de Rome in music, and that Morfydd Owen completed over 250 highly regarded compositions in just 10 years –is that too much to share?

Prom 13 highlights contemporary women, titled Pioneers of Sound, and works by five works by electronic composers.  Certainly an innovative programming choice for Royal Albert Hall!  In addition to historic composers, the performance will also include a newly revised work by Daphne Oram (1925-2003) who was on the forefront of electronic composition.  For all of the losses in this year’s programming, there are also wins.

All of which is to say, it’s frustrating, but not surprising. Disappointing, but still better than what has happened in the years before. (See our look at the 2016 Proms, 2015 Proms, and 2014 Proms reports.) Progress is painfully slow, but it is happening. And, it can be noted, all of these figures far exceed the representation that women receive in any top American orchestra season (although the number of Proms concerts exceeds that of orchestras and features a wide range of ensembles, large and small, and also soloists).

Have a listen to some of the compositions and composers being heard this year:

Monday Link Round Up: June 11, 2018

by sarah - June 11th, 2018

News and music to start your week!

The Library of Congress blog, In the Muse, highlights Women Composers Hiding in Plain Sight. Written by Music Reference Specialist Melissa E. Wertheimer, she discusses a fantastic photograph she found, and the backstory she uncovered, in the Library of Congress archives!  (Spoiler: the photograph and story features one of our favorite composers, Amy Beach, as well as an early example of women composers coming together to organize and support each other!)

On An Overgrown Path discusses the institutional discrimination faced by conductors – and specifically the case of Rudolph Dunbar, the first black conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic whose career was limited because of the color of his skin.

The Women Composers Festival of Hartford, which has been highlighting the work of women in music since 2001, has just announced the opportunity to support the organization in a new way.  Supporting WCFH by becoming a member means you will receive advanced, and reduced, ticket prices to the annual Festival, and your name (and website) will be listed on the Festival website.

Thea Musgrave, foreground; Queen Elizabeth, right; Judith Weir, left in background

Celebrations for Thea Musgrave’s 90th birthday are continuing, with many eager to extend birthday well wishes – including Queen Elizabeth II!  Musgrave was awarded the Queen’s medal for music as the 13th recipient since it was founded in 2005.  Read on here.

It was just announced that the Welsh National Opera is beginning a new program that will award one aspiring woman, age 19 to 35, a conducting residency.  With the intention of working to rebalance the gender divide in the classical music world, the residency with include mentoring and opportunities to work with the WNO Orchestra with different styles of repertoire over 18 months.  More information is available here.

Tuesday Link Round Up: May 29, 2018

by sarah - May 29th, 2018

News and music to start your week after a meaningful Memorial Day:

Happy 90th birthday to Thea Musgrave!  We did a round up of stories about the Scottish American composer’s life – but don’t miss the conversation Musgrave had with NPR.

Thrilled to hear that Roderick Cox has been named the 2018 recipient of the Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, given to outstanding young U.S. conductors to guide their careers.  Cox is currently the associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra.  Read more at the Star Tribune.

The 66th annual BMI Student Composers Awards have been announced!  The nine recipients (aged 18-26) were presented by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Chair of the Student Composers Awards.  The winners included Katherine Balch, Gabriella Smith, and Amy Thompson.  Learn more at NewMusicBox.

As the #MeToo movement continues to bring to light – and into conversation – the systemic problems of sexual abuse.  NPR’s Lulu Garcia-navarro spoke to Leah Hawkins and Alexis Romano (both opera singers) and Kim Witman (vice president of opera at Wolf Trap in Virginia) about their experiences.   Learn more at the website, and listen below:

Thea Musgrave at 90

by sarah - May 23rd, 2018

Conductors and Artistic Directors love celebrating composers anniversary years. There is always tremendous excitement around remembering the work of a beloved composer celebrating a milestone. (Any classical music enthusiast will have a hard time finding any ensemble NOT performing a work, or an entire program, in honor of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday.)

This week ensembles in the United States and abroad will be honoring the life and work of Thea Musgrave, who will be celebrating her 90th birthday on Sunday, May 27. The Scottish-born composer, who has lived and works in the U.S. since the 1970’s, was a student of Nadia Boulanger and Aaron Copland, and was a celebrated educator as Distinguished Professor at Queens College, City University of New York.

A prolific composer, Musgrave’s oeuvre includes over a dozen operas, with several large works honoring the lives of powerful women of history (for instance, Mary, Queen of Scots, 1977, and Harriet, the Woman Called Moses, 1984). She has also composed many large works for orchestra, soloist and orchestra (nearly a concerto for every orchestral instrument!), and voice and orchestra – as well as many chamber works, pieces for a capella chorus, and electronic music. Find her impressive full list of works here.

The celebrations for this milestone began in February, when Musgrave traveled to The Royal Northern College of Music for a festival weekend of works for wind band and orchestra. The New York Virtuoso Singers will perform celebratory all-Musgrave birthday concert on May 27, including selections from her operas, and the world premiere of a new work: La Vida es Sueño. But even that is just the beginning – special events are planned in Wells, UK and by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in June, at the Edinburgh International Festival in August, and the Stockholm International Composer Festival in November. (The full calendar of events can be found here.)

Musgrave has been named the Artist Of The Week at OperaWire.com, is featured in the June 2018 issue of Gramophone, was interviewed by Alyssa Kayser-Hirsh at I Care If You Listen, and Richard Sasanow at Broadway World. Perhaps my favorite interview, however, was published in December by Frank Oteri at NewMusicBox ). Absolutely worth another read (and listen)!

It has been wonderful to see so much attention being paid to a living woman composer – and so much acclaim for her long and highly acclaimed career. HOWEVER — It seems as though not a single major American symphony orchestras got the memo about Musgrave’s big year. Perhaps they were all too busy coordinating no overlaps in all of the performances of West Side Story that audiences have heard throughout the season? What a missed opportunity!  It is great that some individual events are taking place, but it is inexplicable that no U.S. orchestra doing a major celebration. After all, she has had many notable American commissions, such as Turbulent Landscapes (by the Boston Symphony Orchestra who premiered it 2003), and her Pontalba (2003), commissioned by New Orleans Opera to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. Musgrave also has a long history of conducting her own works, and experiencing that role led to her confront the traditional power dynamics of the orchestra — her article in the New Grove Dictionary observes

In an age that has witnessed a concerted attempt to demystify the orchestra through community and educational music schemes, Musgrave’s orchestral works seem increasingly prescient. For her, the orchestra as simply an efficient corporate machine holds little inspiration. Instead, she focusses on the players themselves, the challenges and rewards of group activity, combined with the exhilaration and fear in literally taking a stand.

That revolutionary approach is one that we would expect U.S. orchestras to celebrate rather than ignore.

As the week, and the year, progresses with more concerts and celebrations of an amazing (and continuing!) career, follow #Musgrave90 for updates on the latest news and events.

Do spend some time exploring some of her recorded works via Spotify:

Monday Link Round Up: January 15, 2018

by sarah - January 15th, 2018

News to start your week!

Celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. by reflecting on the progress that has been made by trailblazers – like Nkeiru Okoye’s opera Harriet Tubman.  (Thea Musgrave also turned to the life of Harriet Tubman for an opera: Harriet, the Woman Called Moses.)  We can also look to the future, and the work being done by ensembles like The Dream Unfinished: An Activist Orchestra.


BachTrack – which lists classical music concerts and festivals worldwide – had completed their 2017 wrap up.  Their analysis of repertoire shares good insights – what works are performed in which countries (as to nationality and period), as well as statistics to gender.  Though women have yet to crack into the top 100 most performed composers (no surprise there), the number of women in the top 100 most active conductors has risen from 1 in 2013 to five in 2017.  Read more here.


The BBC Radio 3 will continue their tradition of honoring women composers on International Women’s Day (March 8) – and they are interested in including live performances this year!  Read more here about how to have an opportunity to perform works by women composers on the air!


Learn more about the Canadian Women Composers Project, and their upcoming concert January 21, from founder Clarisse Tonigussi at the Vancouver Courier.  Read more about the CWC Project, and their year long mission to bring performance of works by Canadian women to every province, on their website.