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Is the trend finally turning for female composers in the symphony? : Deceptive Cadence : NPR

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Composer Julia Wolfe at the world premiere of her work with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra his story On September 15, 2022.

Kurt Heinecke/Nashville Symphony


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Kurt Heinecke/Nashville Symphony


Composer Julia Wolfe at the world premiere of her work with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra his story On September 15, 2022.

Kurt Heinecke/Nashville Symphony

“Zero is such a damn number.” That’s the regrettable confession Jeremy Rothman, chief of programming of the Philadelphia Orchestra, made in 2018 when faced with a harsh reality: from nearly 55 different composers whose work will be performed by his organization at regular symphony concerts during the 2018-19 season. None of them were women. To be fair, the same was true for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The numbers weren’t good for the New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra.

Four years later, there’s still work to be done – but the tide seems to be turning. More than one in four composers in Philadelphia’s current season are women. Among them are three living women who received their world premieres. And there is a showcase for Florence Price, the pioneering Black composer of the early 20th century; The orchestra’s recording of their once-forgotten symphonies has already earned Philly a Grammy in April.

“Every show we look at is a true representation of our community and our world,” Rothman says, reflecting on the current season’s offerings. “And that includes gender, sexual orientation, geography, cultures, religions, backgrounds.”

Indeed, the sound of symphony orchestras seems to be becoming more diverse across the country – even in the top organizations that just a few years ago schedule entire seasons without women. The latest Orchestral Repertoire Report, published by the Composer Diversity Institute, shows a 638% increase in women’s music in our symphony halls over the past six years. The number of female color composers who started almost from scratch increased by 1425%.

So what happened? Simon Woods, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, says for one thing, disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic have led to a widespread reassessment of established cultural institutions. The classical music world was no exception.

“During the pandemic, we were in a very urgent mode of responding to the situation, which varied from month to week, week to week, sometimes day to day,” Woods says. “But it gave us a kind of gift, which gave orchestras the opportunity to make changes in response to the change in the psyche of the times. … And what orchestras are doing across the country right now is to think differently about who’s involved, who’s voice is being heard, who’s music is on every stage. They set the bar higher for it.”

Anne Midgette, former classical critic Washington postadds that a new level of awareness of inequality in classical performance is rapidly turning into a demand for greater responsibility. “The changes in the orchestral business that everyone says are ‘This will take years,’ have been accelerated by the pandemic, but also by the general social debate and the course of time. It turns out you can’t do that,” Midgette said.


Composer Jessie Montgomery salutes the world premiere of her work on April 28, 2022. divine for all in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he served as a composer.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography/Chicago Symphony Orchestra


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© Todd Rosenberg Photography/Chicago Symphony Orchestra


Composer Jessie Montgomery salutes the world premiere of her work on April 28, 2022. divine for all in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he served as a composer.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Even the composers themselves say they felt a change. “It seems to be changing,” says Jessie Montgomery, who is animated and dark-textured. divine for all received its world premiere in April with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Riccardo Muti. “Orchestras, chamber groups, and opera companies are embracing composers they wouldn’t traditionally embrace.”

divine for all It’s just one of three major works that Montgomery was hired to write as the CSO’s current composer. He also curates contemporary concert series CSO MusicNow and was recently named Composer of the Year by it. musical america. “Programming is difficult,” admits the 40-year-old New Yorker. “Many try to make the audience feel good and not surprise them with too many new things. There are so many emotions in the world of presentation that they are afraid to offend anyone with anything out of the ordinary.”

Still, as orchestras are under more scrutiny today, conductors and programmers are paying more attention to diversity and inclusion. This was true not only at the largest institutions, but also in mid-range orchestras like Julia Wolfe’s Nashville Symphony, which had its world premiere last month. his story — A compelling hybrid oratorio inspired by the history of women’s rights movements, featuring texts by Sojourner Truth and Abigail Adams. The 63-year-old composer’s music will also be heard in major orchestras in Boston, Chicago and New York this season.

Wolfe says she has routinely struggled with sexism in her career, but even her experience is better than her predecessors, who often faced a complete lack of opportunity. “I could have complained about it, but it was much easier for me than, for example, the generation before me,” Wolfe explains. “I’m thinking of people like Joan Tower, Tania León, and Meredith Monk. They really had to pull out their machetes and chart a course. No one in that generation really, really knew about female composers.”

The move to representational reexamination is good news for Wolfe, but he adds that symbolism is not the same as equality. “You just want to be a composer,” he says. “You don’t want to be a ‘female composer’. You really just want to do your art and say what you have to say.”

Similarly, Midgette warns against combining the integrity of institutions with that of art, “because art is doing just fine,” he says. “I think the orchestral institution needs a major overhaul. I was drawing the parallels with the restaurant: It’s like we’re eating in a bunch of un-renovated restaurants from the 1970s.”

Midgette notes that the Cleveland Orchestra has been slower to redesign itself: Of the 42 different composers they’ve introduced this season, only three are women. One of them is Louise Farrenc, a 19th-century French composer who has had some success recently after her death. This season, his music is on the menu of the Houston Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

“Louise Farrenc writes music that resembles classical music for someone with a classical view of Beethoven and Brahms,” Midgette says. “It fits the 19th century tonal world that many people want from classical music.”

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But what people want from symphony orchestras in particular seems to be changing. It’s fair to wonder if the trend of hearing more works by women and composers of color will continue. “Once you open that door, you can’t close it,” Midgette suggests. “Even though it’s symbolism for some orchestras, there’s a fundamental kind of shift happening. And hopefully next year this year will look a lot more like the Philadelphia Orchestra season and a lot less like what we came up with.”

According to Jeremy Rothman, change in Philadelphia is permanent: “It’s not temporary or short-lived, it’s something that’s now built into our DNA, our source code, as a forward-looking institution,” he says. .

And across the larger landscape, a growing business The fact that orchestras, regardless of what their curators believe, will have to deal with moving forward – will almost certainly require serving more of the same old, dead, white, male, Eurocentric warhorses to attract larger, younger and more diverse audiences. symphony

“All classical art forms will have to emerge and think about how they will meet changing demographics and respond to changing society in new ways,” Woods explains. “If you don’t think so, you’re not paying attention.”

(voice by Jessie Montgomery divine for allThe radio version of this story is courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti Music.)

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