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Classical Music Sounds Like Women Silenced

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

This summer's classical music festivals offer the typical all-male lineup of historic composers. Liane Curtis says great work by venerable female composers won't be heard until there's a mainstream shakeup of the traditional canon.

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This summer's classical music festivals offer the typical all-male lineup of historic composers. Liane Curtis says great work by venerable female composers won't be heard until there's a mainstream shakeup of the traditional canon.
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Liane Curtis

(WOMENSENEWS)--A look at the programming for this summer's classical music festivals--and for next season--reveals what we have all learned to expect if not accept: The lineup is male, pale and pretty darned stale.

I wish I could say "Mostly Mozart, Mainly Men," but the composers of the summertime festival at Lincoln Center in New York City are completely men.

Lincoln Center's Great Performers series offers a lot of "Symphonic Masterworks" (remember when that word "master" triggered red flags?) and other conventional programming that excludes work by women.

A notable exception is the American Symphony Orchestra (also at Lincoln Center), directed by Leon Botstein. In September it will give a concert rendition of Ethel Smyth's 1906 opera "The Wreckers." Smyth is the only woman to ever have an opera performed at New York's Metropolitan Opera. It was in 1903.

Under Botstein's direction, the American Symphony "uncovers lesser-known gems of the orchestral and opera repertoires." But little of this excavation is going on anywhere else.

Certainly the programming of some orchestras is more diverse than in the past. You can find concerts that draw on jazz, world or popular traditions. Some contemporary female composers are gaining ground; Joan Tower and Jennifer Higdon are among the most performed of all living composers. But awareness of historic female composers is conspicuously absent.

Look at the New York Philharmonic's 2007-08 lineup. You've got your standard Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and plenty of Beethoven (including all his piano concertos). There's also unusual fare: a newly commissioned concerto by the trendy Tan Dun. But not a single work by a woman.


Women's Work Forgotten

While the N.Y. Phil has performed contemporary works by women--and even two commissions last season--the work of historic women remains forgotten. The result is a general ignorance of women's place in classical music.

Test yourself. How many of these 19th century female composers ring any bells with you?

Amy Beach, Clara Schumann, Louise Farrenc, Augusta Holmes, Emilie Mayer, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and Alphonsa Le Beau.

These women wrote in the orchestral genres of symphony, overture, tone poem, opera, concert aria and concerto. They wrote powerful music, each in their own distinctive idiom. The classical concert-going public is short-changed by being denied a hearing of it.

I looked in vain through the six years of statistics gathered by the American Symphony Orchestra League, a service organization with nearly 1,000 constituent orchestras, for performances of music by Louise Farrenc (1804-1875).

The only North American performance I found--through some patient Googling--was of her Symphony No. 3 in G Minor by the Port Townsend Symphony in Washington state in 2004. However fine an amateur group this may be, why can't a professional orchestra find a place for Farrenc amid their many repetitions of Beethoven, Brahms and Berlioz? Excellent recordings of Farrenc's three symphonies and two overtures are available on the German CPO label.


Peak Season Review

Last October I spent 10 days in New York City at the height of the concert season.

While I did hear too much Mozart, J.S. Bach, Shostakovich and Steve Reich, I can think of so much music that I haven't heard.

The 18th century women Maria Teresa Agnesi and Amelie-Julie Candeille composed operas, but I have not had the opportunity to experience them.

I have heard Maria Antonia Walpurgis' 1760 opera "Talestri: Regina del Amazone" on a remarkable 1998 German recording that did not make it to the United States. It strikes my ear as a work that should be widely known, and that could be attractively marketed (Queen of the Amazons?! You go, girl!!). When will it get a production by some adventurous company like the New York City Opera?

Since the 1970s, specialized organizations, such as the now-defunct Women's Philharmonic (of San Francisco) or the International Alliance for Women in Music, have advocated for female composers, contemporary and historic.

They have organized concerts to bring forgotten music to life. Pioneering performers have made historic first recordings. Dedicated scholars have researched unknown figures. But the impact this has had on mainstream performing institutions is unfortunately small.


Problem Starts at Top

My New York "listening tour" revealed the root of the problem. The most high-profile ensembles are the most entrenched in the traditional no-women canon.

Three years ago, I was one of the organizers of what we enthusiastically called a "Festival of Women Composers," held at Brandeis University. We had hoped to have three concerts, but ultimately there were two. One was all music by Brandeis graduate students, and the other featured composers from the late-19th century to the present--including the winners of a competition for new works sponsored as part of the festival--performed by a range of distinguished artists and ensembles.

This event was a rousing success and both concerts were received with enthusiasm. Looking back, the inequities it emphasized are striking: that we could call two concerts a festival while day after day after day of music by men continues to go by as normal concert life points out a situation in urgent need of remedy.

Back in October, Cori Ellison, dramaturge at the New York City Opera, defended its programming practices. "We are sometimes criticized for being a museum. But museums are good things. There should be places were the works of the past are preserved and performed."

But museums can do much more than guard and reinterpret a chosen handful of treasures. They can also vitally re-engage us with the past.

At Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, for instance, curator Erica Hirschler has researched Boston female artists and revealed stunning works by 19th century women such as Ellen Day Hale and Anne Whitney. Many of their works were unknown before Hirschler went looking for them; some were buried within the bowels of the building while the artists' descendants held others.

In 2006, works by Hale and Whitney were included in the museum's blockbuster exhibit "Americans in Paris" alongside better-known works by Sargent and Whistler.

Like art museums, orchestras and opera companies should challenge the version of the past they choose to preserve and promote.

It's time to recognize that programming which excludes works by women might be fine every now and then but to allow it to remain the norm is an unacceptable silencing of the creative voice of half of humanity.

We need to use our clout as consumers and patrons of classical music and demand change from major ensembles.

For myself, I've organized my last festival of female composers. Next time I want to hear those women on the main stage.

Liane Curtis has a doctorate in musicology and is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, and the president of the Rebecca Clarke Society. She is founding the Women's Philharmonic Advocacy Project to advocate for historic female composers and recognize the legacy of the Women's Philharmonic.

Women's eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

For more information:

The International Alliance for Women in Music:
http://iawm.org/

Kapralova Society Resource List:
http://www.kapralova.org/RESOURCES.htm

The Women's Philharmonic Advocacy Project:
http://wophil.org/

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