BRAVA: a [fantasy] symphonic season

Our hometown Symphony opened their Classical Series with an all-Russian program: two Russian composers, Russian-born soloist, and an American piece based on extra-musical Russian associations.

This is also the fifth season in which a piece by a female composer has not been included in the Classical Series. Since moving to Helzberg Hall, the Classical Series has seen two pieces by women: Chen Yi in the 2011 inaugural season (a commission) and Jennifer Higdon’s Bird on Wire in 2013 (performed with guest artists eighth blackbird).  Other than a Mothers’ Day-themed “Women of Note(s)” concert on Classics Uncorked in 2014, which included two pieces by women (but three pieces by men inspired by women, thanks guys!) that’s the extent of pieces by female composers, as far as I can ascertain.

When I brought up the fact to a Symphony official, he was genuinely surprised. And, I’m pleased to share, a piece be a woman (Rachel Grimes) was included in the first Classics Uncorked program on Sept 26. Added late, but included nevertheless. (The other composers on the program, all men, have all been performed by the orchestra before.)

But more can be done. I don’t really hold with the defense that music is selected solely on artistic value and that attributes of race or gender or sexual orientation or religion are not to be considered, especially when other extra-musical attributes are, in fact, considered, such as era or nationality, as is the case with the all-Russian (or near enough) program this weekend.

My assumption is that all the works (there are only 43 works in the Classical series, a droplet in the wealth of fantastic music) will be excellent works, carefully selected with pride and of high quality. Ergo, any piece included can stand on its own as an exemplary exhibit of the art form.

If works are selected and organized based on themes (love, Spring, death, WWI) or nationality (French, British, Russian, Czech), time period, style, school or original purpose (operatic, dance, film), then why not consider aspects of religion, sexuality, gender and race/ethnicity when developing programs? And use those opportunities to raise awareness and make connections with the standards of the repertoire. The music may be unfamiliar (always an issue with the audience, I know…) but it will not be lacking.

In a perfect world, of course, gender would not be a qualifying (or disqualifying) factor. Spoiler alert: we do not live in a perfect world. We live in a world and practice an art form that for centuries discouraged (or downright forbade) women from composing. So there should perhaps be a bit more progress toward rectifying that.

Just for fun, I analyzed the current season and, based on criteria like nationality, style, context, and length, have a few suggestions. I allowed for the fact that half of the season celebrates Leonard Bernstein and did not replace those (but, hey ho, we will take into consideration that this year is Amy Beach’s 150th anniversary, unlike all other major American orchestras) and neither did I replace the guest artists’ pieces, which are not necessarily in the Symphony’s control.

Shall we begin?Substitute Symphony(2)So, out of 43 pieces over 14 concerts, we replaced 13 pieces in 11 concerts. That’s 30% of the season AND -bonus- we increased POC representation by 300%. And it’s all good music. Wow.

There are a growing number of resources for discovering music by women, including the Women Composers Database.

Now, I highly doubt the omission of female composers from the past few seasons was intentional. Works by women are sprinkled throughout the years. Women make up about 39% of the orchestra, 12 of the titled positions are held by women, won by blind audition, and 50% of the senior management team are women. In fact, KCS’s music director from 1999-2003 was conductor Anne Manson, now with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra.

But leaving the representation of women (and any minority group) to chance means that unintentionally they will be overlooked, given the limited opportunities for hundreds of years to an entire gender to produce works of art within the constraints of the modern symphony orchestra. Happenstance is not a good chance, if you’re waiting for a work from a historically underrepresented demographic to rise to acceptance in the public’s imagination (a place secured by the likes of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, for instance) without making an effort to put it there.

I’m not calling out KCS because they are doing a horrible job. It is an enviable organization: doing well financially, growing artistically, encouraged by civic leaders and making an effort to integrate themselves with the community. Their programming is no less inequitable than most organizations, the best of which have maybe two piece by female composers any given season. But this is the organization I’m most familiar with and the organization I hope would make the biggest strides and the biggest splash, influence the most people,  the community, and celebrate the biggest success with their programming. I don’t criticize to tear them down, but to demand better. We can all do better.

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