Monday, March 13, 2017

International Women's Day, 2017

Joshua Kosman celebrated the occasion a day early, with an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the nearly-complete failure of American orchestras to notice that all good composers aren't white, male, and mostly dead.

My only disagreement with the article is that I don't consider SoundBox to be the equivalent of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Green Umbrella series. SoundBox is an obvious attempt to create an experience that's far removed from what goes on 100 feet away on the main stage of Davies: the low lights, the nightclub-like atmosphere, the couch-and-bar-stool seating, the drinks, the difficulty of getting tickets, the permission to use your camera, the excerpting of larger works, the appeal to a new audience. I've been to a couple of Green Umbrella concerts; they're held in the main auditorium of WDCH, listed on the regular concert schedule, and work just like SFS's regular chamber music programs.

That's a small point. Here's Joshua's conclusion, which boils down to "if you are only programming music by dead white men, you're missing a lot of great music:"
There are women all over the world writing music of great individuality, vividness and intensity that would not only excite listeners but remind young people that yes, women can be composers too. There are countless black and Asian and Latino composers who deserve better than to be consigned to silence, or to the dubious spotlight of the ethnic-celebration concert.
If the Los Angeles Philharmonic can find these creative figures, other organizations can too. All that’s lacking, presumably, is the will — and the consciousness, lacking for far too long, that this needs to be a priority.
And if increasing the ethnic and gender diversity of the repertoire means bringing it that much closer to the music of our own time — well, we’ll consider that an ancillary benefit.
So what can we all do about the hegemony of (mostly dead) white men? Well, for one thing, let your local orchestras and concert presenters know that you would like to hear more music not written by dead white men. Send 'em letters. Tell them that you will contribute more or buy more tickets when they start programming music (or more music) by women and non-white composers. Keep track of how local organizations are doing and take public note of their repertory: use Twitter, Facebook, and your blog / LiveJournal / Instagram /whatever account to hold these groups responsible for their programming.

Here's the situation locally:
  • As Joshua notes, SFS's 2017-18 season has one (1) work on it not by a white man, in the form of Kaija Saariaho's Lanterna Magica. He did not note that it is on Susanna M√§lkki's program. She happens to be the only woman conducting next year at SFS; she is also Finnish; we can guess that she asked for this piece. Past years haven't been much better, with anywhere from 0 to maybe 2 works composed by women and hardly any by nonwhite men.
  • San Francisco Opera has not yet performed an opera composed by a woman on its main stage. Some years ago, they staged Rachel Portman's The Little Prince at Zellerbach. They did try to commission a work from Jennifer Higdon, an honored and excellent composer; for complicated reasons, SFO and Higdon were ultimately unable to come to an agreement and the commission was withdrawn. Santa Fe Opera commissioned Cold Mountain from her and wound up with a Grammy-winning recording and an apparent hit. I've been wondering whether Saariaho's first opera, L'Amour de Loin, might not turn up here. Matthew Shilvock saw it in NYC and was evidently impressed, based on his Twitter feed. The work is comparatively inexpensive to stage, with only three singers and the chorus. It can also be done easily with a unit set, further reducing costs. This opera would be a good start, anyway.
  • The Oakland Symphony has gone out of its way over the last decade to showcase works by composers who aren't dead white men. They've had Persian composers, African American composers, Mexican composers and others. Support them! Buy tickets!
  • West Edge Opera performed Laura Kaminsky's As One in 2015 and will stage Libby Larsen's Frankenstein this coming summer.
  • Over at Magnificat, director Warren Stewart has been programming music by female composers of the Renaissance and Middle Ages for, well, forever. Support them! Buy tickets! (Well, if they are performing these days - they have not given a concert in a year.)
  • Small, nimble, new music groups are generally doing better than the big organizations, in part because if you're performing new music, it's just about impossible to ignore female composers.


Bryan said...

West Edge Opera is mounting Libby Larsen's "Frankenstein" in the summer.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Yes! I even knew that, will update.

Andrea J said...

Stanford Live is presenting the premiere of the workshop staging by Christopher Alden of Carolyn Shaw's latest commission, Contriving the Chimes, for voice (Majel Connery) and string quartet (the St. Lawrence).
Friday, April 21, 2017 at 8 pm in the Bing Concert Hall Studio, Stanford.
Tickets are only $20 general admission (box office 650-724-2464).
The text is based on a list of sins recorded by Isaac Newton at age 19 in 1662.
The program also includes the song cycle August is also cruel by Doug Balliett.

Anonymous said...

If more living composers (of either sex) wrote as well as Caroline Shaw, they'd be more popular, and we wouldn't have so much of a problem.