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You Can Keep A Good Woman Down

Where are all the women composers and why aren't they allowed in the concert hall?

Amy Beach

This article appeared in the September 1998 issue of the OC Weekly, originally headlined "Behold the Power of the Phallus!"

It takes special equipment to be a classical composer. An intimate grasp of harmony. Mechanical deftness in counterpoint. An imagination for developing themes. An ear for orchestral color. A secure sense of personal style. Maybe even a gift for melody. But a budding Amadeus’ arsenal isn’t complete without the essential key that unlocks the doorway to performance and acclaim - a penis.

That last tool isn’t just another piece of extramusical baggage. If there’s a Newton’s Law of composer supremacy, it’s this: Men rule. They outnumber women hands down in the history books and hog attention today. True, you can’t point back in time to a Lady Beethoven or Ms. Mozart, but music has had its share of notable women, and their contemporary heirs are writing vital, compelling, even great scores. Still, there are more reports of alien abduction than sightings of female composers on classical programs - and Orange County’s mainline concerts are definitely no place to go cruising for women.

Look at the six resident music series of the Orange County Performing Arts Center and their 1998-99 season (gearing up in October), and you’ll see a unisex vision that makes gratuitous tokenism seem like a refreshing change of pace. The Pacific Symphony, Opera Pacific, Pacific Chorale, William Hall Master Chorale, Philharmonic Society and Center Concert Series have just three offerings from women’s pens. Expand your sights to out-of-county experiences like the LA Philharmonic, LA Music Center Opera or Cerritos Performing Arts Center, and that number increases by a whopping zero.

JoAnn Falletta “I wish I could say that it was an anomaly, but it’s fairly typical,” says Long Beach Symphony director JoAnn Falletta, who has a long track record as an advocate of music by women - both here and in San Francisco as former director of the Women’s Philharmonic. “There’s a real dichotomy when you think about composition classes, which in some cases are 50 percent female. I’ve talked to younger women who say they don’t feel any gender-related bias, which is encouraging. But the fact that our larger arts organizations haven’t caught up with this, I think is some cause for concern.”

Nationwide trends are lopsided, too, especially in the most visible area - symphonic music. The Women’s Philharmonic reports that the 21 biggest-budget U.S. orchestras played 1,530 works in the 1995-96 season. Three were by women. Smaller ensembles did better, but no budget class exceeded 2 percent.

“A lot of the stereotypes continue to live,” says Women’s Philharmonic executive director Judy Patrick. “There are some very strong historic works written by women composers, but women didn’t have the opportunity to hone their craft just as they often don’t today. If you don’t have anybody playing the music you write, it’s really hard to perfect your skills. That was a barrier then, and it remains a barrier now.”

Joan Tower A quick thumbnail sketch sums up the local history. Opera Pacific has never gone near a woman composer (ditto the opera companies in LA, San Diego and Long Beach). No one at the Pacific Symphony, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, can recall doing anything besides Joan Tower’s “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman” - a 3-minute concert opener - in 1993. The Hall Chorale did a work by Libby Larsen before relocating here from LA 11 years ago. Pacific Chorale sang music by local composer Linda Wells in 1980 and Larsen’s “The Settling Years” in 1995.

“We’ve been around 31 years, so we definitely could have fit some more music by women in there,” admits Julie Bussell, Pacific Chorale’s executive director. But she reports that two Lili Boulanger settings - "Les siréns" and "Soir sur la plaine" - were just added to the season opener (Nov. 1). “We’re really excited about that. It’s definitely in John Alexander’s mission to get more women on the program - not because it’s politically correct but because there’s so much music out there.”

Kaija Saariaho Especially from today’s composers. Fortunately, living writers have a high profile in Orange County this year, but look at the balance sheet and behold the power of the penis. There’s music by György Kurtag, Elliott Carter, John Corigliano, George Crumb, Terry Riley, Bright Sheng, György Ligeti, George Benjamin, Adolphus Hailstork, Frank Ticheli and Pacific Symphony’s new resident composer Richard Danielpour. But don’t strain yourself looking under stones for Sofia Gubaidulina, Galina Ustvolskaya, Thea Musgrave, Ellen Zwilich, Shulamit Ran, Chen Yi, Kaija Saariaho, Judith Weir, Augusta Read Thomas, Paula Kimper or Deborah Drattell whose timely opera "Lilith" was introduced last month at the Glimmerglass Festival in New York. The only live woman on OC’s Big Six roster is Ushio Torikai whose “Warm Like Wind” is being aired by the equal opportunity Kronos Quartet (Oct. 12).

Lili Boulanger This year, school is where the action is. Next February, the Chapman University Choir led by William Hall sings Boulanger’s "Hymne au soleil" for the American Choral Director’s Association convention in Chicago. At UC Irvine’s fledgling Gassmann Electronic Studio (going on its second season), half the concert dates are taken up by composers like New York-based violinist Mari Kimura (Oct. 21), San Francisco vocalist Pamela Z (Oct. 28), performance artist Sylvia Pengilly (Dec. 1) and the mother of all computer musicians, Joan LaBarbara (Apr. 29).

“I really try very hard to get people outside of the mainstream,” says Gassmann Studio director Christopher Dobrian, who’s as surprised as anyone at the balance of the coming season. “Computer music is an area that’s very sexually biased, but it just worked out this year that we had as many women as we do.”

So why don’t women get more chances to have their music heard in mainstream arenas? “This may be not the nicest reason, but it comes down to economics,” says Pacific Symphony assistant conductor Elizabeth Stoyanovich. “Orchestras are concerned about their audience. They want to make sure that their audiences are happy, that they come back, so they tend toward conservative programming. There are so many other things that can pull audience members away in this day and age that we keep going back to revisit the old war-horses.”

Partly true. But a look at this season’s concert programs reveals no shortage of variety or novelty - just a shortage of women. One “consciousness-raising” way to break the gender barrier is the “all-woman” concert, but that’s as passé now as affirmative action and tends to generate the same mixed feelings. “I’ve had music played in concerts like that and at first I was rather offended,” says Margaret Brouwer, head of composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music, whose first symphony will be heard next year in Long Beach (May 1). “It seemed very segregated, but when I talked to other composers, they pointed out that for some women who aren’t well known, it may be their only chance to get performed and be known.”

Hildegard von Bingen Getting known is 90 percent of the battle for any composer, man or woman. If there’s one woman who is well known, it’s a Middle-Aged writer, poet, composer, nun, and feminist icon who’s old as Methuselah and sells tons of CDs. The German abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was a literate woman in an illiterate age whose spreading popularity in the last decade has been helped along by the medieval monk music craze. This year, they’re throwing a Hildebash for her 900th birthday in towns like New York where her magnum opus, the "Ordo Virtutum" or "Play of Virtues," is being staged in three different productions. The Sequentia ensemble’s Ordo CD tour in November comes as far west as Stanford U. and Mount St. Mary’s College in L.A. But closer to home, the only Hildethangs shaking are some early Christmas songs played by Musica Angelica at OCPAC (Dec. 17).

Hildegard and her soul sisters like the Byzantine Kassia and the politically connected St. Brigitta of Sweden aren’t the only feminist lightning rods in music history. Some like Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler were wives or sisters of men whose music came first, but there were others who put their own music first.

Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre Barbara Strozzi Barbara Strozzi, a pioneer of opera in the 1640s, wrote volumes of arias but shelved her larger ambitions after Venice’s elite made a verbal dartboard of her. Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, court composer to Louis XIV, was a brilliant keyboardist who made her fortune as a free agent. Polish pianist Maria Szymanowska, a friend of Goethe, wrote concert etudes in vivid Chopinesque harmonies while Kid Chopin was still learning his scales.

Early in this century, Dame Ethel Smyth got royal attention for the muscle of operas like "The Wreckers" while the frail Parisian Lili Boulanger’s masterly chorales hinted at a genius cut short in 1918 by her death at age 24. Across the Pond, symphonies by Amy Beach and African-American Florence Price were played by the country’s best orchestras.Nadia Boulanger But back then, being American was as much a liability as gender until Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson and Walter Piston (all composition pupils of Nadia Boulanger, Lili’s sister) arrived in the 1930s and ‘40s.

“What we find in a lot of these earlier pieces are potential,” says Falletta. “We see talent there and even sometimes flashes of genius. Can we hold them up against a Mozart or Beethoven? No. That’s being honest. But many of these women were not getting the consistent training or the performances that they needed. Honestly, could Beethoven have composed the Ninth Symphony if no one had played the first eight?”

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