The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why do symphony orchestras program so few women composers – and often none?

July 26, 2018
8 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The summer is rolling along.

Soon August will be here, and then September with the new concert season.

Looking over the programs, which feature new music and living composers, for the next season at the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO), The Ear was reminded of a recent story.

It came from National Public Radio (NPR) and was about why so few women composers – or even no women composers – are being programmed at major national and regional symphony orchestras.

One major exception is Jennifer Higdon (below), the Curtis Institute teacher who has won a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award, who has been performed by the MSO and who is quoted in the story.

Here is a link to the story:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/06/19/617136805/the-sound-of-silence-female-composers-at-the-symphony

Now, The Ear likes the 2018-19 season at the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below) for many reasons he will go into another time. He thinks it is a big improvement over last year, probably because it also celebrates the 25th anniversary of John DeMain’s tenure as the artistic director. And it does open with the “Fanfare Ritmico” by Jennifer Higdon. But you still won’t find major works by Higdon or other women composers.

Here is a link:

https://www.madisonsymphony.org/18-19

And the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) also has an interesting and appealing season that includes some unusual features, including a recorder soloist and a repeat performance of a two-piano concerto that the WCO commissioned and premiered a couple of seasons ago. But, again, there are no women composers:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performance-listing/category/2018-19-season

The UW Symphony Orchestra, which last year performed a work by Caroline Shaw (below), hasn’t yet released its new schedule of programs.

If The Ear’s memory is correct, certain local chamber music and vocal groups — the Willy Street Chamber Players and the Oakwood Chamber Players come to mind — do a better job at programming works by women and composers of color, although there is still room to improve.

And it sure seems to The Ear that Wisconsin Public Radio has started to make a concerted effort to program more works by women.

What do you make of the lack of women composers?

Would you like to see more works by women composers programmed — say, Higdon’s violin and viola concertos? (You can hear the slow second movement of the Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Do you think programming more women composers would boost, lessen or not affect attendance?

Do you have suggestions for specific composers and specific works?

The Ear wants to hear.


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