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.


Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players end the season with memorable performances of piano quintets by Faure and Brahms.

April 27, 2015
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker, who also provided performance photos. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John Barker

By John W. Barker

For its final concert of the season, the Mosaic Chamber Players (below) gave a program Saturday night at the First Unitarian Society of Madison. It combined two of the great quintets for piano and strings: the second of that type, in C minor, Op. 115, by Gabriel Fauré (1847-1924); and the only one if its kind, in F minor, Op. 34, by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

Mosaic Chamber Players  Quintets 1 JWB

So close together, one would think, and yet, so far apart. Contrasts result from distinct differences between the two composers in both nationality and personality — between Gallic eloquence and German burliness.

The work by Fauré (below) was completed in 1921, by which time Debussy was dead and Ravel, who was Faure’s student, was in his prime. It  is one of a half-dozen chamber pieces with which the composer rounded out his final years — almost, one might think, as an extension of his long output of piano writing.

Its expansive four-movement format is conventional in scope and with a range of expression. But its heart is a long and rapturous slow movement that flows with the unfolding elegance of one of Fauré’s piano nocturnes. (You can hear the slow movement in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

faure

By contrast, the quintet by Brahms (below) is one of the masterpieces of his early chamber-music writing. It dates from 1862, when Richard Wagner was between the composition of “Tristan und Isolde” and “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.”

Starting as some ideas for a symphony, it exists also in Brahms’s own adaptation of it as a sonata for two pianos. Its four movements are more conventionally conceived than Fauré’s, combining masterful Classical craftsmanship with powerful Romantic urgency.

brahms3

The performances involved five players from the group. The two violinists alternated in the first chair: Laura Burns for the Fauré, Wes Luke for the Brahms. Micah Behr and Michael Allen played viola and cello, respectively, while pianist Jess Salek (below) was the anchor as pianist, just as he is as the group’s guiding spirit.

Jess Salek JWB

These players have worked together before, but not as a consistent ensemble, although they suggested a close collegiality that more established groups might envy. They fully captured the moods, nuances and strengths of the two works.

If there were problems, it had to do with some balances, above all disadvantaging the viola. Some of the explanation could be in the choice of the cavernous Atrium Hall (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) as performing venue, rather then the more intimate Landmark auditorium, the original meeting house of the First Unitarian Society, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Atrium’s highly reverberant acoustics overwhelmed the players’ sound, and, at the same time, prompted over-exertions in volume output, to the detriment of carefully calculated ensemble.

FUS Atrium, Auditorium Zane Williams

The size of the hall also pointed up the painfully small size of the audience. There are always weekend competitions for attention, especially in the spring. Still, the Mosaic group is only beginning to develop sufficient promotion and publicity for its activities. Potential audience members need to be made aware of what the group offers.

Mosaic Chamber Players bow at Quintets JWB

What it does offer is one of the high-quality sources of chamber music performance in Madison’s very rich spectrum of events in that category.

The next Mosaic season should win the wider attention it greatly deserves.


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