Can American Orchestras Do Better At Including Women Composers?

This is a follow-up to the recent widely-read entry In Which I Learn Why There Are No Great Women Composers. Liane Curtis got in touch with me during the hullabaloo, wondering if I would be interested in covering the grants made available by Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy. I didn’t have time to write anything this week, so I invited her to post a guest entry. According to her bio:

Liane Curtis is a musicologist and the founder and President of both The Rebecca Clarke Society, and Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, non-profit organizations which are based at the WSRC [Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University]. A former Fulbright Scholar, Liane has taught at a wide range of colleges and universities, including Wellesley, Ohio State, and (in 2011 and 2007) at Brandeis University. She has written for the San Francisco Examiner, Bay Windows, The Musical Times, The New Grove Dictionary of Music, the National Women’s Studies Association Journal, Women’s Enews, The Gay and Lesbian Review, and other publications. In October 2006, Liane was a Fellow in the National Endowment for the Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera.

An impressive resume, but for me the thing that stands out about Liane is that she Cares Deeply About This Stuff. About a year ago, when I was beginning my study of the Clarke viola sonata, I sent her an email asking where the manuscript was. She sent me a link to a PDF of it right away. Never mind I was a largely self-taught violist based out of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who had no plans to perform the piece publicly. (The manuscript, by the way, is fascinating – a must-read for any violist – and can be perused here.) She cares, and she was excited that I care, and that generous and free exchange of knowledge is hugely meaningful and exciting and awesome. Agree or disagree with any of her premises, she is a woman on a mission, and I appreciate that.

So here is her guest entry. If you’re connected with an organization that is looking for grants, take note! – Emily


Can American orchestras do better at including – rather than excluding – women composers???

And can the grants offered by Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy help?

by Guest Blogger Liane Curtis

The recent inflammatory article in the Spectator (by Damian Thompson – no link here so you don’t encourage the clickbait), squashed so deftly by Emily E. Hogstad in this blog, and on New Music Box, reveals an overt instance of how deep-seated, hostile bias against women composers continues to survive. While overtly sexist statements such as those in the Spectator article are not as common as they were in the past, these same values are played out routinely in the current practice of dismissing and ignoring music by women. In short, when we see many orchestras routinely programming NOT ONE  SINGLE work composed by a female in their entire season of classical orchestral programming, it is agreeing with Damian Thompson’s ignorant opinion that “there are no great women composers, [and] that’s because creative geniuses are rare and, in the past, so few women wrote music. There may be some in the future…” The orchestras that are in this group this season (2015-2016) include: the Cleveland Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Seattle Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony and Utah Symphony. Just to point out one grievous case, the San Francisco Symphony is based in the city that was the home of The Women’s Philharmonic for all of its 20-plus years. Much of their past extensive fan base is there and would be eager to hear works by women. But one of our WPA supporters tells me that the SFS has excluded women composers in 17 of its past 20 seasons. The SFS prides itself for its creative, inventive programming, but to be so emphatic in ignoring women makes one wonder if there is some deep-set misogyny there.

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Five Takeaways From The Conversation on Female Composers (Link)

Hey, y’all! I just wrote a follow-up to my last blog entry for NewMusicBox:

“Five Takeaways From The Conversation on Female Composers”

Many thanks to the fine folks over there. Feel free to continue the conversation! The places where I’d most like you to continue the conversation would be at local artistic committee meetings, at music stores, at your private teachers’, and anywhere else where repertoire is decided and debated.

It's been fun, Spectator!

It’s been fun, Spectator!


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In Which I Learn Why There Are No Great Women Composers

Lots of people have hobbies like knitting, jogging, or stamp collecting. Because I am the nerdiest nerd to ever nerd, the closest thing I have to a hobby is learning about the history of women in music. It’s a topic that doesn’t get as much press as the old chestnuts like “classical music is dying” or “Stradivari’s secret varnish” or “lockouts.” Nonetheless, once in a while the mainstream media will run articles about women composers, and when they do, I enjoy reading what other people have to say on the topic.

Today a very special article ran in the conservative British magazine The Spectator. It’s called “There’s A Good Reason Why There Are No Great Women Composers.” I’m not going to link to it for reasons that will gradually become obvious to you.

It begins:

Last week a 17-year-old girl forced the Edexcel exam board to change its A-level music syllabus to include the work of women composers.

Wow. A 17-year-old girl forced the Edexcel exam board to change its A-level music syllabus? How did she do this? Did she hack an extensive computer network? Did she threaten the board and then hold it hostage? Did she storm their office with firearms and issue terrifying proclamations with her foot resting upon the skulls of her enemies?

The truth is actually far more frightening: she began a petition.

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Review: Season Opener, Audra McDonald, Minnesota Orchestra

This past weekend at the Minnesota Orchestra was a gala of flashy moments: sparkling drop necklaces, dazzling tunes, dashing (impossibly talented) men in tuxes, elegant (impossibly talented) women in gowns, champagne bubbling over, sequins and beads and feathers. Big and little moments of excitement and anticipation and joy, coming one after another after another, our first opening night in a new era of peace, stability, and prosperity.


My seat is in right balcony B, a perfect perch from which to observe the crowd and the band and the night. The music begins with the Star Spangled Banner arranged by St. Stan himself. Soprano voices soar high. String players’ chins tilt over their instruments as they survey the crowd, their parts memorized. A roar of applause, an unspoken “play ball!” echoing in the inner ear.


Magic Flute overture. Chords: round and bold. Strings: one voice magnified, then another, as the Mozartean lines skitter to and fro, some higher, then lower, call and response flitting instantaneously across the stage. My hand as I lean over the short wall, watching the back stands of violas and the basses, then leaning back again and straightening out my dress. Dry air. The rustle of a crisp new program book beside me, its cover folded back. Powerful women glittering under the spotlight in their gowns. Delight. Awe.


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Balanced Budget Celebration!

The Minnesota Orchestra will report a balanced budget for FY 2015.

I’ve got one phrase for this:


Some excerpts from the press release, accompanied by reaction gifs.

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Hartford Symphony Hornbook

It strikes me I should just automate my autumn blog entries using a contract dispute MadLib.

[NAME], the CEO of the [CITY OR STATE NAME] Orchestra, has recently threatened [ASTONISHINGLY HIGH NUMBER] percentage cuts in musician compensation, because of [THE ECONOMY / “THE NEW MODEL” / A LACK OF SUSTAINABILITY]. In his role as CEO, he earns [ASTONISHINGLY HIGH NUMBER EXPONENTIALLY HIGHER THAN PREVIOUS ASTONISHINGLY HIGH NUMBER] every year, and yet has puzzlingly few symphonic accomplishments to show for it. In the run-up to the dispute, [CEO NAME] has given public indications that he is more interested in the [NAME OF HALL THE ORCHESTRA PLAYS IN or PARENT ORGANIZATION THE ORCHESTRA HAS BEEN ABSORBED INTO] than in the [CITY OR STATE NAME] Orchestra, and also has an undeniable weakness for pops shows. [INSENSITIVE QUOTE DEMONSTRATING A LACK OF UNDERSTANDING OF THE ISSUES]

In 2012 (…and 2013…), the star of the MadLib was the Minnesota Orchestra’s Michael Henson. In 2014, we all enjoyed the antics of Atlanta Symphony President Dr. Stanley Romanstein, Ph.D. (Both have since moved on from their respective organizations.) Now American orchestra lovers have a new name to learn: David Fay is the man in charge of the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, as well as the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.

The Hartford Symphony, however, is a more….recent acquisition.

*ominous thunderclap in distance*

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IV. Eaux Claires Festival: Starlight

Eaux Claires, Saturday, after sunset. The ticket stand was close to abandoned; the workers were joking around as I paid cash for a second ticket. The murmur of the crowd echoed in the valley. Walking down into the field, parts of the path were so dark I couldn’t see my hands.

“Here?” I asked my friend. Close enough to see, far enough away to watch.


She took off her sweater and spread it across the grass. People around us sat, then stood, then sat again. Some were laughing. A few were smoking. The heat had finally broken. Muggy, expectant starlight now.

The crowd shrieked itself into ecstasy as a figure took the stage. It was festival narrator and beautifully talented local author Michael Perry, lit up from behind like a rock star. “Good to see you here. Everybody’s gathered round for…” and his voice sharpened: “vespers.”

Perry offered a brief meditation on the nature of neighbors, of the valley, of music. “And so here we are, cradled by a river in a sanctuary of sound, craving consecration, exultation, on bended knee, seeking benediction.” About halfway through, electronic noises began spattering away behind his baseball cap. New Bon Iver backup singers The Staves listened, their arms around each other. Everything felt tuned to a higher pitch. In more ways than one, the stage was set.

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III. Eaux Claires Festival: Twilight

We don’t talk about Bon Iver’s name enough. A homonym of “bon hiver,” or “good winter” in French, the words recall a wooden Wisconsin cabin, probably with the chimney puffing and snowbanks heaped outside. But this Friday and Saturday in that very state, the average high temperature was much hotter: the heat reached around 90 degrees, plus humidity. Far from the icy grip of winter, a July audience enjoyed a rare Bon Iver set from musician Justin Vernon. The occasion? None other than the inaugural Eaux Claires festival, which Vernon founded and co-curated with the National’s Aaron Dessner. It kicked off on Friday; read a recap here. Eaux Claires’s second and final day of music featured extra genre-blurring excitement, a fun Indigo Girls set, and Vernon’s first Bon Iver performance since 2012….

[Sufjan] Stevens also shared some of his personal feelings about the show: “Great to be here and have this view…beautiful and happy faces. It’s a picture of abundance.” He looked out from stage. “I never play festivals — I have such a fear of crowds — agoraphobia, social anxiety. The last two days have been proving all my fears wrong. It’s been like a 48-hour episode of My Little Pony.”…

Billboard, July 19

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Is Twin Cities Business Publishing Clickbait About Our Orchestra?

Two weeks ago, Twin Cities Business ran an article about the Minnesota Orchestra called:

Does The Minnesota Orchestra Have Sustainable Labor Contracts?

Okay, Twin Cities Business: you’ve immediately pulled my Pissiness Pulley by using the words “Minnesota Orchestra” and “sustainable” in the same sentence. Much like the ideas of American exceptionalism or precooked meat products, the concept of sustainability in the orchestra world has been used to justify some truly terrible stuff. Twin Cities Business should know this, and tread carefully.

Next comes a worrying, intestine-twisting subheadline:

The orchestra’s finances might not be as stable as they seem

worried 2

we’re gonna die; we’re ALL GONNA DIE

Okay, let’s back up.

First off: the finances have recovered enough to seem stable? I missed that. The fact there’s even a perception of stability is news in and of itself.

Second, why the passive-aggressive tone? Is it sunny outside? I don’t know; it seems like it, but the weather might not be as stable as it seems.

Well, seeds of doubt as to the purpose and seriousness of this article have already been planted in the headline and sub-headline, so the actual article itself should be fun!!!!11!11!

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II: Eaux Claires Festival: Afternoon

On a cold March night, I found a video of The Staves and Justin Vernon singing Make It Holy.

It was early in the month: the time of year when spring seems both impossibly near and far. My mother and I were living at my grandmother’s farm, sleeping in my dead grandfather’s bed. There was nowhere else to put us.

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