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Dead Women Are Dead To American Orchestras

If you spend any time in the online orchestra world, you’ve probably seen the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s infographic about American orchestras’ 2014/15 seasons. A few days ago, the BSO released figures tracking the 15/16 season, and this year, the data net has been cast even wider. Writer Ricky O’Bannon describes the methodology:

This season we collected programming data for both major American symphonies as well as smaller regional orchestras — 89 in total — to give a more holistic view of symphonic repertoire in the United States.

My thoughts after reading that:

Oh, cool! With so many more orchestras included in the data-gathering this year, surely the proportion of living and historic women composers has skyrocketed, or at least inched upward gradually!

Hahahaha. Hahahahahahahaha.

Last season, the works of female composers accounted for 14.3% of the performances of living composers (and a mere 1.8% of the performances overall). This year, even with the wider field? 14% and 1.7%, respectively.

And then there’s this little asterisk at the bottom of the graph.

every composer

*deep breath*

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Look, I know it’s hard for orchestras to program works outside The Canon. And at this point, pretty much every orchestral work by women is outside The Canon. But no one in the bunch of eighty-nine orchestras wanted to program a single work by a female composer once? No one thought that would be musically or historically or politically or culturally interesting? No one thought that would be unique or exciting? No one thought that would be fantastic press release material? No one thought that would excite donors? No one thought that would advance orchestras’ missions to broaden audiences or educate communities? No one saw this as The Easiest Way Ever to outperform peer organizations? For crap’s sake, a random orchestra could program a dead lady’s ten-minute overture once, and wow, suddenly they’re playing 100% more historic women than any other orchestra in America! Congratulations, random orchestra! Your commitment to underrepresented demographics is palpable.

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The 2015 Song of the Lark Award for Demographically Diverse Orchestral Programming

And hell, it’s not like I’m asking every orchestra to throw an annual month-long Vagina Festival. It just would have been nice to see one orchestra play one work by one woman at one point. I thought that someone, somewhere, would throw us a pity Gaelic Symphony or Farrenc third or Clara Schumann concerto. But, nope.

Anyway. I would love to offer probing analysis. But it’s pretty f***ing hard to analyze the number zero.

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Now It’s Really Over

Yesterday I got a call from Minnesota Orchestra bass player Kathryn Nettleman. (Well, Kate Nettleman. It feels weird to call our Kate “Kathryn.”) She wanted to make sure I heard about the big news.

The Minnesota Orchestra has had a lot of big news lately. In January 2014, the sixteen-month lockout of musicians ended. The CEO and board chair departed. Former music director Osmo Vänskä, who had resigned during the lockout, was re-hired. He married concertmaster Erin Keefe, who had been a leading candidate for the New York Philharmonic concertmaster seat. She decided to stay in Minnesota. The organization hired a new temporary CEO, Kevin Smith, who quickly became a long-term CEO. Recording sessions started up again. The third disc in the Grammy-winning Sibelius cycle was finished, and we’re waiting on the release date now. There was a trip to Cuba, planned and executed in record time. Then within a few days of the orchestra’s return to America, it was announced that musician contracts had been negotiated two years ahead of schedule (with modest raises), and that Osmo himself had signed on until at least 2019. Major multi-million dollar gifts were announced. The organization just posted its first surplus in a while (using a prudent endowment draw rate, no less).

If you take a step back, you realize what a veritable barrage of good news there has been here lately. Apparently we’re living in an era of sparkly unicorn rainbows. Thanks to a spirit of collaboration and mutual respect, the Minnesota Orchestra is proving that it is an organization on the move.

But Kate was calling me with even more big news to share. I didn’t know what to expect. Some kind of series devoted to the history of women in music? The construction of the Kevin Smith Room within Orchestra Hall, from which Kevin is never allowed to leave? (He would be fed well.) The first orchestra tour to the moon? After the past two years, nothing seems impossible.

As she spoke, I realized that one vestige of the lockout still remains: the musicians’ independent 501c3. This was the organization that the musicians used to self-produce concerts during the lockout.

“We’re dissolving it,” Kate said.

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2015 Advent Calendar

Welcome to the 2015 Song of the Lark Advent calendar! Every day until Christmas Eve, a new entry will go live at www.sotladventcalendar.tumblr.com. Each includes a 2015 blog memory, as well as a piece of holiday music. (You can also go back in time and read blog highlights and hear musical selections from previous years’ calendars. Navigate through the archives by using the arrows on the left side of the calendar.)

This season’s calendar was therapeutic to assemble… The illness and death of my mother made 2015 the worst year of my life, by far. (2015, may the door hit your ass on the way out. Hard.) I apologize again for not writing more the last few months. But my mind has been cloudy.

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The other day I read through a big chunk of the SOTL archives. Some pieces I still like; some are more meh; but I was proud to see that I’ve never insulted a topic by not caring about it. Better days are coming, both in my personal life and on the blog. I think my capacity for caring is slowly returning, and I’m cautiously optimistic about the new life that awaits in 2016.

Which is fitting, I guess. After all, the idea of Advent is about looking inward, taking stock, and preparing for the arrival of new life: a New Year, and a new start.

Cheers. *raises champagne glass*

If holiday music is your thing, I hope you check out the link above every day. I’ll put up another post around New Year’s in case you want to browse the whole thing at once. And please feel free to share the names of your favorite winter / holiday pieces in the comment section! 2016 will be here before we know it, and after four years of calendars (can you believe it??), I’m reaching the outer edges of my winter-related repertoire, haha.

Happy holidays, merry Christmas, and/or a blessed New Year’s to you and yours! Thank you for giving me the greatest gift of all…your readership. It sounds hokey, but I mean it with every inch of my heart.

With deep appreciation, Emily

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Happy Thanksgiving, Y’all!

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, Y’ALL. Is there a better tune to celebrate with than Turkey in the Straw? I THINK NOT.

Sorry that things have been so quiet this month… But I’ve got a couple of great entries in the hopper, as well as some cool big bloggy news I’ll be announcing…soon; I’m just taking my time with those things because I want them to be super awesome, and also I’m slow. There should also be a (FOURTH!) (FOURTH) (BEHOLD THE RELENTLESS PASSAGE OF TIME) online SOTL Advent calendar that goes live on December 1st (if I get my act together) (I’ll get my act together) (I think) (lol).

In the meantime, enjoy giving thanks for all the blessings in your life. My blessings include a supportive community of readers and the greatest music in the world. And I can’t ask for much more than that. Thanks, all! Have a marvelous holiday season full of everything you love best, and keep in touch!!

~Emily

402px-1_Wild_Turkey

A public domain turkey image I just found on Wikipedia

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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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SOTL on Performance Today

I was recently interviewed for “Performance Today” on the subject of music nerd-ism. The interview aired July 21.  I’m going to backdate this entry to make it look like I’m somewhat on top of my career. I totally posted this on July 22nd, guys. Totally. *shifty eyes*

*pastes in scrapbook*

*pastes in scrapbook*

Click here. I’m in Hour 2, minute 16:45, for about four minutes. Right now my bucket list looks somewhat like this:

  • shoot the breeze with Fred Child

When I was in seventh grade, and away at school during the day, I’d order my mom to tape an hour of public radio so I could listen to it when I got home. Clearly, not just the music nerd-ism, but the public radio nerd-ism runs deep. After this, there’s obviously not much left for me to accomplish, so I may just announce my retirement at twenty-six. (Just Kidding! How could anyone retire with all of the potential 2015 labor disputes brewing?) I’ll post more this August. I’m taking the summer to write some more experimental essays, before launching into the Minnesota Orchestra’s star-studded 2015-2016 season, as well as any out-of-town labor disputes that boil over. I promise cool content and fewer family-death-induced hiatuses.

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Death and the Maiden

I have a lot of music news to write about that I just haven’t, and I kinda want to explain why.

Saturday June 20th was my grandfather and mother’s dual memorial service. I admit, I wasn’t thrilled about including my mother on the double bill, but it all worked out, and it was lovely. I threw together a violin and cello version of the Dvorak Largo, and a friend and I played it. I know at least a couple of my readers were in the congregation, and I want to extend my deepest thanks to them for attending.

On Wednesday the 24th, my grandmother Carol Hogstad woke up, walked past the kitchen table of half-finished thank-you notes, went outside with the dog, and died.

If there is such a thing as a perfect death, she had it. She was eighty-six. Her heart just – stopped. She had no, or a very brief pain: the autopsy revealed she was dead before she hit the ground. She was on the land she’d loved. She’d never had to endure the dehumanization of an extended stay in a hospital or nursing home. Her mind was still sharp. She cooked until the end. Speaking of which, she fortunately hadn’t started her daily baking yet, so there were no flames licking the sky a la the finale of Rebecca. Her body didn’t fall on the dog (in fact, the dog actually slept on her back after she passed). She died outside, so none of us needed to break in a door or window. She’d spent the week previous with family she hadn’t seen for years. She met all nine of her great-grandchildren, and sat for pictures with them. She’d stubbornly survived the death of her husband and her baby daughter, and the only thing left to wrap up from their service was some cold cut leftovers. She was stubbornly strong…but she was also very tired.

She was an extraordinary steely woman. There was much to learn from her. I look forward to sharing some of the lessons she taught me. (DISCLAIMER: My family is currently averaging a death a quarter, so I may not survive long enough to share, but trust me, they were good lessons.) (DEATH JOKES!)

My most recent selfie

My most recent selfie

Anyway! Until I’m done with writing her obituary, and planning her memorial service, and working with the bedraggled survivors to determine how to settle her estate – forgive another (hopefully brief) absence from the blog. Please feel free to laugh about the absurdity of this situation. She didn’t suffer, she missed her husband and her daughter so much, we are all doing okay, and I think we all learned during the lockout that the best way to break absurdity is to deride it.

So. Rest in peace, dear soul. You worked hard. You did a great job. You earned every moment of the sweet rest you are now enjoying. I’m proud I was your granddaughter.

I’ve had a couple of people ask, so I’ll mention it here. The family requests that memorial gifts go to UW-Stout, the college that she earned her multiple degrees at, and where she was a well-beloved professor for many years. Many thanks.

Also: hello, Hartford Symphony. I can already tell my muse is coming after you next. Hopefully my family will stop dying long enough for me to cover the inevitable orchestral labor disputes that every modern autumn brings.

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8 Non-Profit Lessons From The Minnesota Orchestra’s Cuba Tour

The Minnesota Orchestra recently returned from a groundbreaking trip to Cuba. It was the first time an American orchestra had performed there since the process of normalizing relations began in December 2014. It was also the Minnesota Orchestra standing up on the international stage and saying, in a particularly badass way, we’re back, baby.

Lots of people who were lucky enough to be on the trip have been sharing their ideas about what the week meant. We’re all still digesting. But the people on the ground in Cuba weren’t the only ones to come away with exciting new perspectives. Eight big ideas keep repeatedly swishing around my brain like Caribbean waves along the shore…

You too can recover from disaster, because damn the Minnesota Orchestra is back in business. Their performance of the Eroica in particular was probably the greatest I’ve ever heard of that piece. It certainly far, far outstripped the intensity of their live performances I heard in April 2015 and July 2012. The Eroica was also the first symphony they played after the lockout ended in February 2014, and the difference between the two performances was mind-boggling. Can this orchestra play even better? Oh, I’m sure. But do they currently stand with the great ensembles of the world? F-, yeah. Give them a few more years and I have no doubt whatsoever that the lockout will recede into organizational history, eclipsed by fresh artistic triumphs from a new era.

One-on-one interaction is beyond priceless. Look at this photo gallery and tell me otherwise.

Twitter is an amazing tool to use during big live events to cement connections with readers and patrons. I associate Twitter more with political live-blogging or passive-aggressive celebrity feuds, but it actually works really well for documenting big live events like this tour. I’m still split about the idea of “Tweet seats.” But for a radio broadcast, where I was holed up in my bedroom and my furious typing wasn’t bothering anyone, it was a marvelous format. (And I definitely understand the appeal of Tweet seats now way more than I did.) I gained lots of new followers and had some truly meaningful exchanges with readers, including the official Classical MPR and Minnesota Orchestra accounts. That loops back to my preceding point.

At big events, non-profits need to employ someone whose main responsibility is creating content for social media. The Cuba trip was unique in that not all the responsibility for documentation was laid on the Minnesota Orchestra’s staff, since many major media outlets were toting along their own photographers and videographers. But the lesson still stands. All of my friends are sharing the Cuba pictures with all of their friends, and I have no doubt all their friends are, too. I wish it was possible to convert the value of that increased enthusiasm and engagement into dollars. But I have to believe the Orchestra at least broke even on the $1 million that Marilyn Carlson Nelson and her husband invested into this tour. Maybe even more than that, because a lot of the positive experiences we had cannot be bought…since they’re not for sale.

Speaking of which….

The greatest work of non-profits is, at the end of the day, not about the bottom line. There was a group of us who argued passionately during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout that the worst thing to do would be to regard the Orchestra’s bottom line as its sole metric of success. I hate to say I told you so, but… (Haha, KIDDING. I don’t hate saying that at all. I TOLD YOU SO.)

In future, all orchestras need to employ musician-writers the caliber of Rena Kraut and Sam Bergman. Click here to read a Rena entry; click here to read one from Sam. Yes, finding others with their talents may be a tall order, but it needs to happen. Rena and Sam’s accounts of their trip brought on countless of tears and bonded many hundreds of hearts closer to the Orchestra. I have to believe there are equally talented writers at every American orchestra who would be willing to step up to the plate. (I don’t know how – or if – it could work, practically speaking, but… If there were two candidates for a position in a major American orchestra, their musical abilities roughly equal, and one was a ridiculously talented writer, or photographer, or interviewer, or podcaster, or whatever, you might just want to go with the candidate whose talents extend beyond music-making.) (Might this be a way for young musicians to distinguish themselves as competitors in a particularly cutthroat marketplace? How do we train young artists to write well, and whose responsibility is it to teach them?)

Crowd-funded arts journalism is a potential game-changer. Yes, blogger Scott Chamberlain had the chance of a lifetime to go on the Cuba tour after readers chipped in several thousand dollars to get him there, but he also had quite the responsibility: he couldn’t disappoint the people who had given him that money with the expectation of top-notch writing. Because those people were, in large part, his friends. Of course, he disappointed no one. The roaring success of his coverage brings up an interesting question: what comes next in the field of entrepreneurial arts journalism? If a blogger can finance a trip to Cuba…can a writer make a part-time job out of creating online content about classical music? A full-time job? Soon somebody is going to try. And I’m excited to watch content creators (I don’t like the limiting term “bloggers” in this particular context) push the envelope even further. We will all learn a lot about our art from the successes and failures that lie ahead. I’m not saying that crowd-funding is a magic bullet, especially if / when the marketplace becomes saturated. But it could be a potent weapon nonetheless.

When you’re recovering from institutional trauma, one healing tactic is to find a big goal and go for it. I’m thinking about the Atlanta Symphony in particular. They’re in a process of real institutional flux right now. They’re searching for a new CEO and trying to establish an identity of stability and relevance. I’m wondering if the best thing they could do right now is spearhead a major artistic project. Easy for me to say that, obviously; I have zero idea what that project could be. The Cuba idea, for instance, never would have occurred to me, which is why I write about the arts and don’t administer them. But I think the incoming Atlanta Symphony president, whoever he or she may be, should find one. Atlanta needs (and deserves) a “Cuba moment.”

So let’s take a moment to appreciate what Minnesota Orchestra CEO Kevin Smith and board Vice Chair Marilyn Carlson Nelson accomplished here. They acted boldly and smartly, and they refused to act out of a place of timidity or fear. I’ve learned a valuable lesson from them both. The best way to bond a group of people together is to work toward a major goal, all together. The board gave their money. The musicians gave their talent. The staff gave their time and expertise. And together they created something far more valuable than what any one group could have accomplished on its own. And consequently, lots of healing took place. Caveat: you must be reasonably sure you can achieve your major goal. If any number of things had derailed the Cuba tour, then… Well, let’s not go there. But the potential rewards were obviously worth the risk.

Those were my big takeaways from this extraordinary weekend that all Minnesota Orchestra lovers were privileged to share.

What were yours?

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Interview with Scott Chamberlain: Part 2

In the second part of my interview with fellow blogger Scott Chamberlain, we talked about his upcoming Cuba trip. Catch up on the first part here.

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Scott's logo

The famous mask…

EH: So. I’ve ignored the elephant in the room long enough. The whole reason I even thought of connecting with you in interview format is that you’re going with the Minnesota Orchestra to cover their historic Cuba tour. They’ll be the first American orchestra in the Obama era to visit. And you’ll be writing about it, even though you aren’t a professional arts writer. And I want to take a minute to talk about that.

I’ve never heard of an arts writer – amateur or professional – trying to crowdfund accompanying an orchestra on a tour. And not only trying, but succeeding. As I’m writing this entry, you’re at 55% of your goal, and it’s only been a few days. (Readers, please, if anyone has done anything like this before, let me know in the comments.) I know this project didn’t come about as some grand plan or anything like that, but obviously as I’m watching the total tick up and up, and getting excited about having a writer friend on the ground in Cuba to share his thoughts… I’m wondering about whether you think this is a strategy that arts writers will use in future to get more and better coverage of our beloved arts. I have mixed feelings about whether it could work besides for a few very charismatic people, but I’m curious what you think. Do you think your support is just a one-off thing because you developed relationships with your readers in the depths of a historic lockout, or do you think other arts writers in other times and places could do it, too? Many times I find myself wondering, “are the cool things that are happening here a direct result of the lockout, or could these cool things happen everywhere?” Do you know what I mean?

SC: I do think it’s unusual—in fact, the co-founder Musicovation.com, a website devoted to covering news and industry trends from across the musical world, contacted me to ask these very questions.

And I have to say I’m learning as I go. Given the complexities of this tour, it is fairly expensive… even for those of us who are getting the press discount. As an independent writer, coming up with the cost of the trip seemed daunting, but a number of supporters suggested that this was a perfect fit for a GoFundMe campaign… and off I went.

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Semi-Hiatus

Some of you have probably noticed that I’ve been absent from the blog lately, and it took a while for me to find the strength to explain why.

In late January, my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer of unknown origin. I’ve left my home to care for her, and nowadays am living out of a cramped spare bedroom in rural Wisconsin. The future is a total question mark.

For those of you keeping track at home, in six months to the day, that’s the death of my grandfather, the death of my sweet Sheltie, and a cancer diagnosis for my mom. So either some very good news is just around the corner, or late last summer someone invested in a voodoo doll with my face on it.

We intend to fight the cancer with everything we have. The women in my family are well-known for their persistence in the face of long odds. But fighting with everything I have on behalf of my mother means that the blog is simply not a major priority right now. I’ll write when it feels like a respite, but not when it feels like a responsibility. How often that will be, and for how long…well, your guess is as good as mine. I’m trying to take things hour by hour at this point.

This isn’t an adventure I’d have embarked on willingly. But then again, neither was the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, and in the end, that nightmare turned into something profound and indeed even sacred. And it’s certainly no coincidence that the people who are keeping me afloat nowadays are the very same people I got to know during the lockout. A deep, deep thank you to those folks.

Okay. So. Send prayers and best wishes for peace and strength. I’ll be back, some way, somehow. Thankfully every circumstance is temporary. And I’ll still be checking in online, frequently. I just won’t be writing long-form entries as often as I’d like. Stay in touch using Twitter and Facebook. I’ve found I like to check those while traveling to hospitals and wasting time in waiting rooms.

To close, because I don’t have the time or the energy to write a separate entry on the subject… I wanted to say that I could not be more excited for the Minnesota Orchestra’s new chapter. Securing the talents of Erin Keefe for the foreseeable future? A Sibelius concert at Carnegie in 2016? Becoming the first American orchestra to perform in Cuba in the Obama era? Well, holy [expletive], guys. I hope you patrons know what you’ve done. These astonishing developments could not have happened without you. When Alex Ross is sent into ecstasies March after next – when the newspaper articles about the historic Cuba concerts are written – when the eyes of the entire world turn to Minneapolis to appreciate the contributions our orchestra makes to international cultural life – remember: that was you who did that. Miracles happen when people work together. That’s a lesson I’ll try my best to hold close to my heart in the weeks and months to come.

Like I said, stay in touch. I can’t take this journey by myself.

Outside my new - temporary - home.

Outside in a gorgeous winter sunset

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