Category Archives: My Writing

Why Are Pioneering Female Composers So Neglected?

I’m embarrassed by how late this is, but here’s a reminder announcement:

May first and May eighth, starting at 6:45pm, I’m giving a pre-concert talk at the James J. Hill House in St. Paul for the Hill House Chamber Players (most of whom are current or former Minnesota Orchestra players).

  • All the details, including ticket information, are here.
  • You can like their Facebook page, and read up on the women featured, here.

The program includes music by Lili Boulanger, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and Gabriel Fauré. Fauré and Bach are my two favorite composers, so it’s a deeply meaningful program to me, and I hope to you, too. It certainly is a beautiful one.

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Our Tears Will Teach Us: Being A Woman In The 2016 Election

Warning: political discussion ahead! If you think bloggers who write about music should keep their traps shut about politics, ignore this post.

I apologize for not writing much on the blog lately; I’ve been busy with my personal life, and I haven’t been able to give entries the time and thought they deserve. But after the results of the presidential election, I thought it would be therapeutic to check in with you guys. That’s what I feel like I want to do: connect with the people who mean a lot to me. And you, dear readers, mean a lot to me.

Here are where my thoughts have been lately… There are desperately important questions to be asked about politics and race and culture right now, but since I focus on gender on this blog, I’ll drill down into that particular topic. Mainly I want to explore how Hillary’s defeat, and Donald’s victory, made me feel as a woman last night.

Fun factoid: like many other Americans, I’m a direct descendant of Elizabeth Alden Pabodie, potentially the first white woman born in New England. She was born in 1623. Yesterday I kept thinking about her. How would she feel if she could see a woman winning the popular vote for President of the United States? How would her daughters and granddaughters and great-granddaughters and so on and so on and so on for centuries react? She endured so much building America. They all did. What would they say about this election? What insights might they have about the journey we’ve shared with them?


Elizabeth Alden’s grave; photo from Wikipedia

On the other hand, I want to be careful not to idealize or romanticize Elizabeth or her descendants. (It goes without saying that the recognition of her as the first “white woman” is uncomfortable: somehow it seems to negate so many other babies born over so many other centuries on this continent.) I have to believe that I had female ancestors who endured and did heartbreaking things…simultaneously. I’m sure there were women who endured difficult marriages because society gave them no way out. Women who were hit and raped. Women whose personal interests were brushed aside, or who felt pressured to brush them aside themselves. Women who were treated as breeding machines and nothing more. And I’m also sure that there were women who were virulent racists. Women who shunned immigrants. Women who abused their own family and friends. Women who, for whatever reason, chose apathy. In other words, women who were human beings.

But somehow, in fits and starts over centuries, progress was made: slowly, slowly, slowly, yes, but also surely. Later, Elizabeth’s descendants multiplied first by the dozens, and then by the hundreds, and then by the thousands, and then by the tens of thousands…maybe more. They saw so much progress in their collective lifetimes: they saw so many American women doing so many amazing things. I’m so humbled to think about the process. It feels like a dinner party has been going on for centuries, and I’m just now popping in, aware of but unable to totally grasp the significance of what has come before. And that was a feeling I didn’t have until this election, honestly.

I’m looking at this Wikipedia page now – “List of American Women’s Firsts” – to try to put the evolution I’m talking about in perspective. I highly recommend you check it out, and read these women’s biographies.

In 1647 Margaret Brent was the first woman to demand the right to vote.

In the 1700s Henrietta Johnston became the first woman working as an artist in the colonies.

In 1762 Ann Franklin became the first woman newspaper editor.

In 1776 Margaret Cobin was the first woman to serve as soldier in the American Revolution.

In 1784 Hannah Adams became the first woman to become a professional writer in America.

In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in America to earn a medical degree.

In 1850 Harriet Tubman was the first American woman to run the underground railroad.

In 1853 Antoinette Brown Blackwell became the first woman to be ordained as a minister.

In 1869 Arabella Mansfield became the first female lawyer in America.

In 1870 Louisa Ann Swain became the first American woman to vote in an election.

In 1872 Victoria Woodhull became the first American woman to run for president.

In 1878 Emma Abbott became the first woman to form her own opera company.

In 1887 Susanna M. Salter was elected the first female mayor in America.

In 1911 Harriet Quimby became the first licensed female pilot.

In 1916 Jeannette Rankin became the first woman to to be elected to Congress.

In 1921 Edith Wharton became the first woman to earn a Pulitzer.

In 1922 Rebecca Felton became our first female senator.

In 1925 Nellie Tayloe Ross became the first woman in America to be elected governor.

In 1931 Jane Addams was the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1932 Hattie Caraway was the first woman actually elected, rather than named, to the U.S. Senate.

In 1933 Frances Perkins became the first woman to serve as a cabinet member under FDR.

In 1934 Lettie Pate Whitehead became the first woman to serve as a director of a major corporation.

In 1944 Cordelia E Cook became the first woman to receive both the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart.

In 1972 Katharine Graham became the first female Fortune 500 CEO, as CEO of the Washington Post company.

In 1981 Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to join the Supreme Court.

In 1983 Sally Ride became the first woman in space.

And in 1984 Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman in America to run for vice president on a major-party platform.

And five years later, I was born. And I’m only 27.

Obviously I only scratched the surface. Look at that list of firsts, with each woman working on the shoulders of the women who came before her. When I step back and think of how far we’ve come over the centuries… And when I think about how, in the long run, our setbacks as American women generally seem to be temporary… It makes me want to talk to Elizabeth and ask her:

What do you think?

And: will other demographics be so lucky?


It goes without saying, this doesn’t mean we should be content with where women are now, or stop fighting to improve our lives and the lives of the other and the marginalized. But when a disappointment this huge comes along, after crying a bit at the chance so unexpectedly lost, I feel it is important to take a step back and remember that bigger picture.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I still feel hope in the pain today. I’m someone who deeply values respect of women. (Obviously.) A man who bragged about committing sexual assault has just been elected to the highest office of the land, and somehow I’m not completely destroyed by the idea. (Yet, at least.) (Am I shell-shocked?) My best guess as to why that is? Because I feel like the history I ticked off above is more powerful, more sustained, than any one man or any one movement. Our mothers fought against horrifying odds, and still they put one foot in front of the other and stayed on the path of progress. But…we’ll see.

Also, my mom’s tragic early death, and even watching the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, taught me how catastrophe can cause people to bond in profound ways. Our tears will teach us. Laugh if you will – call me naive if you want – be deeply concerned about what Mr. Trump’s election means to non-white-males, and to the country and the world at large (I’m concerned, too), but also… When you think about us American women, at least, remember our strength, and how many setbacks we’ve overcome before.

You know, I’m not even sure if any of this makes sense, but I just wanted to say something. Given how often I write about female musicians on the blog, silence didn’t feel right. I’m also working to let go all that I don’t control, and fighting like hell over the things I can. And I’m looking forward to finding the dark humor in the struggle (dark humor is the best).

I’m also trying to remind myself how blown away Elizabeth Alden would be if she could know that one of her great-times-many granddaughters, born 366 years after her, had the chance to vote for a female president. And it’s not just me who had the chance; it was many thousands of her descendants. Barring catastrophe, there’s a decent chance we’ll be able to do it again. Maybe soon.

The work goes on, and so does the beat.


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Women of Note at St. Paul’s Hill House!

Here are some of my favorite things:

  • Chamber music
  • Female composers
  • the Minnesota Orchestra
  • Minnesota history
  • Architecture
  • the Cathedral Hill neighborhood of St. Paul
  • Post-concert refreshments

Lucky for me, all of those passions are combining in a single project this season. The Hill House Chamber Players are devoting their 2016/2017 season to spotlighting works by women, and they invited me to give a pre-concert talk before every show.

The Hill House Chamber Players consist of some of the area’s most talented musicians, including some Minnesota Orchestra players. Together they perform in the James J. Hill House gallery, which used to be lined with art now at Mia. (I once heard a rumor that Jules Breton’s painting The Song of the Lark – which Willa Cather featured in her novel by the same name – hung in the Hill House gallery for a while, but I’ve never been able to prove or disprove that…) It’s a very cozy and intimate venue, and I’m really looking forward to chatting with audiences there.

Here’s the schedule:

October 10 & 17, 2016

  • Amy Beach: Quintet for Piano and Strings in F-sharp minor, Op 67
  • Judith Lang Zaimont: Calendar Collection for Solo Piano (excerpts)
  • Robert Schumann: Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Opus 44

March 6 & 13, 2017

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K.493
  • Rebecca Clarke: Viola Sonata
  • Clara Wieck Schumann: Piano Trio in G minor, Op 17

May 1 & 8, 2017

  • Lili Boulanger: Two Morceaux: Nocturne and Cortege
  • Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel: Piano Trio in D minor, Op 11
  • Gabriel Faure: Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op 15

For more information on the season, and for pricing, click here!

I want to thank the HHCP for having the guts to commit so wholeheartedly to their theme. When was the last time you heard of a chamber music series season that consists of two-thirds female composers?

It’s a little early to know for sure, but it feels like works by women are gaining ground locally this year. Not only are the HHCPs committing wholeheartedly, but The Musical Offering is presenting works by Elsa Barraine and Lili Boulanger as part of their broader 2016/2017 theme of “Emigrés and Mentors.” If you have more examples of recent or upcoming local concerts featuring the work of women, please post in the comments!

I’m optimistic that one of these decades, works by women might even show up in a meaningful way at a big-budget organization like the Minnesota Orchestra. But until they do, support your local chamber music scene. Inevitably, chamber music is where innovation starts.

I look forward to seeing you guys at the Hill House!


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Pneumonia At The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra

As we all know, Hillary Clinton was recently diagnosed with pneumonia and, judging from the news coverage, has passed away.

The media is salivating: how long will it take for Tim Kaine to read all the white papers? which Democrats will choose Clinton’s replacement? will the Sanders camp make their move once the funeral director closes her eyes? I mean, technically Hillary walked out under her own power to greet reporters after an episode of exhaustion on 9/11, but that doesn’t really count because… Because. Her pneumonia is clearly terminal, if only because that’s interesting. Plus, her illness, temporary incapacitation, and ultimate death play into pre-established narratives about her reputation, her personality, and her campaign…plus, a presidential candidate dying this close to the election is fascinating (maybe even fun?) to think about…plus, it’s clickbait, promising the numbers of clicks that until now we thought could only come from coverage of the reality TV star candidate. As Alex Ross tweeted today


The media is grappling with another death, too. The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra has just gone on strike, and like Hillary, it too has died. Most people would think of an orchestral strike as a bad thing, or a sad thing, but ultimately an eminently solvable thing.

However, the Fort Worth Star Telegram Editorial Board apparently knows better. They’ve already written the orchestra’s obituary less than a week after the musicians called a strike.

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#MnOrchTour: Concert At The Concertgebouw

This was the first sign that greeted the Minnesotan contingent backstage at the Concertgebouw:


To the left, then!

After snaking through the maze of players, staff, trunks, and instruments, I stepped out into the auditorium with flute player Wendy Williams. I watched her watch my slack-jawed reaction. Her excitement and exhilaration were contagious. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she gushed.

“Oh, my God,” I said. Then I think I said: “I’m – I mean, it’s – ” and then I couldn’t even imagine what else to say.

“You have goosebumps, don’t you?” Wendy smiled. “I can feel from here that you have goosebumps.” I don’t remember, but I think I said something voluble like “yes.” (I hope I said yes.)

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#MnOrchTour: Ambling in Amsterdam

“Will you need any help with that?” the clerk at the front desk of the Amsterdam Hilton asked politely. I staggered in front of her, attempting to hoist the weight of my knapsack onto my back.

“Nope,” I said, writhing like some kind of injured turtle. “I think…ayep…yep, I’ve got it.” Subtext: I can’t remember if we’re supposed to tip bellhops in Amsterdam, because I can’t keep the various tipping traditions of four countries straight, and I don’t have any Euro coins easily accessible if they do, and my back is shot after all this air travel anyway, so why not add one more injury on, and I will not look like a dumb stereotypical American tourist who doesn’t know what she’s doing, goddammit, even though it is totally obvious to everyone that I am a dumb stereotypical American tourist who doesn’t know what she’s doing.

“Your room is 117 and the elevators are right behind you,” she smiled sympathetically.

My ears pricked up. Room 117? Was I to be banished to some kind of servants’ quarters next to the public toilets and the ballrooms? For the price I was paying (thirteen times the cost of my viola bow, by the way), I’d better not be. But she’d mentioned elevators… I hesitantly stepped into the cab and suddenly remembered that in Europe, floor zero is a thing.

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#MnOrchTour: More Entries Coming…And Coming Home

So. The performances are over; the trunks are packed. Many musicians are on their way back across the Atlantic as I type. I haven’t had time to get final drafts about Ainola or Amsterdam or Copenhagen done yet (although rest assured: they are coming, and you are going to love the stories). So to compensate, I thought I’d shoot a video here in Denmark with some tour tidbits and thank-yous to everyone who contributed to this fabulous experience. I also transcribed a few paragraphs from it below in case you don’t have time to watch.

More coming! I’m in Iceland and off the grid for two days (some Minnesota Orchestra musicians will be, too), but I will be sure to share pictures of the scenery on Instagram.

Some housekeeping items…

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#MnOrchTour: Triumph in Lahti


The process of entering the Minnesota Orchestra’s concert in Lahti was extremely casual. The doors were opened, then patrons lined up and flashed their tickets to the ushers, who chanted “kiitos kiitos kiitos” at each person as they passed. No ticket stubs were collected, no bar-codes brandished. The Finns really seem to enjoy making things simple. And so I enjoy the Finns.

Inside the auditorium, I was immediately struck by the conviviality and camaraderie of the crowd. It reminded me so much of what we see nowadays at Orchestra Hall: folks waving at friends from balconies, acquaintances clustered in aisles chatting, rowmates leaning over each other to talk. As I sat down, the woman next to me told me something in Finnish and then giggled. I laughed back.

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#MnOrchTour: Prepping for Lahti


This morning the Minnesota Orchestra bid farewell to cosmopolitan Helsinki and traveled north to Lahti, Finland. The first bus left earlier in the morning; the second, closer to concert time. If a musician took the early bus, he would have more time with the instrument he hadn’t seen since the night of the 16th, as well as a chance to over-practice and over-think. On the other hand, if she took the later one, she might feel rusty or rushed. It seems to me that without adequate mental discipline, the timing of either bus could encourage musicians to play mind-games with themselves.

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#MnOrchTour: Adventures in Helsinki


I nearly puked during the descent into Helsinki. Which was weird, because I’ve never been airsick before. But something about the exhaustion, the time difference, the pressure change, the thin canned air, the claustrophobia, the unsteady descent, the blindingly bright sunshine, the hunger, and the multiple layers of clothing I had arrayed on my lap all conspired to roil my guts.


Thankfully, the nausea subsided after we stopped moving, and I joined the musicians at the baggage carousel, maybe a little paler than usual, but otherwise recovered. My suitcase was the first one out, and then the carousel just…stopped. I volunteered my toothbrush as a communal grooming device, but it turns out Icelandair had not actually lost every piece of luggage besides mine, and soon everyone was reunited with their bags.

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