‘No Excuses Anymore’ for Gender Inequality in Classical Music

In the world of classical music, progress toward gender parity can seem incredibly slow.

Recent big wins have included women of the New York Philharmonic being allowed to perform in pants, and the appointment of the second woman — ever — to a music director role at one of the 25 largest orchestras in the United States. The Berlin Philharmonic, one of the world’s great ensembles, hired its first female concertmaster last year.

Frustrated by the stubborn gender imbalances in classical music, the directors of the Wiener Festwochen, a prestigious arts festival in Vienna, have this year formed the “Academy Second Modernism,” an initiative that will showcase works by 50 female and nonbinary composers over five years.

This season, less than 8 percent of approximately 16,000 works staged by 111 orchestras worldwide were composed by women, according to a report from Donne, Women in Music, an organization working for equity in the classical music industry. Of those works, the vast majority were composed by white women.

According to the report, three of the 10 orchestras that performed the highest proportion of works composed by women were in the United States: the American Composers Orchestra in New York, the Chicago Sinfonietta and National Philharmonic in North Bethesda, Md. But at the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, two of America’s top orchestras, only about 10 percent of the music programmed was composed by women.

“There are so many of us,” said Bushra El-Turk, a British-Lebanese composer who often merges Western and Eastern musical traditions in her work. “Whether we’re given opportunities is the problem.”

El-Turk is one of the 10 composers joining the Academy Second Modernism this year. On Saturday and Sunday, the group’s original works will be performed by the chamber ensemble Klangforum Wien, under the heading “No Excuses Anymore I and II.” El-Turk’s opera, “Woman at Point Zero,” a lament on the struggles of womanhood, was also shown at the Wiener Festwochen last month.

The Arnold Schoenberg Center, which is dedicated the modernist composer and his contemporaries, will provide a space for some of the initiative’s activities.

“Since the time of Schoenberg to today, we’ve had a lot of initiatives and we talked about emancipation and inclusion,” said Milo Rau, the director of the Wiener Festwochen. But little has changed, he added.

This year, the festival received 13.6 million euros (about $14.8 million) from the Vienna government, and “with the privilege of all this money we have here comes a big possibility to really change the system,” Rau said. “This is what public funding can do.”

The 10 Academy Second Modernism composers will join a two-day summit with representatives from institutions like the Tokyo Metropolitan Theater, African Women’s Orchestra and Grand Théâtre de Genève. They plan to work on a joint document — or a declaration — outlining steps toward creating equity in classical music.

“We don’t want another panel discussion after which nothing changes,” said Jana Beckmann, the leader of the initiative. Beckmann said that she wanted to see institutions commit to “structural changes with concrete measures,” and hoped that uniting people from different countries and parts of the industry would create sustainable change and maintain accountability.

Mary Ellen Kitchens, who is on the governing board of the Archive of Women and Music in Germany, is helping to draft the declaration. “We’re also looking at focusing on programming more contemporary music,” Kitchens said. “The chances of more parity or diversity are much greater that way.”

One reason for the continuing inequity in classical music seems to be that living composers are often edged out by their long-dead predecessors. About 80 percent of the works performed by orchestras around the world this season were composed by dead white men like Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, according to the Donne, Women in Music report.

People in charge of music programming are fixated on the idea, Beckmann said, that “the audience wants to see the canon.” But, she added, they need to ask themselves: “How can we seduce audiences and invite them to new experiences?”

Vienna’s classical music scene, one of the most renowned in the world, has long been particularly inequitable. The Vienna Philharmonic did not offer women the chance to audition until 1997, and today, only 17 percent of its members are female. In 2011, it hired its first female concertmaster, the highest ranking member of an orchestra.

During the most recent season, none of the 69 works performed by the Vienna Philharmonic were composed by women or people of color, according to the report from Donne, Women in Music. The orchestra’s New Year’s Eve concert, a popular event that was watched live by millions of people this year, has never been led by a female conductor.

Du Yun, a Chinese-born composer based in New York, who is part of the Academy Second Modernism, said that some institutions seemed afraid to introduce new composers for fear of erasing heavyweights from previous centuries.

“When people are afraid, sometimes, they think we exist to take down everything else, to take down the white man, to take down Beethoven,” Du said. “But I weep at Beethoven. Bach is one of my favorite composers. Why is a kid from Shanghai not afraid of Bach, but audiences in Vienna are afraid of a kid from Shanghai?”

Monthati Masebe, a South African composer and another of the initiative’s first 10 members, said that it was a mistake to think of classical music as a strictly Western tradition.

“The birth of classical music as a genre affected people from all over the world, and there are many examples of classical composers across the African continent, across all kinds of diasporas,” Masebe said. “Music crosses boundaries and borders all the time.”

Classical music’s international appeal and influence is clear from the backgrounds of the composers chosen for the first round of the Academy Second Modernism, who come from countries including Turkey, Iran, Belarus and the Philippines.

El-Turk said that, beyond a love of classical music, the group is also united by its mission: “We all seem to care about making change and giving voice to those who do not have a voice.”

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