BRAVA: a [fantasy] symphonic season

Our hometown Symphony opened their Classical Series with an all-Russian program: two Russian composers, Russian-born soloist, and an American piece based on extra-musical Russian associations.

This is also the fifth season in which a piece by a female composer has not been included in the Classical Series. Since moving to Helzberg Hall, the Classical Series has seen two pieces by women: Chen Yi in the 2011 inaugural season (a commission) and Jennifer Higdon’s Bird on Wire in 2013 (performed with guest artists eighth blackbird).  Other than a Mothers’ Day-themed “Women of Note(s)” concert on Classics Uncorked in 2014, which included two pieces by women (but three pieces by men inspired by women, thanks guys!) that’s the extent of pieces by female composers, as far as I can ascertain.

When I brought up the fact to a Symphony official, he was genuinely surprised. And, I’m pleased to share, a piece be a woman (Rachel Grimes) was included in the first Classics Uncorked program on Sept 26. Added late, but included nevertheless. (The other composers on the program, all men, have all been performed by the orchestra before.)

But more can be done. I don’t really hold with the defense that music is selected solely on artistic value and that attributes of race or gender or sexual orientation or religion are not to be considered, especially when other extra-musical attributes are, in fact, considered, such as era or nationality, as is the case with the all-Russian (or near enough) program this weekend.

My assumption is that all the works (there are only 43 works in the Classical series, a droplet in the wealth of fantastic music) will be excellent works, carefully selected with pride and of high quality. Ergo, any piece included can stand on its own as an exemplary exhibit of the art form.

If works are selected and organized based on themes (love, Spring, death, WWI) or nationality (French, British, Russian, Czech), time period, style, school or original purpose (operatic, dance, film), then why not consider aspects of religion, sexuality, gender and race/ethnicity when developing programs? And use those opportunities to raise awareness and make connections with the standards of the repertoire. The music may be unfamiliar (always an issue with the audience, I know…) but it will not be lacking.

In a perfect world, of course, gender would not be a qualifying (or disqualifying) factor. Spoiler alert: we do not live in a perfect world. We live in a world and practice an art form that for centuries discouraged (or downright forbade) women from composing. So there should perhaps be a bit more progress toward rectifying that.

Just for fun, I analyzed the current season and, based on criteria like nationality, style, context, and length, have a few suggestions. I allowed for the fact that half of the season celebrates Leonard Bernstein and did not replace those (but, hey ho, we will take into consideration that this year is Amy Beach’s 150th anniversary, unlike all other major American orchestras) and neither did I replace the guest artists’ pieces, which are not necessarily in the Symphony’s control.

Shall we begin?Substitute Symphony(2)So, out of 43 pieces over 14 concerts, we replaced 13 pieces in 11 concerts. That’s 30% of the season AND -bonus- we increased POC representation by 300%. And it’s all good music. Wow.

There are a growing number of resources for discovering music by women, including the Women Composers Database.

Now, I highly doubt the omission of female composers from the past few seasons was intentional. Works by women are sprinkled throughout the years. Women make up about 39% of the orchestra, 12 of the titled positions are held by women, won by blind audition, and 50% of the senior management team are women. In fact, KCS’s music director from 1999-2003 was conductor Anne Manson, now with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra.

But leaving the representation of women (and any minority group) to chance means that unintentionally they will be overlooked, given the limited opportunities for hundreds of years to an entire gender to produce works of art within the constraints of the modern symphony orchestra. Happenstance is not a good chance, if you’re waiting for a work from a historically underrepresented demographic to rise to acceptance in the public’s imagination (a place secured by the likes of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, for instance) without making an effort to put it there.

I’m not calling out KCS because they are doing a horrible job. It is an enviable organization: doing well financially, growing artistically, encouraged by civic leaders and making an effort to integrate themselves with the community. Their programming is no less inequitable than most organizations, the best of which have maybe two piece by female composers any given season. But this is the organization I’m most familiar with and the organization I hope would make the biggest strides and the biggest splash, influence the most people,  the community, and celebrate the biggest success with their programming. I don’t criticize to tear them down, but to demand better. We can all do better.

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KC Studio Sept/Oct

For this issue of KC Studio, I interviewed Van Cliburn silver medalist Kenny Broberg, a graduate student at Park University’s International Center for Music; the Kansas City Symphony’s 2017-2018, including the Century of Bernstein festival; and Mid America Freedom Band‘s diverse and challenging season. KCStudioblogpic

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July/August Review Round-Up

Summer is fading and the season is on the horizon. Reviews for The Kansas City Star.


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Sidetracked by Netty Simons

Now, if the Internet doesn’t immediately give you everything you ever wanted to know about someone (true or imagined) that’s quite the goldmine in the research world. That’s when it gets fun.

While going through a set of old periodicals for an unbelievably dull, but necessary, task, I came across the 1972 cover for Music Journal Annual, proclaiming a “Gallery of Living Composers” (and proving the listicle was alive and well pre-Internet).

Intrigued, I flipped through. Who, in 1972, made the cut? Of the 50, many have remained standard names: Morton Gould, Lukas Foss, George Crumb, Elliot Carter, Gunther Schuller, Milton Babbit, etc. Most were American, or worked primarily in America. Most worked primarily in New York City. Of the 50, there were two male POC (Chou Wen-Chung and Ulysses Kay) and one white female, which is pretty good for 1972.

The female was Netty Simons, whom I had never heard of. My colleagues (some composers and players of new music) had never heard of her, which seemed like an odd legacy for someone prominent enough at the time to make this distinguished list.


From Simons’ Silver Thaw (1969)

Last week, The Washington Post posted a list of the top 35 female composers in classical music, generating a lively discussion which linked to many, many, many more composers who are female, to many, many more articles about (and by) composers who are female, to many, many lists of composers who are female, and continuing the discussion regarding the lack of representation of composers who are female when programming major works for major organizations.

In the last few years, I’ve taken a concerted interest in the programming of composers who are female, making an effort to be aware, and draw awareness to, this issue in classical music. I’m not the first, not am I the best, person to discourse on the subject. But in my particular community, in my particular role, I’m monitoring (in our local scene) the programming of composers who are women. Of course, the more you pay attention, the more you find out. At some point I’ll write more about that (spoiler alert: KC’s programming efforts are well within the national average), but with all that in mind, the discovery of a time-capsule list like this seemed rather serendipitous.Netty SimonsThe Internet revealed little, just recirculating the two same bio paragraphs, which I’m guessing originated with the finding aid for her archived papers in the New York Public Library and at Vassar College. WorldCat had a pretty thorough list of her scores. YouTube had a few cuts, Naxos revealed naught. There is a lone dissertation examining her vocal work. Crowd-sourcing the hivemind on social media only got a few hits.

In a (admittedly cursory) review of anthologies for women composers Simons showed up in about half, and only a third of those were more than a brief mention. What else do I know as of now? She was born, trained and worked in New York City. She was a pianist, she worked with dancers, wrote for all sorts of ensembles, used aleatoric/experimental techniques, studied with Percy Grainger and Marion Bauer. She produced concerts at Carnegie Recital Hall. New Amsterdam Symphony Orchestra premiered a work of hers. Bertram Turetzky performed and recorded one work, Design Groups II. She was a student and friend of Stefan Wolpe, with whom she corresponded frequently (included in her papers at The New York Public Library). She was a mother, a wife, a teacher and a radio programmer (in NYC and University of Michigan).


Left: no mention | Right: mention of some sort

I know, from a 1984 program bio, her “early works display an extreme economy of means and imaginative control of color. Recently she has employed graphic notation.”

Now, I’m not sure I answered the “why was Netty Simons the token female in this list” question. Why do we not recognize her name? Is it because her music was of lower quality than her contemporaries? Unlikely, since she seemed to have the respect of the community she was in. Did her work merely fall out of fashion? Or did it stop being performed because there is still a very limited place in our contemporary culture for music by composers who are women and so she and her music were sidelined after she stopped being productive/alive?


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KC Studio July/August 2017

This issue of KC Studio comes with a retrospective about Kansas City’s public art initiative.

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I wrote about Kansas City Baroque Consortium‘s summer series, “Between Silence and Light,” and about “The Classical Challenge,” the classical music radio show on KKFI 90.1 FM Kansas City Community Radio.


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June Review Roundup

Busy June, reviews for The Kansas City Star:

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KCStudio May/June Issue

The May/June 2017 issue of KC Studio is packed full of pieces on dance, including

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