Dead white men still dominate classical music.
Despite growing numbers of female composers, symphony orchestras and opera companies still announce seasons overflowing with Beethoven and Bach, Puccini and Bizet. One stark statistic: Women wrote just 1.3 percent of the music performed by 85 major American orchestras last season, a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra survey shows.
Many Minnesota institutions — smaller, trendsetting ensembles, in particular — do better. They’re funding, featuring and staging works penned by women. This week, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is putting on a festival bursting with female composers, historical and living. Skylark Opera Theatre is staging the regional premiere of “As One,” by composer Laura Kaminsky, which is quickly becoming the country’s hottest chamber opera.
But change is hitting Minnesota’s biggest, oldest institutions, as well.
Classical music is “finally looking at the deeper cultural norms and biases that have just been expected up until now … and are absolutely no longer acceptable,” said Mary Ellen Childs, a composer and board co-chairwoman for the St. Paul-based American Composers Forum. “It’s important. It’s timely. It’s past time.”
Audiences and critics are demanding that symphony orchestras, in particular, stop ignoring works written by women. That puts pressure on the Minnesota Orchestra, whose 2017-18 flagship classical series included just two female composers. In an interview, two people who help design the orchestra’s programming teased big progress in the coming season — set to be announced next week.
Its classical series will include five works by women, including a symphony by Florence Price, who became the first black woman to have her music played by a major American orchestra, in 1933. “This is someone who’s been unjustly ignored,” said Kenneth Freed, a violist who co-chairs the Minnesota Orchestra’s artistic advisory committee. “We’ve got her front and center.”
The inclusion of so many pieces by women is the result of a yearslong internal process focused not on quotas but quality, identity and audience, Freed said. “This is a big boat,” he said, so steering it in new directions takes time. It must also remain true to the classics: “We are stewards of the canon.”
Filling the pipeline
The new issue of Opera America Magazine tallied the top 25 most performed operas in the United States and Canada. “As One” made the list. Its composer, Kaminsky, looked closer. Of those 25 operas, she realized, only one was composed by a living woman.
“And that was me,” she said. At first, it felt like an honor. “But then I realized this isn’t a happy thing.”
“As One” was Kaminsky’s first opera, premiering in 2014. A grant from Opera America helped her create the piece, a moving portrait of a transgender woman, illustrated through the dual voices of a baritone and mezzo-soprano. She’s encouraged by that grant and other programs focused on women in the field.
But as head of composition at the conservatory at the State University of New York at Purchase, Kaminsky gets a peek at the next generation. There’s still a huge imbalance. Of the 15 to 18 students in the program, “we almost have never had more than three women,” she said. Of those who applied for next year’s spots, 80 percent were men.
Still, hundreds of women are composing music across the country. American Composers Forum staff compiled an informal list of 42 women based in Minnesota alone. They include women who have been composing classical music for decades and younger artists, such as Drea Reynolds, or Queen Drea, who recently won a Minnesota Emerging Composer Award.
In 2016, the forum, which runs a slew of awards programs, adopted a statement committing itself to “supporting a diverse pool of artists whose work demonstrates strong artistic merit.” It continues: “Awards ... will represent, as far as possible, artists and projects that are diverse in genre, gender, race, ethnicity and geography.”
Partly because of such funding, Minnesota has a history of being “a vibrant place for new music,” said Childs, who is working on an opera. “You can forge your own way. That is what women have had to do.”
Beethoven over Amy Beach
This year, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Rochester Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra faced a storm of criticism on social media after they announced seasons that included not one work by a woman.
“You are my hometown orchestra,” tweeted composer Missy Mazzoli to Philadelphia. “I fell in love with orchestral music after going to see you on class trips. Dragged my parents and friends to your concerts for years. Dreamed of writing for you.
“Please join us here in the 21st century, the water’s fine.”
Last year, when the Minnesota Orchestra unveiled its 2017-18 season, a classical music host in Los Angeles tweeted the breakdown: “Music by 40 different composers. Men: 40. Women: 0. Dead: 30. Alive: 10.”
Brian Lauritzen, of Classical KUSC, has compiled such counts for orchestras across the country into a graphic, widely shared via social media. “The numbers tell you that in many cases, the programmers of certain orchestras just don’t care,” he said.
Major orchestras are also highly traditional and often view inclusive programming as a risk. “Beethoven’s Fifth sells better than a symphony by Amy Beach,” Lauritzen said.
“No one is saying don’t do Beethoven,” he continued. “But where are there places where different choices could be made? There are so many opportunities through the course of a 20- or 30-concert season where a decision could be made to not play that thing by a dead white guy and instead play the thing that nobody knows.”
The Minnesota Orchestra is making more of those choices. In addition to the five female composers whose works will be part of the 2018-19 main classical series, at least four more will be part of its Inside the Classics and chamber music programs.
Those other concert series, which this season also included female composers’ works, are not counted in the national surveys. Those counts also miss the Future Classics concert, part of the flagship subscription series, because its composers are announced later in the season. Of the seven composers spotlighted in the Future Classics concert, presented in November with the Composers Forum, two were women.
“The bigger issue is: Are there voices that we are not hearing, that we are not featuring, that we are not nurturing?” Freed said.
‘Crescendo of importance’
New works can give women a way in.
Minnesota Opera is nationally known for launching pieces. But it just announced its first big premiere by a woman in almost 30 years: “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.” Paola Prestini, known for her boundary-bending works, will compose the music for Kate DiCamillo’s story, the first mainstage Minnesota Opera production by a female composer since Libby Larsen’s “Frankenstein” in 1990. (The opera also commissioned Susan Kander’s “The Giver” for its training program, and co-commissioned “Cold Mountain” by Jennifer Higdon but hasn’t yet staged it.)
Also known for its commissions, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra wants half to come from women, said artistic director Kyu-Young Kim. For its Beethoven/5 project, which pairs newly composed piano concertos with the Beethoven pieces that inspired them, two of the five composers are women.
This Wednesday, flutist/composer Nathalie Joachim will perform a piece she composed with the voices of Haitian women, electronics and a string quartet as part of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series. Next comes four days of SPCO concerts featuring music by Nadia and Lili Boulanger, classical music’s most famous sisters. “It all fit together in a really nice way,” Kim said.
Because the nonprofit offers inexpensive tickets, with an increasing focus on donations and grants, musicians don’t need to worry about programming a concert to sell, Kim said. “We don’t have to think about ticket sales. … That’s a conversation we rarely have.” At the same time, their audiences seem hungry for new work, he said. “The audiences have come along with us.”
Within the national classical community, Kim has watched as discussion about female composers has reached “a crescendo of importance” over the past three years. “And I think that’s great. It forces you to be more creative, more curious, to do more listening and more research.”
Update: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of women composers who are part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s flagship 2017-18 classical series. Two female composers were a part of November's Future Classics concert.