Reinventing the American Orchestra

Anthony Tommasini wrote an article in The New York Times this week ( on how orchestras need to reinvent themselves in our nation’s new environment. Scant mention was made of female composers, living and dead, being part of the solution – with only one mention of the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19, which commissioned works from 19 female composers, many of color.

It is no secret that under 3% (or 2% I’ve also heard) of music played by symphony orchestras in this country are written by women. The same is true worldwide. A huge percentage is by Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. A modern composer can mean Rachmaninoff who died in 1943. Commendable efforts are sputtering along to find African-American composers to play. The go-to African-American female composer last season has been Florence Price, who died in 1953.

As always, smaller ensembles, and venues like National Sawdust, are way ahead in this regard and didn’t need our national reckoning with race to spur their efforts at diversifying whose music gets played and who plays it. Why doesn’t every orchestra (and opera company) have a smaller ensemble that plays new music in different venues? The New York Phil Bandwagon was a great start, giving concerts in New York neighborhoods, including new commissioned works. Co-commissioning new works by living composers, male and female, of all ethnicities, can be a bridge to building community and understanding and new audiences. And it can spread the costs of a commission among several orchestras, while giving greater exposure to a new work that too often get a premier and die.

Orchestras need, like baseball teams, to build the farm system. They need to sponsor younger composers right out of conservatory, provide composer-in-residencies that would pair a young untried composer with a more experienced one and do repeated readings of their works so that the composer can get feedback and refine their compositions. And make recordings so that the new works can get greater exposure.

All it takes is vision, and will, and, yes, money. But the payoff can be multiples of the investment.

Toulmin Foundation Orchestral Grants 2019

The Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation announced its 2019 grants in The Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation’s Orchestra Commissioning Program for Emerging Female Composers.

These grants fund commissions for emerging female composers at selected orchestras nationwide.

The 2019 recipients are:

  • Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Dallas, TX – Composer Angelica Negron
  • Philadelphia Orchestra, Philadelphia, PA – Composer Xi Wang

The 2019 awards are part of a series of annual awards for female composers that the Foundation has made since 2013. Past grants have been made to, among others, the New York Philharmonic for Ashley Fure, Los Angeles Philharmonic for Natacha Diels and Chicago Symphony Orchestra for Amy Beth Kirsten. The Foundation also funds awards to emerging female composers through the Earshot Program, a partnership of the League of American Orchestras, the American Composers Orchestra, American Composers Forum and New Music USA, as well as awards to composers via the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and National Sawdust.

The Foundation has made numerous grants to support commissions for female composers, focusing its grantmaking on a broad diversity of voices that need to be heard. The Foundation makes similar awards to emerging female playwrights and choreographers in the fields of theater, opera, and ballet. The Foundation carries on the principles of its founder, Virginia B. Toulmin, a long-time patron of the arts, who believed in equal access and opportunity for women.

Can We Break the Mold in Classical Music?

Is there a connection between the dire financial straits of many orchestras around the world and the mostly-traditional music they play? This question was brought home this week with news out of San Antonio, Texas, where the symphony closed its doors (though the city is trying to reopen them) and simultaneous news from Bachtrack releasing its annual classical music statistics.


I don’t pretend to know the inside story in San Antonio, but published reports indicate that private and public donations, and perhaps audience attendance, wasn’t enough to pay the bills. What I do know is what music the orchestra played. The spring schedule included: Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Elgar, Dvorak, Vivaldi, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, interspersed with assorted Pops and youth concerts. On the more modern front, the orchestra was scheduled to play Leonard Bernstein, it being his centenary, and a commendable smattering of living male composers (American, English and Russian), but no female composers, alive or dead. No composers of any ethnicity other than white were detected.


This tracks almost precisely the performance record of orchestras worldwide, with the exception that Bach is the most frequently performed composer around the world – Mozart and Beethoven come in 2nd and 3rd, followed by Brahms, Schubert and Tchaikovsky. 20th Century composers, all men, limp along distantly. There are no female composers in the top 100. There are 5 female conductors, up from zero a few years ago. Worldwide, Romantic Era music is the overwhelming majority, with 20th Century (mostly Russians) and Classical (Haydn, Handel, Vivaldi) vying for second.

By the way, opera and ballet are no different, with Die Zauberflote leading the opera world and Nutcracker the ballet world.


Perhaps audiences prefer music written a hundred years or more ago. These patrons fill the seats and make the donations.


Yet, I wonder what audiences are missing since many orchestras don’t give them a chance to find out. Maybe potential patrons stay at home because there is nothing new to learn at symphony hall. Other performing arts, not to mention the movies and TV, vie for their attention.


Orchestras need to be exciting, relevant and educational. They need to be embedded in their communities and communities in them. The shared experience of being in a concert hall has to be more than the same old same old. The experience has to be one talked about for days, or more, afterwards. I hope San Antonio doesn’t lose this precious resource. I hope the orchestra and its donors and the city take the chance to take a chance.  Music is vital in our lives; new music by new composers of every hue and gender should be given the chance to show it.

Female composers are making great strides. The classical music world isn’t helping them. ​

Female composers are making great strides. The classical music world isn’t helping them. ​

November 3 at 10:51 AM

The New York Premiere of Julia Adolphe’s Unearth, Release (Concerto for Viola and Orchestra). Principal Viola Cynthia Phelps (left) for whom the piece was written, performs. (Chris Lee)

The headline looks like a spoof: “There’s a good reason there are no great female composers.” The article beneath it eviscerates the outputs of Clara Schumann (“a dud”), Fanny Mendelssohn, Amy Beach and Dame Ethyl Smyth — wondering, basically, who could be bothered to listen to such inferior talents. I wish this were a relic of the past, something to be chuckled over to demonstrate how far we’ve come, but I can’t. It ran in the well-known British conservative weekly Spectator in 2015.

Even today, men still laugh at the idea of women composing classical music.

We should be beyond this by now. Indeed, we should have been beyond it a generation ago. “The social culture of the composition scene was quite shocking to me,” composer Sarah Kirkland Snider wrote earlier this year on, the leading contemporary-music webzine. “In many ways it felt like stepping back in time.” Classical music institutions cling to the past in more ways than one. While American orchestras have managed to significantly increase their proportions of female players, female composers remain almost nonexistent. In the 2014-2015 season, according to statistics published by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, music by women represented 1.8 percent of the music played by America’s 22 leading orchestras. As for conservatories, “when I get the applicant pool,” says composer Laura Kaminsky, head of composition at the conservatory at the State University of New York at Purchase, “and see three-quarters of the applications are male, I get depressed.”

And yet there are hundreds of active female composers. A list I compiled this summer of the top 35 barely scratched the surface. So why don’t the institutions present them?

Some are trying. Four of the past eight music Pulitzers have gone to female composers. Both Opera America and the League of American Orchestras have established recent initiatives providing grants to female composers. The performance space National Sawdust in Brooklyn announced a competition for emerging female composers. And individual chamber groups have been staging all-women concerts for many years — although you can debate whether this kind of segregation is a good thing. When the chamber music collective A Far Cry decided to commission a song cycle, “The Blue Hour,” as a collaborative project by five female composers — given its premiere through Washington Performing Arts on Saturday at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue — at least one woman turned them down. “We didn’t choose that idea,” said composer Rachel Grimes, a member of the former indie rock/chamber music group Rachel’s who served as the point person on the project. “I am sort of weary of it [female composers] being a focal point,” she added.

For some of the women involved in “The Blue Hour,” classical music’s conventional institutions smack of an old-boys network. “I only have a bachelor’s degree,” Grimes said. “I didn’t see the feasibility of succeeding in the patriarchal academic system. My music didn’t correlate with what I perceived to be the accepted academic language. I’m not enough of a rebel that I wanted to swim against that current constantly. Western classical tradition . . . necessitates an understanding of that hierarchical mentality: the best, or most virtuosic, or most complicated. My technique and personality don’t work with that. So I took a soft left and took my own direction.” Grimes’s career has involved playing with bands, solo piano concerts and recordings of her own work.

Shara Nova (formerly Shara Worden), a vocalist and composer (of My Brightest Diamond) who also contributed to “The Blue Hour,” has a similar view of the classical world. “I refused to use the word [“composer”] for a really long time,” she said. “The question that I’m concerned with is not being a woman, because I don’t have aspirations to write for the Met[ropolitan Opera]. I’m at BAM [the Brooklyn Academy of Music] , I’m good.” In other words, being a woman would interfere with her ability to write for the Met — and she has a point, since the Met has to date produced only two operas by women, more than a century apart.

But these august institutions are no longer a necessary avenue to success. Nova’s opera “You Us We All” has been performed in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and at BAM — a more substantial performance history than many new works from conventional opera houses. The more classical music’s institutions show themselves to be out of step with the times, the more it seems that classical music’s future lies outside them. And you could argue that outside orchestras and opera houses, female composers are doing just fine.

Still, the institutions are trying to play catch-up — in part through the above-mentioned initiatives by the League of American Orchestras (its Women Composers Readings and Commissions program awards $15,000 grants) and Opera America, which offers discovery and commissioning grants to female composers of up to $15,000 and $50,000, respectively.

Such grants can make a big difference. An Opera America discovery grant led to the creation of Kaminsky’s chamber opera “As One,” which had its premiere in 2014 and came to Washington’s UrbanArias the following year. The moving story of a woman transitioning from her life as a biological male, “As One” has had 24 productions to date. Because of its success, Kaminsky has gotten two more significant opera commissions, one of them from a consortium that includes the Santa Fe and San Francisco operas. “It’s been life-changing,” said Kaminsky, who was for a time the artistic director of New York’s Symphony Space. “I no longer need to have an administrative job. All of a sudden, I’m sitting in my studio writing music instead of writing grants to put other people’s music onstage.”

What’s notable about these initiatives is that they are all supported by a single source: the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, which started giving grants to the arts in 2013. The foundation gives away $7 million a year: half to programs supporting women’s health and disadvantaged children, and half to the performing arts.

Alexander Sanger, a trustee of the foundation, is also chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council and a grandson of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. “I like to think I have the right instincts” about equal opportunities for women, he said. “I and my fellow trustees realized there was a problem in the performing arts. If this were any other business, they’d be indicted for sex discrimination. It’s disgraceful.”

It’s also a little shocking that a single funding body with a strong vision can bring about so much change in a short time. In addition to grants and competitions, the Toulmin Foundation helps support the Luna Competition Lab, which targets high-schoolers, and funding for female composition students at the Juilliard School.

The foundation has also helped establish an initiative for female choreographers at the School of American Ballet and fund a major study on gender equity in the theater world in 2013.

The foundation’s success points out how entrenched the field must have been, if one energetic funder can change it. And its good effects can take hold only if others jump in to carry the torch, including the institutions themselves.

Sanger said he was sobered by offering seven leading American orchestras a chance at a $50,000 grant for a new work by an emerging female composer: Only three of the orchestras bothered to apply.

It’s easier to make room for women when there are women in leadership positions. The Washington National Opera’s current production of Handel’s “Alcina,” which runs through Nov. 19, is a rare event: a production directed by a woman (Anne Bogart) and conducted by a woman (Jane Glover), with women singing all four principal characters (including Angela Meade in the title role). WNO is a national leader when it comes to hiring women and artists of color — because this has been a priority of the company’s artistic director, Francesca Zambello. (In January, WNO will be presenting an opera by another beneficiary of the Opera America grants: “Proving Up” by Missy Mazzoli.)

The boundaries between major classical institutions and smaller upstart organizations have grown more porous. The indie Prototype Festival generates work that is picked up by the Los Angeles Philharmonic or the Fort Worth Opera; National Sawdust has become a major player on the new-music scene. Real change is most likely to come from outside, from new organizations led by women working together with the old ones.

But in the old institutions, there are still people who think yukking it up about Clara Schumann is funny. And there are still women toiling away to make change happen, one bigot at a time. “The orchestra is what a lot of people think of when they think of classical music,” Snider says. “Those stats do matter, in terms of the optics.”