Tipping the Balance and Quilt Songs

Dear Friend of Sacred and Profane,
I’ve have wanted to present a concert of music by women composers for years, and during last year’s #MeToo movement, it became clear that now is the time. Some music organizations, including the Women’s Philharmonic and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, have begun to track the percentage of works by women that are programmed by major symphonies. In the 2016-2017 season, of the top twenty-one orchestras in the United States, fourteen did not program a single piece by a woman, including our own San Francisco Symphony. Of the remaining seven, several programmed only one work by a woman. The choral world is only slightly better. Recent American Choral Directors’ Association (ACDA) conferences have showcased a sorry selection of works by women in their concerts, and even then often pieces for girls choruses. I remember a particular conference session on music by American and Canadian women with a colleague who said to me, “I don’t consider the gender of the composers I program, I just program music that is high quality.” This inability to consider the biases that we hold unawares simply isn’t good enough, and it’s time that we act to equalize the field.

We’ll be performing composer Caroline Mallonee’s  O Lux

We’ll be performing composer Caroline Mallonee’s O Lux

Some organizations are taking note of the disparity. The New York Philharmonic is launching its multi-season Project 19, which celebrates the centennial of the 19th amendment (which gave women the right to vote) with world premieres by nineteen women composers, including Caroline Mallonée, one of the composers featured in our upcoming concerts. My friend Eric Banks, conductor of the Seattle-based choral ensemble The Esoterics, has programmed this season to tip the ratio – of 33 composers the ensemble will feature this year, 20 are women and non-binary gender, and 12 are people of color. (Check out this interesting article by Women's Philharmonic Advocacy about women programmed for 19-20 season)

With S&P, I’ve also worked to program more works by women and people of color this season. While history has given us a plethora of phenomenal choral works by women, I felt it was important to showcase the talents of women working now for our upcoming concert. As an homage to the original woman in music, we will begin our concert with a work by the first composer to whom we can attribute a musical work, Hildegard von Bingen. Following her O virtus Sapientiae, every work is written by a composer living and actively working today.

A few years ago, while roaming the aisles of exhibits at yet another ACDA conference, I spotted a free CD by the Minneapolis-based choral ensemble VocalEssence, conducted by the great Philip Brunelle. Each of the five works on the recording was by a woman who composed a piece inspired by a different quilt. The resulting Quilt Songs cycle features works by the splendid Alice Parker (who’s Wondrous Love we sang in March), Libby Larsen (one of the great American symphonists of our time), Berkeley’s own phenomenal Gabriela Lena Frank, whose music is informed by her Chinese-Peruvian-Lithuanian-Jewish ancestry, Ysäye Barnwell of the internationally acclaimed African American women’s choral ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Carol Barnett, who is well-known for her genre-bending works like Bluegrass Mass. When programming this concert I jumped at the opportunity to program these great pieces. I can’t wait to share them with you at the concerts—definitely a selection of works you’ll want to hear!

The amazing quilts that inspired the composers for the  Quilt Songs  cycle. You won’t want to miss their musical interpretations!

The amazing quilts that inspired the composers for the Quilt Songs cycle. You won’t want to miss their musical interpretations!

In my next letter, I’ll write about the other composers featured in our concert and the exciting works they’ve composed.