“I became the thorn in people’s side, and I’m proud of that. . . . I feel like I have a role to play here and I’m going to play it.”

I talked to composer Joan Tower for a profile in advance of her 80th birthday celebrations in Boston. This was one of those interviews that I thought was going to last 20 minutes and instead lasted over an hour. I probably could have written three articles with the material I had from her and Kati Agocs, a composer she mentored who also told stories about meeting Tower at a crazy dance party and benefiting from her “bullshit detector.”

Read Joan Tower’s thoughts on growing up in South America, writing for amateur orchestra, being the only woman in the room, and dancing, over at the Globe!


All Male Seasons™ and online outrage

With the turn of the new year, symphony orchestras across America have begun to announce concert lineups for the 2018-2019 season. And as classical listeners living in 2018 have come to expect, the work of female composers and composers of color is vastly underrepresented in most of the season prospectuses that have been released. At present, two of the historical “Big Five” orchestras (Chicago and Philadelphia) have announced seasons entirely comprised of pieces by men.

With this, much of the music Twittersphere is bubbling up in predictable yearly outrage. Critics at major outlets – Joshua Kosman at the San Francisco Chronicle, Zachary Woolfe at the NYT, Alex Ross of the New Yorker, myself at the Boston Globe, et al – are Tweeting right on cue. Lisa (Iron Tongue) is keeping track of numbers on her blog in this consistently updated post, and she and I are in on a spreadsheet that will track the number of female composers, composers of color, and living composers in proportion to dead white men that each orchestra programs. Matt Marks, of Alarm Will Sound and New Music Gathering, is calling for a boycott. Threads and lists of female composers are up for unrolling and scrolling.

The question that pervades my mind is how much all of this online outrage will do. Unless something major changes, these All Male Seasons™  will continue to be profitable for orchestras, meaning they have no reason to deviate from status quo.

I highly recommend these two threads:

The above thread by Vanderbilt University musicologist Doug Shadle provides some valuable and easy to understand summary of why it’s so easy for individuals connected to orchestras (music directors, conductors, patrons, PR) to cast off responsibility for diversifying the lineup.

And here, composer and singer Patricia Wallinga takes her hometown orchestra to task, explaining how it feels for a kid in the gallery seats when none of the composers look like you.

The standard institutional answer for why there are no female composers featured is the same answer you might get if you ask a college admissions office or a hiring manager why there are so few black people in your school/workplace; “because we don’t consider gender/race when we program music/admit students/select applicants, we select based on how great the music is,” throwing the asker into an awkward situation that it’s very hard to talk out of. It implies that only the music the ensemble has programmed now or in the past is “great,” and any other is therefore not “great” enough. “Great” is marketable. “Great” is what leads to a single name becoming an icon. “Great” has never, to my memory, been used to describe a musician that’s not a dead white man. This view of “greatness” as a sublime, untouchable authority is what led to the adulation of conductors such as James Levine and Charles Dutoit, which silenced the voices of those speaking out against their sexual misconduct until the #MeToo avalanche last year buried their careers.

In a now-deleted tweet, the Rochester Philharmonic responded to criticism of their overwhelmingly male program with “Philharmonics series = classical series, back in ye olde times when that wasn’t as common…we try to expand rapidly while not discounting classic repertoire from which we’re based.” But would performing a few more works by composers that aren’t cisgender white men really be “discounting the classic repertoire?”

Glimmers of progress sometimes do appear. This afternoon, it was announced that Korean conductor Eun Sun Kim would replace the disgraced James Levine in conducting the Cincinnati Symphony and May Fest Chorus in Verdi’s Requiem at Cincinnati May Festival. She will be the first woman to conduct at the festival in its 145 years. But the fact that it took this long, and that Kim (or another woman conductor) was not booked until now, and it not even being a scheduled booking but a replacement: it says something.

The Boston Symphony has programmed one female composer in its Symphony Hall concert season for the past few years. The new season comes out in March. If the BSO holds the pattern of the token one female composer or rolls out with an All Male Season, hopefully more than just these voices will be loudly asking why. I know I will be.



There were many children in attendance at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s first Saturday evening concert of 2018. The performance featured two key elements that could have been of special interest to them — or their parents. The soloist was the deft 25-year-old pianist Benjamin Grosvenor in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, one of the composer’s most personable works. And the second half was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Those quintessential four notes and what follows are pretty much synonymous with the word “symphony” in the public imagination. If you need further proof of that, just look at the name above the Symphony Hall stage.

Read more in the Globe.

Charles Dutoit has been accused of sexual assault by a former Boston Symphony intern.

“Immediately after her encounter with Dutoit, Allan alleged, the BSO’s orchestra manager called out to her to warn her — too late — about Dutoit. “Before you see maestro, I need to tell you something,” she recalled the manager saying. “Look, we advise, we’ve had some complaints, and I wouldn’t go in there alone.”

Allan believes that at the time, the manager thought he was doing her a favor.

“But the thing that always struck me afterwards was: They had a system in place,” she said. “And the system was called: Don’t go in there by yourself. Like, we’ve had complaints, therefore the way we get around that is that we send people in in pairs. Not: We don’t employ that person anymore.””

Read the full story in the Globe. Rebecca Ostriker and Malcolm Gay report.

Dutoit was a frequent guest conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra until the orchestra severed ties with him in late 2017, following the Associated Press’s publication of a story about four women who accused him of assault over a period spanning twenty years.

This comes less than two months after Andris Nelsons, the current music director of the BSO, stated on a Boston Public Radio interview that sexual harassment isn’t a problem in classical music. His comments seemed to not only put forth that sexual harassment isn’t a problem, but brush aside any need for self examination or interrogation of the culture that has permitted these things to happen. That said,  English is Nelsons’s fourth language, and he often has trouble expressing himself clearly in interviews. He later released a statement through the orchestra to clarify his comments. It essentially boiled down to acknowledging that sexual harassment can happen in all fields, though he has not observed any in his. He then called for art and music inspiration to guide us to the “better angels” of our human natures.

Dutoit is the second conductor with BSO ties to be accused of sexual assault. The first was former music director James Levine, with whom the BSO has also discontinued its relationship.