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.