Women in Classical Music: Some Good News, Some Bad News

“Blind” orchestral auditions have leveled the playing field.

By Peter Alexander

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Missy Mazzoli was composer in residence with the Boulder Philharmonic in 2016

Sometimes a cliché is true.

For example, for women entering the field of classical music, there’s some good news and some bad news. Depending on the career goals, the prospects can be good, mixed, or troubled.

In a year when women’s status in society is daily in the news, this is a timely subject. For the purposes of this article, I will look at the orchestral scene, the most visible part of the classical music world and one where numbers are easily available.

First the good news: professional orchestras are filled with women today, a vast contrast to 40 or 50 years ago when orchestras were almost entirely male. This is now a viable career for the most talented women instrumentalists.

The bad news is that the picture is not nearly as rosy for women composers, who are not well represented on orchestral programs. And women conductors are no better off than composers.

The growing numbers of women in professional orchestras at every level can be traced to a single innovation that began around 1970: “blind auditions,” where competing candidates for open orchestral jobs play behind a screen. The selection committee does not know if it is hearing a man or a woman. The rapid change in the makeup of orchestras since 1970—casually visible and backed up by the numbers—is compelling evidence of the opposition women orchestral players faced before that innovation.

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Susan Slaughter

Susan Slaughter, the first female principal trumpet player in the U.S. was interviewed in 2009 when she retired after 40 years in the St. Louis Symphony. In the article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, she recalled that orchestras were not interested—until they heard her play. She wrote to 30 orchestras when she was starting out, and was invited to three auditions.

When she auditioned for St. Louis, one string player on the committee later admitted that he actually got up to go get coffee when she walked onstage. “He waited to hear a few notes, just for form’s sake,” the article said. “He said, ‘Your playing made me sit back down.’”

Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra Member Portraits Day 9

Elizabeth Baker

Violinist Elizabeth Baker, a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1987, has experienced auditions from both sides of the screen. She does not doubt the importance of blind auditions. “The screened rounds were the main reason why women were able to advance and realize positions in major symphony orchestras,” she says.

She has seen this in her own family. Her mother, Virginia Voigtlander Baker, was one of the first women in a principal string position in an American orchestra. She was engaged as assistant concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony in 1972, shortly after the introduction of screened auditions, and held the position until 1993.

Baker’s belief is supported by scientific research. In an article titled “Orchestrating Impartiality,” published in 2000 in The American Economic Review, researchers Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse concluded that “the screen increases—by 50 percent—the probability that a woman will be advanced from certain preliminary rounds and increases by severalfold the likelihood that a woman will be selected in the final round.” Their conclusion is backed up by 25 pages of charts, graphs and statistical studies.

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A violinist prepares to play an audition behind the screen.

The numbers are striking. According to the most recent information from the League of American Orchestras, the percentage of women instrumentalists has gone from 38.2% in 1978, the earliest year that these records were kept and already after the first screened auditions, to nearly 50% today. Some individual orchestras have up to 60% women.

The numbers are similar locally. Based on the rosters on their Web pages, approximately 44% of the Colorado Symphony and 58% of the Boulder Philharmonic is female. Significantly, the concertmaster of the Colorado Symphony is a woman, as are the assistant concertmaster and several principal players in the wind sections of the Boulder Phil.

The numbers were much lower before screened auditions were introduced. In the 1950s and ‘60s, orchestras were considered a male preserve. Older women instrumentalists often recall being explicitly told to get a college degree so they could teach, because “orchestra jobs are for men.”

Today blind auditions are just about universal in American orchestras. The Code of Ethical Audition Practices that professional orchestras follow does not specify screened auditions, although it does prohibit discrimination of the basis of sex, and they often are required in union contracts between orchestras and musicians.

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Individual women composers have seen some well publicized successes recently. In December the Metropolitan Opera produced L’Amour de Loin by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho to great acclaim—the first opera by a woman at the Met in 113 years. The Santa Fe Opera premiered Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain in 2015, and Opera Colorado premiered Lori Laitman’s Scarlet Letter in 2016. But while such widely publicized events may open doors for other women, they do not tell the whole story.

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Jennifer Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” was premiered at the Santa Fe Opera in 2015

For one thing, composers do not have the advantage of auditioning anonymously. Music directors and board committees know whose music they are choosing. “We’re completely at the mercy of the people who do the programming,” Higdon explains. “We have no control over our careers, basically, especially in the orchestral realm.”

A highly successful composer by any standard, Higdon is an exception, a Pulitzer prize winner with more than 200 performances every year. But that does not mean she has not met casual sexism in her career. People still tell her “I can’t believe a woman wrote that piece!” and she was even asked by a documentary filmmaker once if he could get a shot of her ironing.

“I was like, ‘What? Did I hear that correctly?’” she recalls.

Missy Mazzoli, a 2016 composer in residence with the Boulder Philharmonic, points out that women composers often cannot know when discrimination occurs. “It operates on different levels, a lot of which I would be the last person to be aware of,” she says. “I’m not behind closed doors where people are making decisions, but I think the numbers speak for themselves.”

What the numbers say depends on which ones do the speaking. In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, the period that still forms the largest part of the classical repertoire, women were discouraged, when not actually prevented, from being composers. That is no longer the case, so while there is little music by women from the core of the classical repertoire, there is a great deal of newer music by women.

Statistics kept by the Baltimore Symphony reflect that discrepancy. They show that only 1.8% of all works performed by major orchestras in 2014–15 were by women. But when limited to works performed by living composers, that number jumped to 14.8%.

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Boulder native Kristin Kuster

Still, that remains a smaller share of the repertoire than the growing numbers of women composers would suggest. Kristin Kuster, a composer from Boulder who teaches at the University of Michigan, reacted when the figures were first released, writing, “These numbers are both abysmal and embarrassing, particularly in this day and age.”

She knows first-hand how many women are moving into composition. “We are seeing a gradual increase in the number of female composers applying to our undergraduate and graduate programs” at Michigan, she says today. And at last summer’s “Composing in the Wilderness” workshop in Alaska (covered in Boulder Weekly in October), open registration attracted five women and four men.

Local figures hover around the national averages. In the 11 seasons under conductor Michael Butterman (including the current season), the Boulder Philharmonic has played six pieces by six different female composers. That is approximately 3.2% of all the repertoire programmed on major concert performances, slightly above the 2014–15 single-season national average . Among living composers, it is 15%, almost exactly the national average.

That is a stark difference from the orchestra’s early years. In all of the recorded repertoire before Butterman, back to 1966, the percentage of women composers on concert programs was exactly 0—unless you count the 1995 “performance” of “Happy Birthday” by Mildred and Patty Hall.

For the Colorado Music Festival, it is more difficult to calculate percentages, because there are so many different genres and ways of listing programs. What can be gleaned from the records is that in the first 20 years of the festival, through 1996, there were seven works played by women—six of them by Betsy Jolas, who is also part of the upcoming 40th anniversary season.

More recently, Michael Christie’s 13 years with the festival featured nine works by seven women. Looking only at Festival Orchestra concerts that have full program listings in the record, three women make up 1.3% of all composers and 9.4% of living composers in the Christie era, below the national averages. For the CMF Chamber Orchestra in the same period, however, the figures are slightly above the national average: five women represent 2.5% and 17.9% respectively.

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“Click” Commission winner Hannah Lash

Since Christie left, the only works by women were Hannah Lash’s “Click” Commission winner in 2016, and the upcoming piece by Jolas.

The “Click” Commission choice is particularly interesting. The commission has been granted in five festival seasons between 2011 and ’17. The winners of the commission are selected by the public, who vote with their pocketbooks by making contributions.

In those five years, there have been 14 men and three women candidates. Of these, the voters selected three men and two women—Kuster in 2013 and Lash in 2016. This is a far higher rate than women have been programmed locally or nationally. Since there were two women candidates in 2013, voters have actually chosen a female composer every time one was available. This is a very small sample, but it suggests that, at least in Boulder, audiences are more willing than program committees and music directors to choose female composers.

This adds up to a mixed picture for female composers: progress, but well short of representation in proportion to the numbers of active composers. For her part, Kuster calls on everyone to be part of the solution. “We all have a responsibility to change our culture to be more inclusive, and to represent the reality that there is a vast diversity of musical voices to be heard,” she says.

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The most prominent musicians at orchestral concerts are the soloists and conductors. For soloists, the rise of women in orchestral positions has been paralleled by women with solo careers, particularly violinists. The rosters of three of the largest artists management companies in New York—Columbia Artists, IMG and Opus 3—together list 37 violinists, of which 16, or 43.2%, are women. Female pianists fare less well, with 13 out of 59, or 22%.

But it is as conductors that women appear least successful. In this area, management rosters may slightly underrepresent women. The management companies represent 153 conductors and only 11 women, or 7.2% of the total, whereas the numbers of women in actual orchestral conducting positions are slightly higher.

The League of American Orchestras reports that among all conductors at league orchestras—including both music directors and assistants—14.6% are women, almost exactly the same rate at which women are included in orchestral programs. At the highest level, 9.2% of all music directors of LAO orchestras are women. However, the discouraging fact is that both numbers have changed very little over the past 10 years of league records, and throughout the same period there has been only one female music director in the top 24 U.S. orchestras by budget, Marin Alsop at the Baltimore Symphony.

Whatever numbers you look at, women are underrepresented at the top levels of the orchestral world. When asked about this, women refer over and over again to the same issues that face women in leadership positions in business and other fields: it is more difficult for women to be taken seriously as strong leaders.

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JoAnn Falletta

JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Symphony and one of the senior women conductors today, explains it this way: “Probably the greatest factor is that [symphony] boards are run by people who believe very strongly in the status quo. And that means board members trusted generally in an older man, and I think that has lasted for decades.”

Beverly Everett, music director in Bismarck, N.D., and Bemidji, Minn., is well accepted in both communities, but says that in many cases boards’ “perception of leadership is someone who can go out and be buddy-buddy with someone on a golf course.” One position that she considered, she recalls, “I had a friend who knew some of the people on the board, and they told him flat out that they would not consider a woman.”

Laura Jackson, music director of the Reno Philharmonic, says the perception of a conductor is often even more narrow than that, of an older European male—a long-term prejudice in the U.S. that can hamper younger men as well as women. “The average person has in their mind a Toscanini, sort of an Einstein-looking character,” she says. “The young male conductors suffer from the stereotype as much as I do.”

Laura Jackson conducting

Laura Jackson

The good news is that it is not usually the musicians in the orchestra who have a problem with women conductors. “Most people just want somebody competent on the podium, period,” Jackson says. “If you’re an iguana and you do what you do well, they’ll take it.”

She has seen more concern about the gender of the conductor from the public than from musicians. When she was a conducting fellow at Tanglewood, Mass., she says, “It was the patrons who said, ‘Do you realize how long it’s been since we had a female here? This is really freaky!’”

That perception in turn puts extra pressure on women conductors, who may be seen as representing all women. “It was scary because I felt like one false move, if anything was wrong, it would end up being blamed on my gender,” Jackson says.

Another challenge that is familiar to all women in all fields is the difficulty of being assertive—which goes against society’s expectations of girls and women. For example, Falletta had to learn at the outset not to be apologetic. “There can be a subtle sense of apology in what women say,” she says.

Jorge Mester, a conductor who was Falletta’s teacher and mentor when she was younger, puts it more bluntly. “It’s the teaching that little girls are given about being subservient,” he explains. “I said to her, ‘JoAnn, do you want to be a nice Catholic girl, or do you want to be a conductor?’”

In other words, women have to step outside the traditional social role to exert leadership—but if they are too assertive they run the risk of being perceived as shrill, or worse. “The most difficult thing is figuring out the window of leadership where you can be commanding and make a point passionately without being seen as angry, where you can be not seen as brittle and mean,” Jackson says.

Another challenge familiar to women in business is dress. “For any performer male or female, the way you look is very important,” Jackson says. “With a woman there are many extra layers to getting that right. If a man walks in and his shirt is a little wrinkled, he’s a disheveled genius. If a woman looks like that, she’s incompetent.”

“Concert dress is something men may not even think about,” Falletta adds. “With a woman, it seems to be more laden with social importance.”

Women like Falletta and Jackson and Everett have shown that women can be successful orchestral conductors. But is that career path one that is becoming more open to women generally? The evidence is mixed. As noted, the numbers recorded by the League of American Orchestras have been static for at least ten years. And individual experience varies widely.

Photography by Glenn Ross. http://on.fb.me/16KNsgK

Cynthia Katsarelis

Cynthia Katsarelis, conductor of the Colorado Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra, is the only female orchestral conductor in the front range area. “When I was at the Peabody Conservatory, the conducting class was 50-50, male-female, all talented,” she observes. “At each new level of my career, there were fewer women. In top masterclasses and summer programs there would be fewer women. I would be the only woman at several professional auditions and now there are many music director searches where no women are auditioned.”

As it happens, that has been exactly the case in the most recent high-profile searches in this area.

In 2010, the Colorado Symphony had eight guest conductors, all European males, and hired Andrew Litton from that field. Six years later, Brett Mitchell was hired to replace Litton, without any other candidates appearing with the orchestra. Around the same time, two other men were hired in conducting positions, Associate Conductor Christopher Dragan and Assistant Conductor Andres Lopera.

In 2014, the Colorado Music Festival featured four official candidates to replace Michael Christie, all male. The two or three other names that were informally discussed were also male. The Longmont Symphony is currently searching for a new conductor, and once again all the finalists are male.

That’s the local picture, but it may not be broadly representative. Jackson believes more women are coming into the field. “In the past three years it’s like the floodgates are opening,” she says. “I think we are on the cusp. I think that I have probably done my last music director audition where I am the only woman.”

She sees some situations where being a woman may even be an advantage. “For an orchestra that needs a big change, when they see your résumé and see your picture, you are automatically that change, that clean slate,” she says. “That can put you in a category where people will ask, ‘Why not?’

“I think it’s going to be less and less of an issue.”

Falletta believes that the publicity around some recent high-profile women conductors helps. The Finnish conductor

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Susanna Malkki conducted at the Metropolitan Opera in 2016

Susanna Malkki, chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic who also who led Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin at the Metropolitan Opera is one example. Another is Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, new music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony in England. In 2013, Alsop became the first woman to conduct the BBC’s “Last Night of the Proms” in London.

“Once it’s happened on a high level, people are more open to it,” Falletta says. “All of us  tend to look to orchestras that are bigger than us as models. As they start to have more women on the podium—and more women composers, as well—I think smaller orchestras will do the same.”

At least the way is now open for women to learn the skills as conductors. University and conservatory programs are accepting women, and the Dallas Opera has made a 20-year commitment to its Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors. The League of American Orchestras has held special programs for women conductors, as did the Lucerne Festival in 2016.

In the end, it all comes down to fairness, and the opportunity of talented women to pursue the career of their choice. But Higdon has her own perspective on the whole issue, that opening doors to women is good for classical music generally.

“Young people don’t come to classical concerts because it looks so un-hip,” she says. “One reason is because there are so few women represented. They are used to women being part of the scene from popular music and hip-hop and everything else they listen to.

“If you want to be more hip and appeal to younger audiences, program more women!”

NOTE: An abridged version of this story appeared in Boulder Weekly.

Edited lightly to correct typos and clarify the numbers that are provided, 4/13.

Composers go into the wild and come home transformed

By Peter Alexander

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Composers in the Wilderness, Denali National Park and Preserve

There is a wildness in the natural world that most of us never meet. But when we do, we are likely to be transformed.

“I definitely feel changed as a person,” Alondra Vega says after brushing against the Alaskan wilderness. “The experience almost seems like it was too extraordinary to have happened,” Cassie To writes.

13690752_594538287385367_7602763590110916242_nFor Sam Young, an ex-Boulderite living in Los Angeles, touching the wild was an epiphany: “Whenever I come to a place like this, I re-evaluate my entire life and think, ‘Is it all wrong, what I’m doing?’”

Vega, To and Young were three of nine participants in “Composing in the Wilderness,” a workshop led by composer Stephen Lias in Alaska this past summer. The goal of the workshop, Lias says, is to give composers the transformative experience that comes from stepping into the natural world.

“Going into the backcountry of Alaska, I know the experience will change people,” he says. “I wouldn’t presume to guess in what way, but the art that they create will be a manifestation of whatever the change was.

“My favorite thing is putting these composers in that environment and just watching Alaska do its thing on them.”

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Composer Stephen Lias

Lias is known to Boulder audiences for his orchestral piece Gates of the Arctic, premiered by the Boulder Philharmonic in 2014 — a product of Alaska doing its thing on him. He will be back this year, when his All the Songs that Nature Sings will be premiered by the orchestra and conductor Michael Butterman March 25, 2017, and subsequently performed by them at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., March 28.

Working in cooperation with Alaska Geographic, the National Park Service and the Fairbanks Arts Festival, Lias has presented the workshop every year since 2012. It is designed as both an outdoors and an artistic adventure. The composers gather in Denali National Park, where they hike and explore the backcountry. They learn about the wilderness environment from rangers and naturalists.

After Denali, the composers transfer to the remote Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, where they have four days to compose a new piece inspired by their experiences. Written for performers from the Fairbanks Arts Festival, the pieces are all trios or quartets, but adding to the musical adventure, the composers don’t know in advance what instruments they will write for.

The pieces have to be fairly short and simple, because they have to be written quickly and learned even more quickly by the performers. That forms the third and final segment of the workshop: in just a few days the completed pieces are rehearsed and performed, first in Denali National Park, and then as part of the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival.

The workshop takes nine participants on a first-come, first-served basis. This year there were five women and four men, ranging in age from early 20s to AARP-eligible. They came from all over: two from Australia, one from New Zealand by way of New York, one from Cuba by way of Canada, the rest from around the U.S.

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The author in Alaska with sons Michael (l) and Ivan (r): Kenai Fjords National Park

As it happens, I had my own Alaskan adventure this summer, driving, hiking and flightseeing in the state with my two oldest sons. I timed my trip to hear this year’s workshop concert, “Sounds of Nature: Alaska Premieres,” July 26 at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. I saw glaciers larger than counties, and stretches of boreal forest larger than several states. And like the composers in the workshop, the vast land profoundly moved me.

When you face such an overwhelming immensity of nature, full of life but devoid of visible human presence, it’s hard not to be affected.

. . . . .

We are often told that nature is cruel, but that is not really true. Nature understands neither kindness nor cruelty; it is indifferent. That is the great lesson of the wilderness, as I was reminded in Anaktuvuk Pass and the composers, well cared for as they were, encountered in Denali: When we leave our well insulated lives to venture into the real world of nature, we have to be prepared to take responsibility for ourselves.

13718714_594543404051522_4074485623699253369_nWashington, very much a city-dweller from New York, had an experience that captures just what Lias hopes the composers will discover in their brush with nature. “We hiked up this high mountain pass and we were given space to go out on our own and just sit quietly and reflect,” she recalls. “I felt like an intruder in some ways — like my breathing was too loud.

“A moth came and landed on my hand, and I didn’t want to move because I was interrupting its space. It was really peaceful, and really real because everything has been undisturbed for so long. Being able to trespass there for a couple of days has been really calming.”

13718623_594538980718631_7012257335267384579_nOf all the participants, David John Lang may have captured the power of wilderness most eloquently. After returning to his home, in Adelaide, South Australia, he writes: “I took my journal, in which I often write letters to God, but I was surprised at how little I wrote while I was in Alaska. It was like I was too busy being a listener for once, hearing and seeing and loving God’s creation.

“I felt really, really small, and it was awesome.”

Read the entire article in Boulder Weekly.

New CMF music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni: “Don’t call me maestro!”

The conductor wants to build a relationship with the orchestra

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

By Peter Alexander

Jean-Marie Zeitouni, the new music director of the Colorado Music Festival, finds Boulder a very comfortable place to fit in and make friends.

Just don’t call him “maestro.”

He made this clear when he introduced the 2015 festival season Thursday evening (Feb. 26) at the Chautauqua Community House. “You can call me Jean-Marie or JMZ,” he said. “You can call me many things behind my back. But don’t call me maestro.”

When asked about that a couple of days later, he shook his head and made a sour face. “No,” he said. “I have played in an orchestra. There is not one master and the rest are slaves.”

This experience as an orchestra member is a very important part of the way Zeitouni thinks about his job here in Boulder. “I try to be the conductor I would want as a member of the orchestra,” he says. “The greatest goal for me this year (at the Colorado Music Festival) is to develop my relationship with the orchestra.”

One part of that relationship is to be found in the repertoire that Zeitouni, as music director, selects for the players, as members of the orchestra, to rehearse and perform. And in the season that was announced Thursday night, Zeitouni has included pieces that the musicians may be expected to relish.

For example, in addition to the usual Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and Sibelius symphonies, which the orchestra members have probably played many times, there are pieces such as Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 3 and Michael Daugherty’s Deus ex Machina that are outside the standard repertoire.

Surely some of the orchestra members will look forward to the French Baroque music of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Boréades. A rarity like George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony will have its advocates. And next to the perennially popular American in Paris there is the rare opportunity to play Darius Milhaud’s response, A Frenchman in New York.

But probably nothing will be more exciting for the players than Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. As with much of Bartók’s orchestral music, this is a virtuoso score that gives the players a chance to really show their worth. Although it has two singing characters, Zeitouni describes Bluebeard’s Castle as “an opera where the orchestra is the main character.” (It will be performed in Hungarian with English surtitles.)

Andrew Bradford

Andrew Bradford

Indeed, Zeitouni and CMF executive director Andrew Bradford confirm that they have already heard from members of the orchestra that this is the piece that they are most looking forward to.

Zeitouni, who lives in Montreal, will spend the summer in Boulder with his family. He readily cites Boulder’s concern for health, the environment, and the presence of many different cultural—and counter-cultural—elements as aspects of the city that he likes. “Like in Canada, you can be whoever you are,” he says. “I feel comfortable here.”

“It reminds me of the places I have been most joyous, in the Rockies of Canada, especially Banff.”

Speaking of their vision of the CMF, Zeitouni and Bradford point out that there were some limitations to what they could do in the first year. There was not time to develop partnerships that could be assets to the festival, and many potential soloists were not available on relatively short notice. That will change as they have more time to plan coming seasons.

2015-festival-icon-with-dates-300x213As for the future, Zeitouni says there is no fixed version of what any festival should be. He is clear that taking the heritage and the strengths of the CMF in consideration, they expect to move in new directions, aiming to make the summers more exciting, and to gain more national recognition for a festival that has already achieved a great deal in its history.

“We have many ideas” Zeitouni says. “We have big things in mind that we are starting to organize, but we want people to focus on what is there this year.

“What we have put together is quite good and we want to people to get excited about that.”

# # #

Read my season preview, and view a complete listing of the summer’s concert, below.

Je suis Charlie

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Cartoon by Rob Tornoe in response to the killings in Paris.

By Peter Alexander

What happened is Paris today (Jan. 7) has nothing to do with classical music and nothing to do with Boulder. But some principles transcend artistic categories and borders.

In that spirit, and as a journalist in my own little corner of the media world, I declare my absolute solidarity with the cartoon artists and journalists of Charlie Hebdo, of France, and of the world. Freedom of expression, which is enshrined in the very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, is an irreplaceable cornerstone of democracy and freedom in a progressive society.

Are some of the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo has published offensive? Yes. But the magazine offended widely, not narrowly; to use an overworked phrase, they were truly an “equal opportunity offender,” far more so that most who claim that title. Do some of them cross a line that I would not want to cross? Yes. But the right of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to offend and to cross lines is part of the freedom that we cherish. Freedom of expression is no freedom at all if it only applies to opinions that are endorsed by social convention. Which is why I am posting this on sharpsansflatirons.

I also want to express my deepest sympathy to the family and friends of the French journalists and police who were slaughtered. I cannot imagine the anguish that is being felt. But I have been heartened by the response of the French people and the world’s press.

Here are links to a few of the responses that I have found, and that I urge readers to look at and consider. There is much duplication among the cartoons, but it is valuable to observe how widely they are being shared around the world today. That is, if nothing else, an indication of how universal the response has been to this horrible—but sadly no longer unthinkable—tragedy.

onislam: “What Muslim Scholars Say About Paris Attack”

Buzzfeed: “23 Heartbreaking Cartoons From Artists Responding to the Charlie Hebdo Shooting”

BBC: “Charlie Hebdo Attack: the response in pictures”

Vox: “12 Powerful Political Cartoons responding to the Charlie Hebdo attack”

Washington Post: “#JeSuisCharlie: Cartoonists react to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris”

Toronto Globe and Mail: “Cartoonists Around the World Respond”

Starkland’s new CD features music that is both accessible and deeply emotional

Boulder-based CD label releases acclaimed album of music by Martin Bresnick

By Peter Alexander

Pryaers cover“Prayers Remain Forever,” a new CD release from Boulder-based Starkland, is a wonderfully varied and deeply satisfying collection of six works by composer Martin Bresnick.

The six pieces on the album spring from very different sources: One was inspired by a personal experience, one by a painting by Goya, and three by literary sources. They are also diverse in instrumentation, ranging from solo violin and solo piano to a mixed quartet of violin, oboe, viola and cello. What they have in common is their expressivity. Bresnick, who teaches composition at Yale, is represented here by music that is personal, has an emotional depth, and is accessible to the listener.

Tom Steenland, who operates the Starkland CD label (which is under the umbrella of Spruceland Music, Inc., in case you were not already confused), is delighted to be issuing music that is easily appreciated. “I’m probably more excited about [new music today] than ever,” he says.

“In the mid-70s when I was studying composition, new music was pretty esoteric and not enjoyed much by the general public, but there’s been sort of a revolution since then. Music is more accessible, it’s exciting. People are interested in what composers are composing.

“It’s been a tremendous change I never would have envisioned.”

Tom Steenland

Tom Steenland

Steenland started the Starkland label in 1991 as a way of transferring music by Tod Dockstader from vinyl LPs to more up-to-date CDs. From that very first release, Steenland has seen the mission of his label to be the “promotion of alternative classical, experimental, and avant-garde music through the production of high-quality recordings.”

Composers in the Starkland catalogue include Jay Cloidt, Paul Dresher, Aaron Jay Kernis, Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, John Zorn, and others. The label typically releases 3 or 4 recordings a year of about 1000 CDs each.

Martin Bresnick. Photo by Marc Ostow

Martin Bresnick. Photo by Marc Ostow

“Prayers Remain Forever” opens with “Going home – Vysoke, My Jerusalem” for oboe, violin, viola and cello. A mournful meditation on a visit to his ancestral home in Russia, where his immigrant grandparents had witnessed the murder of family members, this is a wonderful opening track that draws the listener in and prepares the emotional ground that Bresnick covers throughout the album. To my ears, this is the most deeply moving piece on the album, with the plaintive oboe weaving in and out of sustained strings, seeking but never quite finding repose.

“Ishi’s Song” for piano is based on a fragment of song recorded by Ishi, the last of California’s Yahi-Yani Indians, who died in 1916. The song fragment, sung by the pianist at the outset, is transformed into a bright, rhythmic minimalist sketch colored by pentatonic elements.

“Josephine The Singer” for solo violin is based on a Kafka story about a mouse who is—or fancies herself?—a great singer, although the fragmented, sketchy sounds from the violin do not suggest a singer of great lyrical qualities.

Francisco Goya: "Strange Devotion," Plate 66 of "Disasters of War"

Francisco Goya: “Strange Devotion,” Plate 66 of “Disasters of War”

“Strange Devotion” for piano was inspired by a Goya etching from “Disasters of War” in which peasants are kneeling before a cart of corpses drawn by a donkey. The plodding chords and the jingling of the donkey’s bells in the piano part both illustrate the image and convey the remorseless futility of war.

In “A Message From the Emperor,” two percussionists both recite and provide decoration for another short story by Kafka. Rattling marimba and xylophone capture the truly Kafka-esque tale of a messenger dispatched by a dying emperor with a critical message than can never be delivered.

The CDs final, title track, “Prayers Remain Forever” for cello and piano, takes its inspiration from a poem by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever.” A virtuoso passage of accumulating momentum suddenly breaks down into a long, intense section that seems to illustrate the poem’s opening line, “Tombstones crumble.” The virtuosic, headlong rush into destruction ends the CD with a powerful image of finality.

I don’t listen to a lot of new CDs, but this strikes me as one of the best recordings of new music that I have heard in a long time. I am not alone in that evaluation: “Prayers Remain Forever” has been selected one of the best albums of new music in 2014 by Sequenza21, an important new music Web site; and received glowing reviews in the classical music publications Gramophone and Fanfare.

“Prayers Remain Forever”
StarkLogo04c2
Music of Martin Bresnick: Going Home – Vysoke, My Jerusalem; Ishi’s Song; Josephine the Singer; Strange Devotion; A Message from the Emperor; Prayers Remain Forever. Performers: Double Entendre (Christa Robinson, oboe; Caleb Burhans, violin; John Pickford Richards, viola; and Brian Snow, cello); Lisa Moore, piano; Sarita Kwok, violin; Michael Compitello and Ian Rosenblum, percussion and speakers; Ashley Bathgate, cello.

Starkland ST-221 (60:38)

Available from Amazon, Arkiv and iTunes.

2014 in Review: The classical music scene in Boulder

Now in the rear-view mirror, 2014 was a busy year in classical music.

2014-Monthly-CalendarBy Peter Alexander

It was a time of stability, it was a time of change.

With apologies to Charles Dickens, 2014 brought the classical institutions of Boulder both stability and change, and happily there was “the spring of hope” in the changes rather than a prolonged “winter of despair.”

In other words, there was a lot of news in 2014.

Andrew Bradford

Andrew Bradford

The most significant news came from the Colorado Music Festival, which underwent perhaps not a winter but a few days of despair in January when their newly hired executive director backed out before a single day on the job. But hope was certainly in the offing by summer, when new Executive Director Andrew Bradford was on hand and three well qualified candidates to replace Michael Christie as music director led concerts in the Chautauqua Auditorium.

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

In September CMF announced the selection of Jean-Marie Zeitouni, a dynamic young conductor from Montreal as music director. Putting words to the hopes that many Boulder residents have for the future of the festival, Zeitouni said “I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to serve as music director of this wonderful organization, and . . . I take this responsibility with great respect and care.

“I think I am coming to understand the great love and passion so many people in this community have for CMF and CMA, and I intend not only to create new, exciting programs for their enjoyment but also to be a steward of the organization.”

Since then, Bradford and Zeitouni have been hard at work planning the 2015 festival season. We will know more what their leadership will mean for the festival and Boulder audiences when the summer schedule is announced in February. That announcements already looks to be near the top of the classical music news for 2015.

Zachary Carrettin with electric violin. Photo by Michelle Maloy Dillon.

Zachary Carretin with electric violin. Photo by Michelle Maloy Dillon.

Boulder’s Bach Festival also has a new director, now in his second year. Zachary Carretin moved permanently to Boulder this year, which allows the festival to expand its offerings outside of the traditional one week in the spring. “We are continuing that tradition,” Carretin said of the festival week, “and that definitely centers around the great masterworks of Johann Sebastian Bach. But we are expanding the season throughout the academic year to include more concerts, and of varying sizes from solo to chamber to orchestral.”

One important aspect of the expanded offerings is the Compass Series, designed to present Bach’s music in non-traditional ways. “I consider the music of Bach to be a compass from which I view and hear all other music,” Carretin says. “It serves as a point of reference from which one can peer into the distance, travel backward in time or examine how those old music forms influenced subsequent sounds.”

In effect, the Compass Series will re-imagine Bach’s music, presenting it with unexpected media and in unexpected contexts. Good examples will be found in the coming months, with concerts of Bach on electric violin in February and Bach paired with the music of John Cage in March, both presented at the Dairy Center.

Robert Olson

Robert Olson

One more change on the local scene is on the way, although not for another year. In March 2014, Robert Olson announced that the 2015 Mahler Festival will be his last. As the founding director of the festival, he has been a part of Boulder’s musical life for 27 years. Thus far, no announcement has been made about the festival’s future without Olson.

Michael Butterman

Michael Butterman

If 2014 was a time of change for CMF and the Bach Fest, it was a time to celebrate stability for the Boulder Philharmonic, which renewed the contract of maestro Michael Butterman. Always a thoughtful and provocative programmer, Butterman well deserved the confidence reflected in his new five–year contract, through the 2018–19 season.

In 2014 there were also some noteworthy performances in Boulder.

You will have your own favorites, which you are invited to share in comments. Here are eight performances that I found particularly memorable at the end of the year:

Venice Baroque Orchestra

Venice Baroque Orchestra

Feb. 13: Venice Baroque Orchestra brought their fresh and energetic playing into Macky Auditorium. With hometown ties to Vivaldi and a commitment to the excitement of playing Baroque music, Venice Baroque showed how far “authentic” performance has come in the 21st century. The days are long gone of “sewing-machine” Baroque music. This was a virtuoso performance that raised Vivaldi to the ranks of the great 18th-ceturey composers, where he belongs.

July 17–18: The orchestral concert conducted at CMF by Carlos Miguel Prieto, one of the three candidates for music director, was a wonderful exploration of music both familiar and not quite familiar. It included the full ballet The Three Cornered Hat by Manuel de Falla, which includes some slightly familiar excepts. Heard in full, the score emerged as a fascinating display of Spanish culture and music. On the same program, Prieto presented the brash and colorful original scoring of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. I was delighted to hear one of my favorite pieces in different garb, blazing with all the colors Stravinsky first imagined.

Aug. 1: Andrew Grams, not a candidate for the CMF position but clearly well liked by orchestra and audience alike, led a program of Russian masterworks as part of the CMF season. Under his baton, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, a hoary evergreen of the orchestral repertoire that too easily descends into melodramatic excess, emerged as an exciting showpiece that had musicians and listeners alike wowed at concert’s end.

Aug. 7–8: The third, and successful candidate for the music director’s position at CMF, Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conducted a committed, energetic reading of two great tone poems by Richard Strauss, Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben. So much Strauss in one evening can be heavy going, but it was a rare treat to hear Ein Heldenleben live. True virtuoso orchestral music, these two scores elicited the best virtuoso orchestra playing from the CMF’s wonderful orchestra and showcased Zeitouni’s orchestral leadership.

Stephen Lias in Gates or the Arctic National Park. Photo courtesy of the composer.

Stephen Lias in Gates or the Arctic National Park. Photo courtesy of the composer.

Sept. 13: Boulder Philharmonic and Michael Butterman chose to open their 2014–15 season with the world premiere of Stephen Lias’s Gates of the Arctic. Something of a musical travelogue that the composer acknowledges is almost film music, Gates of the Arctic is, I wrote in my review, “thoroughly entertaining” but also “a well crafted and skillfully designed piece that features strong contrasts and great musical drama, woven into an effective orchestral score.” The same concert also introduced the Boulder Phil’s new concertmaster, Charles Weatherbee, in a skillful and satisfying performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral showpiece Scheherazade.

Kronos Quartet performing Beyond Zero. Photo courtesy of Kronos Quartet

Kronos Quartet performing Beyond Zero. Photo courtesy of Kronos Quartet

Oct. 8: Kronos Quartet’s performance in Macky Auditorium was a treat for fans of new music, or anyone who loves a good musical adventure. I thought the performance of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Beyond Zero: 1914–1918, a multi-media remembrance of World War I, was one of the most powerful musical experiences of the year. The program also included a notable premier of Speak, Time by Boulder native Yuri Boguinia, and a number of pieces that draw upon Eastern European folk song. As always with Kronos, the entire concert was a fascinating musical journey. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they are never dull.

Aeris: Avi Stein, Zachary Carrettin, William Skeen

Aeris: Avi Stein, Zachary Carretin, William Skeen

Oct. 16: The Baroque-instrument trio Aeris’ program of virtuoso sonatas by Italian composers Vivaldi, Veracini, Stradella, Valentini, Locatelli and Nicola Matteis, and a very Italianate and wildly virtuosic sonata by J.S. Bach, was a telling opening for the 2014­–15 Bach Festival. The program reflected the intention of the festival’s director, Zachary Carretin, to put Bach into new and exciting contexts, giving audiences a deeper appreciation of his role in the musical world; and it also showed Carretin’s virtuoso abilities as the trio’s violinist. More from that menu will be welcome.

Oct. 17: The performance of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra under conductor Cynthia Katsarellis and soprano Amanda Balastrieri gave a depth and dark poignancy to a score that is often treated as simple nostalgia. The rest of the concert—Sibelius and Mozart—was delightful, but the reading of Barber will stay with me and color every other performance I hear of the evocative score.

I apologize to anyone not mentioned here; there were many wonderful and worthy performances that just fell short of making the list. (And then there were the concerts I didn’t get to!) When it comes to memorable concerts, there are no wrong answers. Your experience is as valid as anyone’s, which is why I would love to hear everyone’s reflections on the past year. In the meantime, Happy New Year and many musical returns to all!

NOTE: The story was edited 12/3/15 to clarify sentences that readers found unclear, and to change the spelling of Petrushka to conform with previous stories.

With engineers in the cab, it’s time to fix the tracks

My thoughts and recommendations for the future of the Colorado Music Festival

By Peter Alexander

Boulder’s Colorado Music Festival is now back to full administrative strength. The railroad that is the CMF was not running as smoothly this past summer as it had in the past, largely due to the the lack of a music director  and the need to bring in multiple conductors to try out for the music director slot. But now that there are permanent musical and executive directors back running the railroad, the train can once again get up to speed. But first, it would be a good idea to clear the tracks of any unnecessary obstacles.

So to speak.

Andrew Bradford

Andrew Bradford

Metaphors aside, it is time for the CMF’s two recent hires, Musical Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni and Administrative Director Andrew Bradford, to start shaping the future of the festival. Since they are both new to Boulder, I offer here six suggestions that would draw on what I believe have been the strengths of the festival, as I experienced it over several years.

Reinstate the “Click” Commission. This was one of the most creative approaches to commissioning new music I have seen. If you have not taken part, the festival chose three composers each year, one of whom would be commissioned a new piece to open the next year’s festival. Each composer’s biography and sample works were posted on the CMF Web page, and audience members could vote for their preferred composer—by making donations to the commission. All donations went into a common pot to fund the commission, and the composer who raised the most money in their name received the commission—and the full pot.

This ingenious approach got the audience involved much more than in traditional commissioning schemes, where the festival would say, ‘We’ve selected a terrific composer (whose music you may not have heard). Trust us—it will be wonderful, if you give us some money for the commission.’

With the “Click” Commission, the contributors were part of the selection process, and they felt a great sense of ownership when the piece was premiered the next year. And the CMF received some pretty terrific pieces from composers who knew that they were a popular choice from the audience. Everyone benefited: the composer got a commission from a prominent musical institution, the festival got a new piece written for its opening concert each year, and the audience got the satisfaction of being involved from the choice of composer to the premiere.

Jean-MarieZeitouni

Jean-MarieZeitouni

Treasure the orchestra. Just about all of the guest conductors have I talked to have mentioned the orchestra as one of the strengths of the CMF. The quality of the orchestral performances is the main thing that brings audiences to Chautauqua in the summer. You may disagree about repertoire—more new music, less new music; more Beethoven, less Beethoven; more mashups, fewer mashups—but without first-rate orchestral performances of the repertoire, the discussions are irrelevant. No one travels to hear mediocre performances of their favorite pieces.

The quality of orchestra that we have enjoyed at CMF is extraordinarily high, but it is also very delicate. Such quality can easily be lost very quickly, but it can only be built over a long time. It would represent a long-term setback for the festival if the quality of the orchestra was allowed to slip. Among other things, that means treating the orchestral players as equal partners in the festival. It is not clear whether that was the case over the search process. I have heard many stories, not all reliable, but it appears that players were included in some parts of the search process but not others. But whatever the truth about the search process, everyone at CMF should remember that the trust and confidence of the players is not a commodity than should be spent carelessly.

Going forward, every effort should be made to honor the players in the way they are treated, from consulting and respecting their opinions, to pay and housing and other forms of support.

eTown Hall, Boulder

eTown Hall, Boulder

Speaking of honoring the orchestra, start by expanding the chamber music performances. The chamber concerts at eTown Hall have become one of the great jewels of the CMF. They give audiences access to a wholly different repertoire than the rest of the festival, and they present the musicians in a much more intimate setting. They give the players the opportunity to make their individual contributions as artists, to select what they want to play, and to craft their own interpretations. There is no better way to support and honor the players than giving them opportunities to perform chamber music. The musicians win and the audiences win; what could be better?

Find challenging and intriguing ways to explore music by living composers. I have said this before, but it is worth saying again: Everyone loves to talk about taking risks, but risk means the real possibility of failure. If you have no failures, you have not taken any risks. In music, this means any commissioning or presenting program for new music will include some pieces that don’t find an audience or just turn out to be duds. So it goes. CMF has to decide: does it want to stick to predictable, unexciting programming and watch the audience slowly shrink away, or do they want to find exciting and challenging new ways of engaging with the audience, at the cost of the occasional failure?

Drop the pop-concert portions of the “Musical Mashup” series and return to the kind of diversity that was created by the “World Music” series. The CMF Mashup concerts conducted by Steve Hackman have attracted sell-out crowd and should be continued on both commercial and artistic grounds. The other two concerts on the series this year, however, attracted small audiences and did not meet their projected goals. I see no reason to continue what was, quite frankly, a very conventional approach to programming: presenting pop artists (who may or may not have a significant following in Colorado) with an under-utilized orchestra.

tf3

Time for Three

There are other ways of positioning concerts along the boundaries between Western classical music and other traditions, including jazz, pop, folk, or music of other cultures. Whether you call it “World Music” or “Blurred Lines” or “New Approaches” doesn’t matter. What does matter is the creativity it spawns and the enthusiasm it generates. CMF would benefit from having a way of presenting a group like Time for Three, new music by Chris Brubeck, or collaborations with fiddler Mark O’Connor and the klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer, to name a few of the festival’s past endeavors that were not only fascinating and engaging, but performances on the very highest technical and artistic level. The best way to grow the festival is to engage with a wider and more diverse audience, and that should remain a focus for the festival in the future as it was in the recent past.

Incidentally, it should be noted the Zeitouni, a French-Canadian whose father is Egyptian and mother is Belgian, seems well positioned to sell the importance of multiculturalism (or multi-stylism) for creating musical strength and building an audience.

Pianist Olga Kern played all the Rachmaninoff concertos over two nights in 2013

Pianist Olga Kern played all the Rachmaninoff concertos over two nights in 2013

Bring back the concept of the “mini-festival within the festival.” One of the glories of the summer has been past mini-festivals of Beethoven symphonies, violin concertos, and music from the holocaust. And who can forget hearing all of the Rachmaninoff piano concertos in two nights? That was both an amazing feat of musical athletics and a remarkable artistic experience. These are the kinds of themes that distinguish a festival from a subscription season.

But above all, what the festival needs now is imaginative, professional leadership. Let us all hope that with the new Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni working with new Executive Director Andrew Bradford, CMF has the team in place to provide just that. We need to get the trains back on schedule.