Rewriting the Score: Advancing Women’s Representation in Classical Music


Join Ms., Feminist Majority Foundation and the American Youth Symphony in Los Angeles for a FREE concert featuring music from three women composers to ring in AYS’ Year of the Woman! Click here to reserve a seat.

Among the many aspects of contemporary life and culture in which women’s representation is edging toward equity, the field of classical music is making progress. There is ample opportunity for this progress—given that classical music has been built on centuries of works composed, performed and curated by men.

Women’s representation has been notably increasing among orchestra musicians, especially as more organizations institute blind auditions as a standard practice, placing a curtain between auditioning musicians and judges. According to the League of American Orchestras, the percentage of women instrumentalists has gone from 38.2 percent in 1978 to nearly 50 percent in 2018. (Recent headlines, however, suggest that the gender pay gap in the field remains significant.)

Statistics from Bachtrack also note that significantly more female composers were featured in 2018 concerts than in previous years, but equitable participation is not as apparent in regard to conductors and composers. The same statistics show that only five of the top 100 conductors and only two of the top 100 composers were women. According to a report by The Guardian, only 2 percent of works programmed by top orchestras worldwide this season were written by women, and 95 percent of concerts only included music written by men. And while there has been a recent wave of women hired to conduct, especially in the U.S., anecdotally, data from the League of American Orchestras shows that the percentage of women holding music director positions is virtually the same in 2018 as it was in 2006—roughly nine percent.

In an effort to push forward the dialogue around representation of women in classical music, the American Youth Symphony (AYS) has declared the current 2018/19 season “The Year of the Woman.” Founded in 1964, AYS has welcomed women since the beginning—even during a time when many orchestras and training programs were not so inclusive. (Fittingly, the AYS mission is to “inspire the future of classical music.”)

This season features two concerts fully devoted to showcasing the talent of women in classical music, and all but one of the season’s nine performances prominently feature a woman in a leadership position: composers, guest artists and fellows in charge of programming. The exception is our annual Hollywood Project concert, in which the orchestra plays the live score to a full-length film; this year, we’re doing Raiders of the Lost Ark.

An upcoming AYS concert on February 23rd marks the capstone of The Year of the Woman—and the first live event in a new series called AYS Amplifies, an ongoing effort to amplify the voices of people doing important work in the classical music community. Sponsored by Ms. and the Feminist Majority Foundation, the concert will feature only music that has been written by women: Lera Auerbach, Jennifer Higdon and Susan Botti, who will also perform live as a guest artist with the orchestra. (Both the performance and pre-concert conversation are free and open to the public, though reservations are recommended.) The concert will be preceded by a conversation facilitated by AYS Music Director Carlos Izcaray about the representation of women in classical music, with a focus on composers, featuring Botti and Ms. Executive Editor Katherine Spillar.

A study by Quartz found that only 31 percent of musicians in top orchestras are women, and that only 21 percent of principal and titled positions were held by women. But of the musicians in the 2018/19 orchestra at AYS, which conducts blind auditions in order to select musicians based on merit and artistic ability only, 45 percent are women; and 52 percent of principal and titled positions are held by women. In addition to performance training, AYS also currently offers three professional development fellowship positions, all of which are held by women this season—the Concertmaster, Orchestra Management Fellow and Citizen Musician Fellow. It may also be worth noting that all four full-time staff positions at AYS are held by women—including me, the AYS Executive Director.

But AYS is also not the only organization moving toward gender equity; there are others doing incredible work, and we use our platform to share their efforts when possible. We have started featuring people and programs supporting women at all stages of their careers on the new AYS Amplifies blog, and we welcome recommendations for others to highlight. (You can reach us via email at amplify@aysymphony.org.)

I couldn’t be more thrilled to be part of AYS—and to have joined during The Year of the Woman! I was introduced as the new Executive Director at the first concert of the season, and met Maestro Izcaray in person for the first time at the post-concert reception. “I hope every year after this,” I said lightheartedly after a few minutes of conversation, “isn’t The Year of the Man!” Although he could have laughed it off as a joke, he responded in earnest and shared his ideas for more equitable gender representation moving forward.

It is a beautiful and humbling responsibility to be able to influence future generations of musicians and audience members through our programs. Given that AYS alumni are playing in orchestras across the U.S. and around the world, we have the opportunity to influence the field at-large. Our season themes will change year to year, but we are committed to “inspiring the future of classical music” to be one that is more equitable.

Tara Aesquivel is the Executive Director of the American Youth Symphony. She strives to share the power of the arts with others through her work—which has included strategic planning, fundraising, production and community engagement for Pittsburgh Opera, LA Opera, A Noise Within, Antioch University Los Angeles, The Lukens Company and Invertigo Dance Theatre. Tara has a B.A. in Music from the University of Missouri at Kansas City, a Master of Arts Management from Carnegie Mellon University and studied Cultural Economics at the University of Bologna. She volunteers with Emerging Arts Leaders Los Angeles and the Cal State Dominguez Hills Innovation Incubator and enjoys traveling, hiking and being a mom.

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