Women’s Indelible Mark on Classical Music

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
The 29-year-old Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla gives hope that more women will have influential roles in classical music.

It took until 1920 for the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to be ratified, guaranteeing female citizens the right to vote. But almost 100 years later, the status quo in classical music still needs a whole lot of shaking up if women are to have any chance of fair representation.

Female soloists and orchestra members are of course an indispensable presence. But this is overwhelmingly in service to male composers, under male conductors. There have been holdouts — the Vienna Philharmonic remained stubbornly limited to men until the late 1990s, when the organization finally voted to allow women to become members.

Progress for female composers and conductors has been especially glacial. Every so often we do encounter a reminder that, even with the odds stacked against them, women have made remarkable contributions throughout the history of Western music.

The usual pattern has been a sudden burst of enthusiasm, as seen in recordings and performances of the latest rediscovery, but then… it’s back to business as usual.

Nadia Boulanger
Nadia Boulanger, conductor, composer, soloist and educator, made a large impact on classical music.

The influence of the long-lived Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979), for example, was so far-reaching that she left her mark on a range of composers as diverse as Aaron Copland and Philip Glass. They all spent formative years studying with her in Paris, so anyone who looks into their biographies is bound to encounter Boulanger’s name. In addition to her role as a legendary educator, she carved out a career as a conductor, composer, and piano and organ soloist.

Nearly a millennium before Boulanger there was the medieval abbess and mystic Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Her serene compositions were rescued from oblivion several decades ago by the early music crowd.

The usual pattern has been a sudden burst of enthusiasm, as seen in recordings and performances of the latest rediscovery, but then… it’s back to business as usual. Yet some recent developments bring encouraging news. Could we be nearing a tipping point?

Hope for the Future

Watching the Mirga effect in action is one cause for optimism. The recognition the young conductor from Lithuania, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, has been earning for her remarkably natural gift at the podium as well as her focused intellect and her infectiously enthusiastic style lends hope.

Last July this 29-year-old musical phenomenon became associate conductor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which is increasingly considered to be in the vanguard of the classical music scene. Reviewing one of her concerts last year, the LA Times announced: “Mirga mania can now officially begin.”

It will take longer for the work of women composers to establish itself in the repertory, but the sheer amount and rich variety of creativity now underway is inspiring

Gražinytė-Tyla — whose accomplishments are enough to inspire a crash course in Lithuanian phonetics, if only to be able to pronounce her name — was just appointed music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the U.K. Starting in September this year, she’ll be the first woman to helm the CBSO, an ensemble that’s associated with some rather formidable talent: Simon Rattle led the orchestra before taking over as head of the Berlin Philharmonic, and Gražinytė-Tyla succeeds Andris Nelsons, another star conductor.

Who are some other notable figures forging a path for women in the competitive, and frankly often mysterious realm of conducting?

Susanna Mälkki
Susanna Mälkki specializes in contemporary music.

The Finnish Susanna Mälkki (born in 1969) is a leading specialist in contemporary music and was recently chosen to become music director of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra in the fall of 2016. Mälkki became the first woman to helm (until 2013) the Paris-based Ensemble InterContemporain, a legendary new-music group founded by no less than Pierre Boulez.

Born in China in 1973, Xian Zhang claims a number of firsts on her resume: the first female to win a major post with the BBC system of orchestras (the National Orchestra of Wales) and the first to be appointed head of an Italian symphony orchestra (the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi).

In the U.S., since 2009 the Berkeley Symphony has been wo-manned by the 39-year-old Joãna Carneiro, from Lisbon. And the celebrated Marin Alsop, who turns 60 this year, deserves credit for her efforts as a major trailblazer for female conductors. Alsop has led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since 2007 and in 2013 became music director of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra. In 2013 she also became the first woman to conduct the hugely popular Last Night of the Proms, which caps the famous BBC Proms summer series of concerts.

It will take longer for the work of women composers to establish itself in the repertory, but the sheer amount and rich variety of creativity now underway is inspiring. Last year Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe won the Pulitzer for Anthracite Fields, her moving paean to the legacy of America’s coal miners.

Over the past decade, three women have in fact taken the Pulitzer Prize in Music. In 2013 it was Caroline Shaw, and, in 2010, the much-performed American composer Jennifer Higdon. Last summer brought the premiere at Santa Fe Opera of Cold Mountain, Higdon’s first opera. Missy Mazzoli, a young American born in 1980, will soon unveil her latest opera, Breaking the Waves, based on director Lars von Trier’s film from 1996.

Also born in 1980 in Britain and now a resident of the U.S., Anna Clyne recently completed a prestigious multiyear residency as composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And the Austrian-born Olga Neuwirth, who studied in San Francisco, will be the featured composer-in-residence at this summer’s Lucerne Festival in Switzerland. The adventurous Neuwirth’s oeuvre includes a music theater treatment of the David Lynch thriller Lost Highway and an homage to pop cult figure Klaus Nomi. In 2016 the entire four-week festival will be devoted to the theme of women in music: a focus they’re titling “PrimaDonna.”

And just a few weeks ago the Metropolitan Opera announced its upcoming season.

In December 2016 the Met will present L’Amour de Loin (“Love From Afar”), a mesmerizing opera involving a medieval troubadour and obsessive love. Composed by the Finnish master Kaija Saariaho, it will mark the first time an opera by a woman composer has graced the Met’s stage since 1903. At that time, the work in question was a one-act opera with a fairy-tale setting (Der Wald), billed as a prelude to Verdi’s Il trovatore. Its creator was Ethel M. Smyth (1858-1944) an English composer and activist in women’s suffrage. Finally, both spheres to which Dame Smyth passionately devoted herself are beginning to get their due.