Minnesota Orchestra Champions Women Composers In New Season: ‘We Are Changing The Conversation’

Jenna Ross
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Women wrote just 1.3 percent of the music performed by 85 major American orchestras during the 2016-17 season. The Minnesota Orchestra is breaking barriers by helping to change those stats.


The Minnesota Orchestra will kick off its next season with something still rare for symphony orchestras, a piece written by a woman.

At a time when critics and audiences are knocking the country’s top orchestras for programs devoid of women, the state’s symphony orchestra will perform five works by female composers during the 2018-19 subscription series.

At this time last year, that number was zero.

“We are changing the conversation, internally,” said Kenneth Freed, a violist who co-chairs the orchestra’s artistic advisory committee. “We are still charged with Beethoven, Mahler and Dvorak. There’s no question: We’re not going to forsake that. This is a both/and proposition.”

Women wrote just 1.3 percent of the music performed by 85 major American orchestras during the 2016-17 season, a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra survey shows. But they penned 7 percent of the works so far announced for the Minnesota Orchestra’s flagship series next season.

There’s a symphony by Florence Price, who in 1933 became the first black woman to have her music played by a major American orchestra. A piece that acclaimed Twin Cities composer Libby Larsen wrote for the Minnesota Orchestra in 1984: “Symphony: Water Music.” And, at the season’s start, “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman,” by pioneering composer Joan Tower.

“When I saw they were opening the season with Joan Tower, I actually teared up,” said Emily Hogstad, a Twin Cities classical music blogger. “I hadn’t realized how meaningful and inspiring that representation would be to me as a female audience member and subscriber and donor.”

The upcoming season also spotlights American music in a three-week festival. Music director Osmo Vanska will conduct, and then record, Mahler’s Seventh and Tenth Symphonies. The orchestra will play more than a dozen works it never has before, including a world premiere.

In addition to those featured in the flagship classical series, other series, including “Inside the Classics,” also highlight works by women. The season’s strides are the result of a new model within the orchestra, said Freed, a member of the viola section since 1998. After the orchestra returned from its tour of Cuba, in 2015, “we took a look at ourselves as if we were in outer space,” he said. They asked: “Who are we as an organization?”

Planning a season starts three to four years in advance. Musicians work with CEO Kevin Smith, music director Vanska and members of the artistic and marketing staff to pick pieces, soloists and guest conductors. Lately, they’ve been asking those guest conductors to feature women and composers of color.

“The rap on what we do is that it’s really dead white guys,” Freed said. “When you start to think about what are your values, it becomes a very different kind of conversation.”

Despite increasing pressure, symphony orchestras are still announcing seasons devoid of female composers. Recently, both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra unveiled new subscription series with zero works by women.

A year ago, when the Minnesota Orchestra unveiled its current season, a classical music host in Los Angeles tweeted the breakdown: “Music by 40 different composers. Men: 40. Women: 0.”

Those numbers didn’t include the emerging composers featured in the orchestra’s Future Classics concert, part of its flagship subscription series, because those names are announced later in the season. After a weeklong professional training program with the American Composers Forum in November, seven composers had their works conducted by Vanska. Two were women.

Next season, the orchestra will play a composition by a graduate of that training program: “These Worlds in Us,” by Missy Mazzoli.

“That was really the piece that launched my career,” she said by phone recently. Mazzoli, 37, was in her mid-20s, with “17 day jobs and no money,” when she came to the Twin Cities in 2006 for the orchestra’s Composer Institute.

When the Minnesota Orchestra played her piece, just months after it was premiered by the Yale Philharmonia, “there was a sense … that these works are being taken seriously, and these composers are being treated as professionals,” she said. “It can be life-changing. It certainly was for me.”

Mazzoli fell in love with orchestral music after seeing the Philadelphia Orchestra on class trips. So when that orchestra announced a season without a single female composer, she tweeted her frustration. “It’s a slap in the face,” said Mazzoli, who co-founded the Luna Composition Lab, which matches aspiring teen composers with mentors.

She said she understands that “symphony orchestras focus their (repertoire) on romantic and classical works, and that for hundreds of years women have been excluded from this industry.” So Mazzoli doesn’t expect that, overnight, half the works played will be by women. But they should be commissioning new works by women so that, in another 100 years, “we’re not still at zero,” she said.

Hogstad’s blog, Song of the Lark, regularly spotlights important women in classical music. “As the history was written, the contributions of these women were often ignored,” she said. A longtime fan of the Minnesota Orchestra, Hogstad has been “disappointed” by the dearth of women composers in their subscription series. But recently, she praised the orchestra for the number and placement of pieces in the upcoming season. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” she said.

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