Conductor Gemma New
Conductor Gemma New will lead the Classical Music Institute's Feb. 23, 2019, program. Credit: Courtesy / Rob Carter

That the Classical Music Institute’s “Year of the Woman” 2018-19 season program did not start out as a deliberate homage to women in classical music might be a sign of real progress in gender equality.

The program grew “organically” to include 12 female composers, six female instrumentalists, and one female conductor, said Paul Montalvo, artistic director of the Classical Music Institute (CMI).

“I’ve been thinking about a lot of these pieces for many many years. I felt they were important to present at some point,” he said of several compositions by women to be performed throughout the upcoming season.

Along the way, with the help of several “incredible women in the industry,” such as conductor Gemma New, he said, he learned of more specific works he thought the ensemble should play, including compositions by Clara Schumann and Alyssa Weinberg. New has conducted the CMI ensemble previously, and will lead the Feb. 23, 2019, program featuring Parallels by Weinberg, and Concerto for Cello and Strings by Dobrinka Tabakova, among other works.

In an era when political and social movements like #MeToo are bringing women’s issues to the fore, the dearth of female composers and conductors in concert halls remains a problem.

Greatly Outnumbered

According to a National Public Radio report, the 2018-19 season programs of the Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cleveland orchestras together include exactly one female composer, Pulitzer prize winner Jennifer Higdon, among nearly 150 males.

In comparison, the San Antonio Symphony’s 2018-19 season includes works by two female composers, Anna Clyne and Higdon, with guest conductors Akiko Fujimoto and Jeannette Sorrell leading the orchestra for performances in November and February, respectively. Assistant conductor Noam Aviel leads the orchestra’s six Pops series concerts throughout the season.

In four concert programs at various venues, CMI will perform works by Clara Schumann, Weinberg, Tabakova, Galina Ustvolskaya, and Grazyna Bacewicz, a 20th-century Polish composer whom Montalvo described as “vastly and sadly unknown.”

For the first time next year, CMI will include its Summer Education Program concerts in its season-ticket package. Those concerts will include works by Fanny Mendelssohn, Dora Pejacevic, Amy Beach, Joan Tower, Teresa Carreño, Vitezslava Kapralova, and Louise Farrenc, among others.

Montalvo insists that the work of female composers is not hard to find. “Not if you’re willing to search,” he said.

The Kapralova Society is an excellent resource, he said, with literally hundreds of female composers and conductors listed on the organization’s website, including links for further research.

Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn are among the many names listed there, both overshadowed by their more famous family members, husband Robert and brother Felix, during their lifetimes. Yet Fanny Mendelssohn composed 460 pieces of music, and Clara Schumann was a highly regarded pianist, while her own compositions were largely ignored, Montalvo said.

Clara Schumann
Clara Schumann Credit: Courtesy / Classical Music Institute – San Antonio

“When we think of women in classical music, present and past, I think we tend to be more comfortable with them as artists, as soloists,” he said.

“Clara and Fanny were incredible musicians,” Montalvo said. “But when it comes to her compositions, they aren’t viewed with as much respect. So maybe it’s the composition and conductor side, being leaders, that patriarchal society felt uncomfortable with.”

Singing the Unsung

In every piece of music that CMI performs this season, audiences will be able to access universal meanings and feelings beyond the place, time and gender of the composers, he said.

“You’ll feel that there’s something there that deserves to be heard, and not only once, but deserves to be heard repeatedly,” just like works by the predominant male composers of the classical canon, he said.

In fact, Montalvo questioned whether the omission of female composers from standard classical programming might account for the widespread struggles of many orchestras.

“There’s a certain group of pieces that are always played,” he said, citing Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, and other popular composers. To venture outside that canon of 100 or so pieces, he said, “takes a lot of guts, because people right away are going to say … you’re not going to sell tickets. Well, tell me then, why are so many orchestras struggling, performing those composers all the time?”

Familiarity is not the key to enjoying classical music, Montalvo said. Some of CMI’s most popular concerts have featured the music of living composers such as Arvo Pärt, JP Jofre, John Adams, and Leonardo Balada.

“As great as the greatest works in the classical canon are, if you do Beethoven’s Fifth [Symphony] every year, slowly people become blasé to it,” he said. From the beginning of CMI, formerly the Chamber Orchestra of San Antonio, Montalvo said the goal has been “to present music that we felt was unsung, that we felt deserved to be heard.”

He is particularly looking forward to hearing the Tabakova Concerto performed live, he said, as well as the Ustvolskaya Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra and Timpani played on the 100th anniversary of her birth, June 7-8, 2019, in the Carlos Alvarez Theater at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

Ustvolskaya was a noted student of Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich, but created “a sound world unto her own. When you hear that music, you know it’s her,” Montalvo said.

The CMI season begins Sept. 22 with Salon Séance at 7:30 p.m. at the University of the Incarnate Word Concert Hall. Other “Year of the Woman” season performances are Divine Transformations, Feb. 23, 2019; Devotion and Resilience on March 30, 2019; and Novae: Brilliant Dissidents, June 7-8, 2019. Check the CMI website for location and ticketing information.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...