Opinion: Where the women aren’t

Kelly-Marie Murphy. Photo: Alan Dean Photography

The annual battle of Ottawa’s summer classical music festivals is about to begin, but in the arena of gender equality, there’s really no winner.  Chamberfest is presenting nearly 80 concerts from July 26 to August 9 for its 25th anniversary season. But on the long list of featured composers, 15 are by women.

Meanwhile, the eighth edition of Music and Beyond, which starts July 4 and runs until the 17th, will showcase works by a dozen women among about 75 concerts.

Fifteen and 12 are better than none, but it’s nowhere near 50/50 gender parity — something the BBC Proms has committed to achieve by 2022 for new work commissions.

Earlier this year, the Proms joined more than 100 festivals worldwide in the “Keychange” pledge to increase the proportion of female artists in different musical genres. Canadian festivals that have taken the pledge include North by Northeast, Northern Lights and Rock the Shores. No Canadian classical festivals have signed the pledge.

Yes, festival programming is a game of Jenga. Guest artists don’t take requests. Audiences like hearing what they already know. But festival organizers — and their boards, and their funders — need to do better to move the dial on gender balance. There needs to be a conscious decision to program more music by women. Having more women on boards and in senior administration positions at these festivals helps. More practically, so does tying government grants and philanthropic donations to gender representation metrics.

Chamber music, with its intimate nature, has been a relatively more welcoming environment for women composers than other forms. There is certainly no lack of wonderful repertoire from the 19th and 20th centuries to choose from: Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Louise Farrenc, Cécile Chaminade, Germaine Taillefer, Lili and Nadia Boulanger, Amy Beach, and Violet Archer are just some of the better  known names, and many more deserve to be discovered. Certainly once you get to contemporary music, there can be no excuse for not including more female voices. When Chamberfest has three  concerts dedicated to “New Music Now” that don’t feature a single work by a woman, the message being sent is that it’s just not important.

So in the spirit of promoting to the concert stages more music composed by women, here are six names worth taking not of. Their work will be performed at Music and Beyond and Chamberfest this summer.

Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979): Clarke was an English violist and pioneering composer, best known for her evocative chamber music featuring her instrument of choice. Her 1919 Viola Sonata tied for first place in a competition with a piece by Ernest Bloch (many speculated that Clarke was secretly Bloch, as a woman couldn’t possibly have written anything so fine.)  Two of her works will be performed at Chamberfest: the Gryphon Trio will play her Piano Trio (July 5, 7 p.m.), while SOMA Quartet violist Catherine Gray performs the Sonata with pianist Hinrich Alpers (August 2, 1 p.m.).

Sophie Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté (1899-1974): Born in Russia, Eckhardt-Gramatté was a prodigy who trained in Paris in piano and violin, making her double début at age 11. She performed with greats such as Edwin Fischer and Stokowski before turning to composition. She settled in Winnipeg in the 1950s, becoming one of the leading Canadian composers of her era. In 1974, she founded a well-known competition in Winnipeg — still known as the E-Gré — that promotes new Canadian music alongside emerging pianists, singers and string players. Jasper Wood will perform her Caprice No. 8 for solo violin at Music and Beyond on July 9 at noon.

Julie Spencer: American marimbist and composer Julie Spencer has vastly expanded the repertoire for her instrument. Her politically timely solo work Everybody Talk About Freedom, which blends elements of funk, R&B, rap and spoken word, was commissioned by Canadian percussionist Beverley Johnston, who will perform it at Music and Beyond on July 6 at 7:30 pm.

Ana Sokolovic: Based in Montreal, Serbian-born Sokolovic is one of the most distinctive voices in Canadian contemporary music, writing music that is layered, complex, witty and nostalgic. Marc Djokic will play one of her Danze for solo violin at the same concert where you can hear the Julie Spencer composition.

Kelly-Marie Murphy: Murphy is a prolific, versatile composer based right here in Ottawa. Her output includes a huge variety of ensembles and styles, from poppy choir pieces to ambitious orchestral works. Her Quicksilver Fanfare for brass and Variations on a Theme by Mildred Hill (the American who wrote the Happy Birthday to You tune) will both be performed at the Chamberfest 25th Anniversary Mashup concert, July 29 at 7 p.m.

Alexina Louie: Louie is one of Canada’s most renowned and celebrated composers. Her wildly imaginative, virtuosic music often references the First Nations cultures of her West Coast home, as well as her own Chinese heritage. Rising young star Yolanda Bruno will play Louie’s Beyond Time for solo violin at her Music and Beyond recital, July 9 at 10 a.m.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, www.talesfromtheredchair.com. Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.