Friday, March 30, 2018

All for love: a new orchestra sets out

The UK's newest orchestra is off on its inaugural tour on 13 April. The Pro Youth Philharmonia is the brainchild of flautist and conductor Wissam Boustany and takes in a collection of emerging musicians in their twenties and early thirties. The method, says Boustany, is a bit unusual - see logo above. I asked him to tell us more...

JD: Why is the Pro Youth Philharmonia different from other youth orchestras? Please tell us about its USPs?

WB: We are not out to be different just for its own sake… but we have set ourselves up as a training/youth/professional orchestra for emerging musicians aged 22-32 and will tour approximately three times per year. There are some very fine training and youth orchestras around, of course, but we have pinpointed quite a wide definition of ‘youth’ and ‘’professional’ for ourselves, and central to our ethos is my ‘Method Called Love’, a distillation of 30 years of teaching and performance as a flute soloist. I believe that Love elevates any deed into a transformative experience - both in the way the deed is executed and in the way it is perceived - and this in not addressed enough in institutional education and in the profession. This is what is going to light up our music as well as our audiences hearts, as well as the educational outreach programme that we are in the process of activating. 
Simple, but powerful.      

As a flute soloist born in Lebanon, I will be bringing a special focus on Middle Eastern composers and soloists, over the next years. We are bombarded with some much negativity about that part of the world - I would like to facilitate inspired links and develop cultural ties that nurture talent and build opportunities, goodwill and trust between the UK and that part of the world.

JD: How and why did the idea for it emerge?

WB: In 2015 I was invited to conduct Poulenc’s Piano Concerto “Aubade” at the Australian National Academy of Music in Melbourne. This proved to be a transformative experience for me and my wife Shermine encouraged me to pursue conducting seriously. It is all in the breathing… I have a connection my breathing is at the root of my playing and will be the foundation of my conducting. I have been studying with the astonishingly gifted conductor George Pehlivanian in Madrid (how stimulating and refreshing it has been, to study again, at age 57!!). 

This new focus on conducting has also brought up such vivid memories from my days with Claudio Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe - Claudio’s approach, the combination of his his soft-spoken nature yet devastatingly powerful conducting have left a deep mark on me… and I believe the secret to Claudio’s success was in the way he chose to work with young people through the European Union Youth Orchestra, the Mahler Youth Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe; this is how he built up his approach and his repertoire, and how he was able to preserve and nurture his musical and human passion.     

JD: How have you gone about turning the idea into reality?

WB: The simple answer: where love lives, so does empowerment and the Will to overcome.
I was lucky enough to meet Derek Warby, who had worked with EUYO and other orchestras. His knowledge and pragmatism, passion for music, understanding of the orchestral scene and the inner workings of the music industry have been invaluable. He is spearheading our campaign, as PYP fast  approaches its inaugural tour, as our Head of Marketing and Strategy (besides a lot more).

I also met Mathilde Agoustari when I performed with the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra several years ago, when she was in charge of their Public Relations… Mathilde has been really instrumental in spreading the word about PYP, as our Head of PR/Communications and Outreach. 

I have been overwhelmed by the goodwill shown by many friends, supporters and colleagues, when they heard about the orchestra and the motivation behind it. Our Trustees Hussein Dbouk and Aleksander Szram, as well as  Nicky Goulder (Create Arts) have been a great source of information, advice and encouragement.

JD: What’s been the most challenging thing about creating it?…

WB: When a project like this is being born from scratch, you have zero reputation, so the tendency is for people to wait and see the result (or whether the project will happen at all) before they commit to supporting you, financially or otherwise. The risks of starting a venture like are enormous - financially, emotionally and creatively; but I have always taught my students that you learn in direct proportion to the risks you are prepared to take; so I am humbly walking the talk. 

Luckily, Derek Warby is by my side and has a great overview of the logistical challenges that we face every step of the way; this has helped us stay on track. After this first tour, organising subsequent projects will be much easier.
JD:...And the most exciting and rewarding thing?

Boustany and furry friend
WB: I have single-handedly auditioned every single musician (69 players on this inaugural tour). The human dimension of music, after all the hard and often lonely work, is very rewarding. I have been particularly proud of the auditions, because they were designed to be as empowering and conducive to creativity as possible. Candidates chose their own repertoire and improvisation was one of the key determining factors in revealing the inner potential of the musicians. 

On a personal level, I feel that my whole body and brain are undergoing a fundamental rewiring… for 35 years I have been channelling my creativity into my flute - I am now expanding and using my body and mind in a different way, to connect with people and the great symphonic repertoire, after having vowed never to play in an orchestra again, when I stood down from Chamber Orchestra of Europe in the mid 80’s. This whole process has woken me up and I even hold my old friend, the flute, with renewed love. 

JD: How did you choose the programme for the inaugural tour? It’s wonderfully challenging.
WB: Derek and I consulted on this.

The first choice was the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. What a feast of colour, folklore and internal revelations. Emerging from dark internal depths, Bartok reaches into the external world, putting expression to the 'people's voice', revealing so much colour, optimism, sensuality and humanity - not to mention the convulsions of Nature. And what brilliant orchestration, giving each individual instrument it's voice and character, while allowing a cohesive universality to take root. 

I also love the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No 2 and am delighted that Stephanie Gonley will be our soloist… I am  seeing so many similarities with his great flute sonata. What an enigmatic combination of threat, wit, virtuosity, scintillating rhythm and utterly clever orchestration. He seems to know exactly what emotional symbolism each single instrument carries with it, which brings such colour and character to his music.

I was immediately fascinated with James MacMillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie when I heard it and thought it would balance well with the other works. MacMillan’s chosen theme of the witch-hunt, although relating to historic Scottish events, is something that I think is very relevant to our lives today, as there is always some sort of ongoing witch hunt happening in the media… it seems to be a national sport, to isolate and prey on people who don’t fit with the established and accepted norms of society.  

JD: Where will it go from here - and where would you like it to go eventually?

WB: I need to start reaching out to composers and soloists from the Middle East, and to approach the big movers and shakers to support these projects. 

I also look forward to planning our first full season of tours for  2019 and beyond. We are conceived as a touring orchestra, so I really want to develop these within the the UK and abroad. Once the next tours are set up, I will want to consolidate our educational outreach programme, so that our “Method Called Love” can run rampant among school children, while involving our PYP members in this important dimension of what the orchestra does. We plan to initiate Art & Poetry Competitions in school, so that schoolchildren can voice their feelings about the state of our world - these poems will be recited in our concerts and the paintings will become the artwork for our poster campaigns. 

JD: What is the message you want it to bring to us all?
May love prevail.

The Pro Youth Philharmonia's inaugural tour begins on 13 April at Cadogan Hall, London, then goes to the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford (14 April) and Victoria Hall, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent (15 April). More details here.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Children of the Stars

"There is no boundary of difference... different skin, different religion, or different culture - we are all children of the stars."

Here's a fascinating interview with the Korean composer Unsuk Chin, who has a major European premiere in London next week under the auspices of the Philharmonia Orchestra. She talks about her studies with György Ligeti ("He opened my eyes and my mind"), her compositional processes ("I need 3-4 years to get the idea clear") and the blend of science and art that has gone into this huge new work. She collected 150 poems first and finally selected 12-13 variously about the birth of the universe, humanity and eternity.

The resulting different songs/movements span centuries and continents, all of them exploring the idea that we are, essentially and all of us, the substance that comes from a star. Chin says here that she reads about astronomy every day and that it brings her "hope in this world". It's an optimistic work. "My dream is to perform this piece with mixed north and south Korean boys' choir - I don't know if it will be possible, but I have hope."

Is it the Big Bang? "Not that big," Chin smiles, "but I wanted to create...a very big sound with lots of power..."

Unsuk Chin's Le chant des Infants des Etoiles (The Song of the Children of the Stars) receives its European premiere on 15 April at the Royal Festival Hall, with the Philharmonia, the Philharmonia Voices and Trinity Boys Choir conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Tickets here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

And a nice long draught from the Glyndebourne Opera Cup

Samantha Hankey, winner of the Glyndebourne Opera Cup, with Dame Janet Baker
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

You've heard about the journey home, so now here is a view from the inside on the Thing Itself, i.e. the brand-new Glyndebourne Opera Cup. I've written about it for The Arts Desk and you can find it here:


I was on a panel of six critics convened to choose the winner of a special ‘media award’ at the Glyndebourne Opera Cup on Saturday evening. What follows is therefore not a review, but rather a chance to chew over the concept and its highs and occasional lows. And you may be intrigued to hear that our panel and the main jury picked the exact same top three winners.

From its first season in 1934, Glyndebourne has been inextricably associated with the music of Mozart. Having decided to devote every edition of its new contest to the works of just one composer, Wolfgang Amadeus was therefore the natural choice for the inaugural event. Mozart suits young voices, as the competition’s founder, ex-Glyndebourne CEO Sebastian Schwarz, pointed out (all the finalists were aged 21-28). But also, as any professional musician will tell you, his music is the ultimate challenge. There’s nowhere to hide. His writing is so streamlined, precise and exposed that if performers are able to draw out its subtle shadings of meaning, with gorgeous tone and sincere emotional expression, you know about it fast. And if they don’t, you know about that too. It’s magic hidden in a minefield...

Read the rest here (£).

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Monday, March 26, 2018

Many a slip 'twixt opera cup, East Croydon

On Saturday night I was honoured to be a member of a media panel, six critics convened to select the winner of a special award in the Glyndebourne Opera Cup. It was a wonderful event, and nice to see the gardens in early spring for a change, full of daffodils and primroses. Describing us and our task, presenter Chris Addison quipped: "That must be a fun room." You better believe it, buster - we were tucking into our sandwiches very happily, and reached exactly the same conclusion as the chief jury, but in a fraction of the time. We gave our media prize to the lovely American mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey, who also emerged with overall first prize. I'm writing a full account of the evening at the moment and will post a link as soon as it goes live. 

What follows now is what followed.

Unfortunately Southern Trains had decided to do weekend engineering works that day, so the Lewes line was closed south of Three Bridges. The press office kindly agreed to provide the five of us who needed transport with a large taxi to and from Three Bridges station. 

Coming back afterwards, large taxi is late, but eventually turns up driven by cheerful if charmingly dim cabby, who treats us to a CD of Christian devotional songs from the 1970s twice through. After three hours of unadulterated Mozart, it's briefly refreshing; we could, of course, use some silence, but politely do not object. At some point the critic of the Financial Times notes quietly: "This journey feels longer than the one on the way down, doesn't it?" 

He's not wrong. "Oh," says cabby, "I missed the turning. Sorry 'bout that..." We go round a roundabout in a concrete wasteland for a second time, take a bumbly right turn across a carriageway on which a maniac is speeding towards us at what looks like 95mph, and pull up outside...Crawley station. But we don't want Crawley - the trains crawl. We want Three Bridges, whence trains go lickety-split to Victoria via Clapham Junction, and it's very nearby. Indeed, it's round the corner. There were signposts to it. Cheerful cabby can't find it. "Uh, that's where the satnav sent me... Dunno why I did that... I think it's just down here, let's go round this roundabout again." 

We do. We turn right. "Oh whoops, I think this was the wrong one..." - and, boing, we're back on the M23, with no turnoff before Gatwick, 'Amazing Grace' blaring out. One of us suggests going to Gatwick instead - it's only a mile away and there are more trains. We head for Gatwick... find that the motorway exit, bless its cotton socks, is closed for roadworks. There isn't another for many miles. The deputy editor of Opera Magazine discovers on Google Maps that it will now take 26 minutes to get to Gatwick, despite it being 1 mile away, and it's only 3 mins longer to drive to East Croydon... 

Cheerful cabby, eye on meter, agrees to take us to the latter, as we can't turn round now in any case. A few miles up the A23 by a traffic light, there's a sign to Coulsdon station. Taxi screeches to halt: "Is it that station you mean?" No. The name's Croydon. East Croydon. 

We trundle through the backwoods of Surrey, which are quite extensive, to South Croydon. "Is it that station there?" No. That one's South Croydon. It's only just down the road from....

Full credit to the deputy arts editor of The Times, who is in the front seat, asserts his authority, finds the right turnoff and navigates us safely to East Croydon at long last.

Moral: never underestimate a bunch of music critics. And if your cabby puts on a playlist of devotional songs from the 1970s, exit the cab at once. Don't wait. Run. 

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Thursday, March 22, 2018

"Hello? LSO here. Can you conduct us today?"

One conductor's plane delayed in a snowstorm is another's....opportunity. Not that the snow helps. Last Sunday George Jackson was home and looking forward to a well-earned day off when all of a sudden the phone rang. Next thing he knew, he was dealing with a clutch of brand-new scores, cancelled Ubers and a banana case...

George Jackson faces the music
Photo: Brian Hatton

A guest post by George Jackson

Sunday morning.  It’s 6:30, and for some reason, I am wide awake. 

I have just spent a week on tour with the Orchestre de Paris, where I have been Daniel Harding’s assistant: Cologne, Dortmund, Luxembourg, and Brussels.  The week before that, my first Schumann Symphony No.4 with the Transylvanian Philharmonic in Cluj; the week before that, the first leg of the OdP tour, at ‘home’ in Paris, and then in Vienna.

I was grateful for my first full day off in three weeks: Sunday lunch planned with a couple of schoolmates, followed by the new Ricky Gervais show on Netflix.  Bliss!

I manage to doze back off at around 7:30am, but was woken by my phone ringing at 8:21am.  Unusual, I thought, for a Sunday morning…

The previous day, I'd had the pleasure of conducting the premiere of Jasmin Kent Rodgman’s ‘The Letter’ at LSO St Luke’s, as part of the Barbican’s ‘Open Ear’ Festival.  A Jerwood Foundation composer, Jasmin curated an inspiring afternoon featuring performances by the best of London’s spoken word community, culminating in the premiere of her own piece with Salena Godden’s poetry and a quartet of LSO musicians. During the break, I had jokingly quipped to a colleague: ‘Let’s hope Francois-Xavier Roth’s plane takes off tomorrow morning...’.  One of the LSO St. Luke’s plasma screens was advertising Sunday’s Panufnik Composers’ Workshop, where eight brand-new pieces would be publicly workshopped with the orchestra.

As my ringtone echoed into the slumber, I realized how cold it was.  Which means snow.  Which in the UK (and, incidentally, Frankfurt) means travel chaos… 

I answered about three octaves lower than usual.  Natalia, the LSO’s artist development associate projects manager, greeted me with her chirpy and friendly tone (she had managed the Jerwood project too).  ‘Morning George!  It’s Natalia at the LSO.  Francois-Xavier’s plane has been temporarily grounded in Frankfurt.  Do you fancy coming in and starting the session this morning?  How far away are you?  Can you get here?’  

The slow-motion realisation of what this meant dawned upon me: the chance to spend the morning with one of the world’s finest orchestras, conducting music by the most talented young composers in the UK.  ‘Yes. I’m at home in Hanwell. Can you email me pdfs of the scores? What’s the dress code?’

I scramble around: batons are still in my bag from yesterday; I throw on the only non-creased shirt I can find, some jeans, the nearest shoes.  I make an espresso, but then ignore it, since the adrenaline buzz is already doing the coffee’s work.  An Uber is ordered: ‘Driver completing journey nearby’.  It could take up to 18 minutes…..

I risk it, thinking that if the Uber arrives at 9am, with a 40-minute drive to Old Street, I should have a little bit of time to run through the PDFs at the piano at home, before looking at hard copies in the conductor’s room. 


Sunnier times in Bolzano...

At 8:50am, Uber cancels the order – there are no drivers available. 

I call two minicab companies with no luck.  The third one answers and can send a car in 15 minutes.  9:05, so I should get to Old Street at 9:45.  Great.

I attempt to find some last-minute sustenance, and eat all that I can find in the house: a square of Dairy Milk, three Jacobs’ cream crackers and two Trebor mints.  I call Natalia: ‘Please can you leave a banana in the conductor’s room?’  I am incredibly grateful for this later on.

The taxi driver clearly thinks I am mad.  I tell him that it is an emergency, and can he race through London (he agrees, and does a wonderful job).  I spend the next 40 minutes roughly ‘conducting’ my way through the scores, metronome app open in one hand.  Yes, he thinks I am mad.  No time to think about that.

I am now informed that Francois-Xavier’s ETA is 11:15am, which means I will definitely be working on the first two pieces of the day: Grace-Evangeline Mason’s Beneath the Silken Silence and Han Xu’s Buddha Holds the Flower.  I focus on these two, identify a list of questions for each composer, and make sure I can at least work my way through any tempo and metrical changes.  Does ‘the new minim is the previous crotchet’ mean that I should just stay in 2?  Those sorts of questions.  The things that Simon Rattle likes to call ‘dental hygiene’.

We arrive at the Old Street roundabout.  The friendly driver, for some reason, misses the turn off for St. Luke’s, so we have another go round the roundabout.  Just to keep the adrenaline running.

I race out the car, get to the conductor’s room, and thank Natalia for the banana - which comes in a rather dashing banana-shaped plastic case.  The scores are there, and I race through, underlining, highlighting, making notes.

I have a couple of very welcome visitors to the conductor’s room before we start.  The LSO’s managing director, Kathryn McDowell, says a friendly hello and wishes me luck, and Colin Matthews, who is mentoring the composers, pops in for a quick chat: he gives me a few invaluable bits of advice about the two pieces, and describes how the workshop will run, as a form of public conversation between myself on the podium, principal second violin David Alberman, and the composer in the hot seat.

At 9:59am, the orchestral manager knocks on the door.

Time to go and face the music….

Winner of the 2015 Aspen Conducting Prize, London-born conductor George Jackson came to attention after stepping in at short notice with the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducting the Austrian premiere of Michael Jarrell’s Ombres. Highlights in 2018 include his company debut in Opera Holland Park’s new production of Così Fan Tutte. Recent and forthcoming highlights include his Hamburg State Opera debut conducting the premiere of Immer weiter by Irene Galindo Quero and Jesse Boekman, and concerts with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and the Haydn Orchestra di Bolzano e Trento.
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Friday, March 16, 2018

The age of age?

A century and still running? Several things have happened in the last few weeks that seem to add up to more than the sum of their random parts. These are they:

Debussy in 1908
1. The centenary of Debussy's death has sparked so many recordings, concerts, etc, that it looks as if he's more popular than I thought. Debussy is wonderful, amazing, original, seminal, groundbreaking, crucial, one of the all-time geniuses, etc, yet I've never thought of him as either a special audience draw, like Mozart, or a media-friendly dead-celebrity type, like Stravinsky (who pinched lavishly from him). But the CD releases have been hitting my desk at the rate of several a week, a nice big new book has already emerged, and it's still only the middle of March. What conclusion to draw? Debussy is super-duper-popularoony after all? Or: take a centenary, any centenary, jump aboard and expect to watch sales soar? Forgive me if I sound cynical, but this is 100 years, and 100 years is, nowadays, in living memory.

2. At the Institut Français discussion on Equality and Conductors last week, the French conductor Claire Gibault remarked that she thought the next big equality to tackle would be that of age. In a time in which everyone is hungry for the next bright young star to come along, older artists - well known or 'emerging' - can find themselves having a hard time, passed over despite having much to offer in terms of experience and wisdom. I have come across individuals (whether in person or sounding fed up on Twitter) attempting to pursue musical paths in later life, finding everything skewed against them. We forget sometimes that people develop at their own paces, and not always by choice: if you peak at 16 you may be forgotten by 56, or if your life gets in the way early on, your artistry may be waiting for a chance to shine through later. By the time you start to make the lemonade out of the lemons life has given you, other people may assume mistakenly that you are too old to know how much sugar to put in, adding insult to injury... We recommend they taste the lemonade before deciding.

3. Today there breaks news that the actress Olivia de Havilland, aged 101, is suing the makers of the TV series Feud, about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, for misrepresenting her. More here. De Havilland is the last surviving star of the 1930s golden age of Hollywood (and was, indeed, leading lady in a number of Korngold movies - apparently the composer rather took her under his wing when she appeared, very, very young, in Max Reinhardt's film of A Midsummer Night's Dream). She is quite right to speak up. Why should she not, just because she is 101? She is quoted as saying: "I feel strongly about it because when one person’s rights can be trampled on this way, the rights of others who are more vulnerable can be abused as well." What a heroine.

4. The pianist Marjan Kiepura has got in touch with news that it is now possible to listen to recordings by his mother, the legendary soprano Marta Eggerth (1912-2013), on Youtube, in a release of 43 numbers entitled My Life, My Song (it's also available on CD). These recordings were made as early as 1936 and as recently as 2002 when the Hungarian-born operetta star was 90. In some, Eggerth and her husband Jan Kiepura (Korngold's original tenor in Das Wunder der Heliane) sing together, in the mid 1950s. In others, Marjan accompanies his mother in beautifully paced Chopin songs. The voice changes, of course, but to hear Eggerth across some 70 years is to hear beyond the surface sound and delve into the underlying artistry that is conveyed by that sound through the decades. Here are some samples:

What is the linking factor in all these events? It's not just age - it's our attitude to it. Really we ought to be ashamed of ourselves, especially as we have these days an ageing population. Think about this a moment: our composers are producing music at three times Schubert's final age, or more. Elliott Carter was still composing at 100, Dutilleux into his nineties, Birtwistle and Gubaidulina are still going strong in their eighties. I'm not going to list the conductors or soloists, but you don't have to look far to find them. But isn't it strange that we celebrate the anniversaries later, rather than appreciating these individuals strongly enough when they're still with us?

Here's Mieczyslaw Horszowski in 1986, in his 90s, playing the Franck Prelude, Chorale and Fugue. I remember hearing him play it that year at Aldeburgh and have never forgotten how bowled over I was as it emerged almost as a mystical holy trinity, a three-in-one creation of utterly luminous intensity. 

It's wonderful that Debussy's anniversary is big-time. It's great that we're celebrating Bernstein's centenary so lavishly this year. But Bernstein is dead. What about the venerable artists who are still alive? Shouldn't we celebrate them while they're here? And why wait until they're 100? How much fine musicianship, creativity, insight, empathy and excellence are we missing out on if we judge people by their birthdays? 

Above all, Marta Eggerth's singing is proof, if it were needed, that though the body may age inevitably, the soul only ages if we let it, and we don't have to.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Deeds, Not Words: a guest post by Zerlina Vulliamy

Music student Zerlina Vulliamy was playing the trumpet in the WOW Women of the World Women's Orchestra on Sunday in the annual Mirth Control concert at the RFH, presented by Sandi Toksvig. She was so inspired by the occasion that she wanted to write about it. I couldn't be there myself this time, annoyingly, so I am very grateful to her for covering it for us. 'Mirth Control' is part of the Southbank Centre's year-round work to give a platform to female musicians, artists and more. JD

Sandi and the WOW Orchestra

Deeds Not Words
By Zerlina Vulliamy

I am a self-confessed hypocrite. I realised this on Sunday 11 March, when playing the trumpet as part of the Women of the World Orchestra in the ‘Mirth Control’ event at the Royal Festival Hall, conducted by Alice Farnham. The orchestra was about to play a piece by the British composer Elisabeth Lutyens, titled ‘Overture (En Voyage)’, but before this, the presenter Sandi Toksvig informed the audience of the difficulty the orchestra manager experienced trying to get the score and parts of this music. After contacting many publishers, archives and libraries she finally managed to track it down and distribute the parts to those of us in the orchestra. However, this was on the harsh condition that they were to be used for one performance only and had to be destroyed afterwards. Naturally, those of us on stage and in the audience expressed concern at such a tragedy – first, that the work of an excellent composer was so difficult to find, but also that it might be never be performed again. Sandi herself strongly called on all of us to support this cause of the forgotten women composers, a message that featured prevalently throughout the evening.

Jude Kelly, the WOW Orchestra and some inspiration
Yet whilst I was sitting there, thinking about how limited the representation of women in the arts still is, I suddenly realised that I too was contributing, without realising, to this archaic canon which consists entirely of male composers. I present a weekly show on music called Behind the Classics at the University of Oxford’s student radio station, and I thought I was helping the cause by dedicating an entire episode to raising awareness of relatively unknown female musicians such as Mel Bonis and Melba Liston for International Women’s Day. Yet I too have unknowingly contributed to the tradition of playing music entirely by men in a few episodes. 

This is ridiculous when you think about it, seeing as women make up half the population and there are millions of female musicians throughout history to the present, all with music worth playing to an audience. And yet, because of the music I have been exposed to throughout my life, whether it be classical, jazz, hip hop or others, at the time it seemed normal not to feature a single woman in an episode.

The RFH is decked for the occasion
Well, to quote the slogan appearing on red carpets recently: time’s up. As Sandi Toksvig said herself at ‘Mirth Control’ - it seems absurd that still, in 2018, women are so under-represented in the arts, as well as other fields. She showed the audience many slides which projected shocking statistics, such as the percentages of women composers and conductors who featured at the 2017 BBC Proms, which was 7.5% and 11% respectively. Tragically, women have often been discouraged throughout history from picking up a pen and writing, or from standing on a podium and conducting. 

Perhaps the important work being done by the WOW festival, which encourages women to strive for success in all fields across the globe, will help rectify the situation. The WOW Orchestra consists entirely of excellent women who are students, young professionals or amateurs; we were also joined by the Voicelab choir, conducted by Jessie Maryon Davies for this event. The music that featured was by a large host of female composers such as Dame Ethel Smyth’s ‘Serenade in D’, Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ and ‘Revolution’ featuring Josette Bushell-Mingo’s stunning vocals and the song ‘What’s Up’ by 4 Non Blondes.

From my own perspective, it was truly an inspiring night, with some hilariously memorable moments such as Sandi’s masterclass with Marin Alsop, or the conducting relay where students of Alice Farnham’s ‘Women Conductors with the Royal Philharmonic Society’ had the chance to conduct the orchestra for a few bars each. The perfect balance was cast between humour and more earnest moments, such as the profound words Jude Kelly, the founder of WOW and Artistic Director of the Southbank, had to say about her own rather difficult past of being a prominent woman in the arts. Yet more importantly, she proved herself to be an inspiring figure when talking passionately about how optimistic she was for the future. 

Some more of the hand-stitched banners
This message must have been powerful to those in the audience, looking at the huge number of women on stage (over 300) against the backdrop of 50 hand-stitched banners, each inspired by historic Suffragette posters. As a female brass player myself, one of the most empowering moments of the night was playing the ‘Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman’ by Joan Tower, with the brass section of the WOW Orchestra, conducted by Alice Farnham. More often than not I have been the only woman in an all-male brass section, hence why it was most refreshing to play in such a fantastic section made up entirely of women. I hope it proved to those who were watching that women fundamentally deserve equality in music, and perhaps inspired young girls out there to pick up a brass instrument.

After a brilliant evening, there was certainly a positive buzz in the foyer afterwards. Sandi Toksvig managed to leave us all in good spirits, with a fundamental message of hope: that raising awareness is the next step. To quote the slogan of the brave Suffragettes, who achieved a measure of equality exactly 100 years ago with the Representation of the People Act (which gave the vote to men over 21 and women over 30 who owned property), we need ‘Deeds Not Words’. 

So to anyone reading this, I urge you to do something to try and raise the profile of all the wonderful women composers out there, whether it be attending concerts run by organisations who have pledged a 50/50 balance or even by word of mouth – talking about women composers will not only put their names in people’s minds but also will hopefully encourage publishers and concert programmers to promote them to a place where equality exists. I myself will do what I can but the more there are devoted to the cause, the better. To quote Jude Kelly, if you can do anything to promote women musicians: “Pass It On”!

Zerlina Vulliamy, 19, is a writer, broadcaster, trumpeter/singer and composer from London. She is currently in her first year studying Music at the University of Oxford where she produces and presents a weekly radio show on music called Behind the Classics on Oxide Radio: all episodes are available at