|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 www.oxideradio.live/behind-the-classics