Thursday, March 08, 2018

International Women's Day: Is classical music blazing a trail?

It's International Women's Day and in the musical world it's the most exciting one yet. While protests and marches and the movements #MeToo and #TimesUp are raising awareness and causing at least the start of real shift in attitudes, the musical world seems to be going a step further - because everywhere you look, powerful organisations are making commitments to doing something positive to change this enduring societal mess once and for all.

• Today Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance unveils an ambitious plan called Venus Blazing. Essentially, they are abolishing all-male concerts.

They pledge that music by women of the past and the present will make up more than half of its concert programmes in the 2018-19 academic year. It also intends to build up an online database of composing women and expand its library to make sure the students have access to the material.

Harriet Harman is launching the programme and says: "Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance is strongly committed to diversity in all elements and it has a mission to constantly challenge the status quo. Venus Blazing is a great example of just how it can do this. It will encourage and inspire its students - many of whom will go on to shape the future of the performing arts - to engage with the historic issue of gender imbalance in music by women, and ensure that it does not continue into the next generation. I welcome this bold initiative to raise awareness of the disparity that has long existed in music and shine a light on music that has so frequently been overlooked. I am also greatly looking forward to hearing some of the musical treasures by women I might not otherwise have had the chance to hear in performance."

The programme has been spearheaded by Dr Sophie Fuller, programme leader of TLCMD's Masters programmes and author of The Pandora Guide to Women Composers: Britain and the United States, and Jonathan Tilbrook, head of orchestral studies. Sophie Fuller says: "It is widely recognised that music created by women - whatever the genre - is heard much less often than music created by men. In past centuries, it was difficult for women to find a meaningful musical education or get equal access to performance opportunities, but there have always been those who leapt over any obstacles placed in their way. We at Trinity Laban want our students and their audiences to hear their often powerful work. It is our duty to celebrate women's music, not just for one year, but to provide the structures, support and encouragement to ensure that this is a lasting legacy for all future musicians and music lovers."

Among performance highlights is Thea Musgrave's opera A Christmas Carol (December 2018), symphonies by Louise Farrenc and Grace Williams performed by the Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra, an exploration of the music of Trinity Laban alumna Avril Coleridge-Taylor (the daughter of Samuel, incidentally) and music by current Trinity Laban composition students and staff, including Soosan Lolavar, Laura Jurd and Deirdre Gribbin - whose Violin Concerto 'Venus Blazing' has given the name to this celebration.

This development really is groundbreaking, because it often looks as if it's at conservatoire level that the rot sets in.  More girls than boys take up music as children and teenagers, but that has somehow not translated into those who emerge with a high level of success in the profession. Therefore something must be going wrong in the middle.

Looking back, it strikes me that at university I was never auditioned, examined, interviewed or indeed taught by anyone who wasn't a man. My own aspirations to compose were snuffed out by the university patriarchy (or whatever it was) within one month. We never studied any pieces of music by women. The place was awash with would-be conductors, some of whom have done very well since and deservedly so - but any woman who wanted to conduct had to struggle to make headway. And was there sexual abuse going on? Oh blimey. I'm sure we used to joke about the guy who was a Handle Specialist.

So at student level everything needs attention, from the makeup of the boards (which play a larger role behind the scenes than one might realise) to the membership of the faculties to, as above, the approach to programming and role models. This does need addressing, and it needs it now.

• Today BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting 24 hours of music written by women. Every note you'll hear today was set down by a composer who was female. Listen here. Just been listening there to Francesca Caccini - fabulous stuff, sung by Ruby Hughes. Now listening: Ruth Crawford Seeger.

• This week we've already looked at the Keychange project from the PRS for Music Foundation, in which 45 international festivals have committed to 50:50 programming of music by men and women and the Proms agreed that half of all its new commissions would be by composing women.

• We've also talked to conductor Laurence Equilbey, who conducts Louise Farrenc's Symphony No.3 at the Barbican tonight with her Insula Orchestra, plus the Beethoven Triple Concerto with a dynamic trio of female soloists. I'm going along. And to Silvina Milstein, whose music is featured in the Lontano concert at King's College London tonight.

• The WOW Festival at the Southbank Centre is in full flood - the annual Mirth Control music and comedy evening, compèred by the incomparable Sandi Toksvig and conducted by Alice Farnham, is on Sunday. It's called 'Arts Over Tit'.

• Here's an important editorial from The Guardian, on the fact that promoting music by women is good for everybody because it widens the talent pool and doesn't threaten excellence but promotes it.

• Jude Kelly is leaving her post as artistic director of the Southbank Centre later in the spring to concentrate on running WOW full time. She has also introduced the WOW Women in Creative Industries Awards - the result, I understand, of the suggestion with which I went to her about four years ago, that we need awards for women in music to help blaze this trail. (Now we may also need one specifically for women in classical music.) I do think these things make a difference because they become emblems of success, helping to establish role models and being a high-profile example of what people can achieve, putting those achievements on very public display.

• Yesterday we had a fabulous day in which the Women in Music Breakfast at the Southbank Centre was attended by a huge number of women and a goodly number of men too, which is really important - if we don't get men on our side, the battle for change is impossible.

• And then an evening at the Institut Français, part of its Women Shaping the World series, in which I served as moderator to a seriously inspiring panel of conductors Claire Gibault and Alice Farnham, composer and conductor Eimear Noone and director of Harrison Parrott Lydia Connolly. The discussion went with real pizzazz. Claire told us that if we think things are bad for women conductors in Britain, we should just try France - in the UK 6 per cent of conductors represented by agents are female, but in France only 4 per cent - and that it is much more difficult to be a great musician than to be a politician (she spent 5 years as an MEP). As for being a moderator, the only snag, I discovered, is that none of us were remotely moderate. Huge thanks to the Institut Français for a smashing occasion, and wonderful cheese and wine.

Have a wonderful day, my sisters and brothers. We can do this.

Enjoy JDCMB? I write it for free, in my "spare" time. Support it here and help me do more of it.