Vienna Music Festival says ‘no more excuses’ for inequality

In classical music, progress on gender equality appears to be extremely slow.

Recent major victories include allowing women in the New York Philharmonic to perform in pants and appointing the second woman ever to serve as music director of one of the 25 largest symphony orchestras in the United States. The Berlin Philharmonic, one of the world’s greatest orchestras, hired its first female concertmaster last year.

Frustrated by the stubborn gender imbalance in classical music, directors of Vienna’s prestigious festival Wiener Festwochen this year launched the Second Modernist Academy, a program that will showcase the work of 50 female and non-binary composers over five years .

According to a report by Donne, Women in Music, an organization dedicated to equity in the classical music industry, less than 8% of the approximately 16,000 works performed by 111 orchestras around the world this season were written by women. of. The vast majority of these works were created by white women.

According to the report, three of the 10 orchestras with the highest proportion of female performers are from the United States: the American Composers Orchestra in New York, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the National Philharmonic Orchestra in North Bethesda, Maryland. Only about 10% of the music of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the two top symphony orchestras in the United States, is composed by women.

“There are so many of us,” said Bushra El-Turk, a British-Lebanese composer who often blends Western and Eastern musical traditions in her works. “Whether we get a chance or not is the question.”

El-Turk is one of 10 composers joining the Second Modernist School this year. On Saturday and Sunday, the orchestra’s original composition will be performed by the Vienna Klangforum Chamber Orchestra, entitled “No Excuses Anymore I and II”. Turk’s opera “Women at Zero Point,” a lament for women’s struggles, was also performed at the Vienna Music Festival last month.

The Arnold Schoenberg Center, dedicated to the modernist composer and his contemporaries, will provide space for some of the initiative’s activities.

“From Schoenberg’s time to today, we have had many initiatives, we have talked about emancipation and inclusion,” said Milo Rau, director of the Vienna Festival. But he added that little had changed.

This year, the festival received 13.6 million euros (approximately $14.8 million) from the Vienna government, and “with the privilege of all these funds that we have, the possibilities are great to really change the system,” Rau said. “That’s what public money can do.”

Ten Second Modernist School composers will take part in the two-day summit, which will include representatives from the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, the African Women’s Orchestra and the Grand Theater of Geneva, among others. They plan to produce a joint document (or a statement) outlining steps to achieve equity in classical music.

“We don’t want to have another group discussion without any changes,” said Jana Beckmann, the leader of the initiative. Beckman said she would like to see agencies commit to “concrete steps towards structural change” and would like to bring people from different countries and different parts of the industry together to create sustainable change and maintain accountability.

Mary Ellen Kitchens, a board member of the German Archive of Women and Music, is helping to draft the declaration. “We’re also looking at focusing on programming more contemporary music,” Kitchens said. “Then the chances of achieving more equality or diversity are much greater.”

One reason for persistent inequality in classical music seems to be that living composers are often marginalized by their long-dead predecessors. According to Donne’s “Women in Music” report, about 80% of the works performed by symphony orchestras around the world this season were composed by deceased white men such as Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

Beckman said those in charge of music programming are focused on the idea that “audiences want to see the canon.” But, she added, they need to ask themselves: “How do we engage audiences and invite them to new experiences?”

Vienna’s classical music scene, one of the most famous in the world, has long been particularly unfair. The Vienna Philharmonic did not offer auditions to women until 1997, and today, only 17% of its members are women. In 2011, the orchestra hired its first female concertmaster, the most senior member of the orchestra.

According to Donne’s Women in Music report, during the most recent season, not one of the 69 works performed by the Vienna Philharmonic was written by a woman or person of color. The orchestra’s New Year’s Eve concert, a popular event watched live by millions this year, has never been conducted by a female conductor.

Du Yun, a New York-born Chinese composer and member of the Second Modernist School, said some institutions seemed afraid to introduce new composers for fear of erasing heavyweight composers from previous centuries.

“When people are scared, sometimes they think we exist to bring down everything, to bring down white people, to bring down Beethoven,” Du said. “But I cried for Beethoven. Bach is one of my favorite composers. Why are children in Shanghai not afraid of Bach, but audiences in Vienna are afraid of children in Shanghai?”

Monthhati Masebe, a South African composer and one of the first 10 members of the initiative, said it was a mistake to view classical music as a strictly Western tradition.

“The birth of classical music as a genre has impacted people around the world, and there are many examples of classical composers across the African continent and various diasporas,” Masebe said. “Music has always crossed borders.”

The international appeal and influence of classical music is evident in the backgrounds of the composers selected in the first round of the Second Modernist Academy, who hail from countries such as Turkey, Iran, Belarus and the Philippines.

El-Turk says that in addition to a love of classical music, the group is united by its mission: “We all seem to care about making a change and giving a voice to those who don’t have a voice.”

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