Ravel. Bartók. Frank.
Gabriela Lena Frank remembers well what it was like, as a young composer, to have one of her pieces paired with the work of musical giants.
“I felt daunted then,” she says. “And it was my father who said, ‘You shouldn’t feel daunted. Look at this: Frank, and Ravel, and Bartók. Look, your name is with them. And that should be inspiring.’ That changed me forever.”
Seeing her name on a program with famous composers from history may have been new. But being in the company of male composers—and white male composers at that? That was the status quo. Coming of age in the 1990s, she never had a woman composition teacher in school. Nor did she have a composition teacher of color.
“When you talk about being a woman, women’s rights, you also have to talk about race,” she says. “The fact that I was a woman of color, often the only one in the music school and/or the department during my years of training, was something that was always a challenge. There would be times when I felt that I was qualified for something but I would not be selected because I didn’t look like what a composer in a European art tradition should look like. And my response to that was to just work harder.
“Nowadays, there’s so much more conversation about what it means to be of color, or to be a woman, to be disabled, to be trans,” she says, “and it’s really as a result of this kind of discussion that the industry is following.”
As the new composer-in-residence for The Philadelphia Orchestra’s current season and beyond, Frank is a linchpin of WomenNOW, the Orchestra’s multi-faceted programming initiative designed to put female artists in what Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin calls “their rightful place at center stage—as conductors, as composers, and as soloists.”
“This is a celebration of women innovators and creators,” said President and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky in announcing WomenNOW as a major “pillar” of the Orchestra’s 120th season. “We’re delighted that women’s music features so significantly on our season.”
“This is a great moment,” says Yannick. “I want to make it clear that this a new commitment for the future. That every Philadelphia Orchestra season should be the reflection of the diverse and beautiful communities that we represent.”
“Diversity is key. Whether it be diversity of opinion, heritage, or gender,” says composer Valerie Coleman, whose world premiere work launches WomenNOW. The Orchestra commissioned a symphonic expansion of her Afro-Cuban inspired Umoja—meaning “unity” in Swahili—for opening weekend. “Many women composers who have come before wrote thought-provocative works that challenged standard convention, with a greatness not fully realized until people were ready to listen.”
Frank says The Philadelphia Orchestra has been listening—and providing opportunities for women composers. The seeds for her current residency were planted eight years ago, when she was commissioned to compose a new work for Yannick’s inaugural season in 2012. After giving the world premiere of Concertino Cusqueño in Philadelphia, Yannick took the piece to Carnegie Hall, Saratoga, and on tour to Asia, in addition to programming it on one of the Orchestra’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Tribute Concerts.
Frank’s voice is a powerful one. Female, yes, but she’s also, in her words, someone who is “mixed-race, daughter of a Jew, daughter of a Latin-American immigrant, daughter of Chinese immigrants” who grew up in a liberal, hippie campus town and writes symphonies for a living. “To me, that’s very American!” she says.
She is also hearing impaired—born partially deaf, but with perfect pitch—which perhaps makes her uniquely qualified for one of her roles as composer-in-residence: curating a series of new works in honor of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birthday.
As part of BeethovenNOW, another cornerstone of the Orchestra’s 2019–20 season, Yannick will lead the entire cycle of Beethoven symphonies over a four-week period in the spring (March 12–April 5, 2020), each program paired with an original work in “response” to the symphonies—a love letter, a work of dissent, or a reflection on contemporary struggles and aspirations—illuminating the genius and relevance of Beethoven today. Frank’s commission will be “in dialogue” with the Ninth Symphony, which Beethoven wrote when he was completely deaf. Other symphonies will be juxtaposed with new works by three emerging composers from Frank’s Creative Academy of Music: Iman Habibi, Jessica Hunt, and Carlos Simon.
“Beethoven lived in a world where the dominant voice was male … and white,” says Yannick. “Celebrating his legacy in 2020 means paying attention to the voices of today.”
Audiences will hear compositions by 11 women this season, ranging from the world premiere commissions of Coleman, Frank, and Hunt to underappreciated works by other living composers, to the rarely heard masterpieces of women composing in the 19th (Louise Farrenc) and early 20th centuries (Lili Boulanger).
“We have to understand that women have been composing for a very long time,” says Frank. “This is just merely giving them the platform that has been denied.”
WomenNOW means women will have an unprecedented showing on the podium. Five women—some returning, some making debuts—will guest conduct the Philadelphians this season. Two more join the Orchestra family: Erina Yashima, succeeding Kensho Watanabe, is now the Orchestra’s assistant conductor. And Lina Gonzalez-Granados has been named conducting fellow, a new position that, Tarnopolsky says, “speaks volumes to The Philadelphia Orchestra’s and Yannick’s commitment to education and to cultivating the next generation of conductors.”
Women will also be well represented on stage as soloists, and in the repertoire. More than 13 instrumentalists and vocalists will be featured, including sopranos Angel Blue and Christine Goerke; pianists Hélène Grimaud and Yuja Wang; and violinist Leila Josefowicz.
Josefowicz’s performance adds another dimension to the WomenNOW theme: She performs John Adams’s Scheherazade.2, a piece written for her by Adams (who also conducts the Philadelphia premiere) and inspired by the plight of women throughout history.
“I imagine a Scheherazade who is not just a clever and inventive wife caught in an impossible situation, but rather an empowered woman, both sensuous and capable of fighting back,” says Adams.
Other repertoire centerpieces that tell women’s stories include George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (conducted by Marin Alsop); a rare presentation of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges (conducted by Stéphane Denève), featuring a libretto by 20th-century writer Colette; and a symphonic staging of Strauss’s Elektra, with Yannick conducting and powerhouse Goerke singing the title role of a tormented daughter.
Throughout her residency, Frank will remain a presence in Philadelphia’s communities. She’s working on a commission for the 2020–21 season, a symphonic piece focused on Latin-American creation myths, for which she is partnering with other Philadelphia arts organizations.
Beyond the stage, the Orchestra is also a partner in Drexel University’s Vision 2020 initiative. Founded and administered by Drexel’s Institute for Women’s Health and Leadership, Vision 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in America, and examines what’s still needed for women to achieve true equality.
Frank says it’s shocking to realize how much further there is to go. But in that shock, there is opportunity.
“This is a positive development that we’re looking at ourselves,” she says. “This is a beautiful thing to open the doors.”
Margie Smith Holt is an Emmy-winning journalist and managing partner of re:Write, a writing and storytelling business with a special focus on the arts. She was also the host of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Global Concert Series.
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