Concert features program of music by women composers

Someday, perhaps, there won't be a need to advocate and provide a platform for the work of women composers. Until that time, Women in Music Columbus, as it has done for almost 140 years, is on the case.

The local organization also advocates for women performers, offering multiple opportunities each season for its performing members to participate in recitals and concerts. These concerts often include the music of women composers. Additionally, every other year WMC puts out a call for submissions from women composers, with all selected works to be performed in one program. The Women Composers program will be held on Sunday, April 15, in Capital University's Huntington Recital Hall.

“It's part of our mission statement to promote women making music and women composers,” WMC President Cynthia Mahaney said, “and certainly providing performing opportunities is a big reason why many of our members join.”

“Our group was formed in the late 1800s for women to gather and play music, largely as a social thing,” Program Chair Anne-Marie Slater said. “Since then, though, we've taken on the mission of helping women composers get their work out.”

“The goal is really to provide a venue for this music to be heard,” said WMC member Jennifer Merkowitz, herself a composer and professor of composition at Otterbein University. “Some of the composers, their music is getting performed in lots of different places, but for us to call a spotlight on women composers and say women are writing music is important. Until we see parity in concert programs from all kinds of organizations, I think these kinds of concerts are important to highlight the enormous talent among women composers.”

WMC member Jennifer Hambrick pointed to a 2015 study by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra of the seasons of 20 major U.S. orchestras that revealed a mere two percent of programmed works were by women composers. She added that the numbers are worse in opera houses, saying that New York's Metropolitan Opera has performed two works by women in its 100-plus-year history.

“Groups like Women in Music Columbus that are smaller and more nimble and committed are ideally suited to make a difference,” Hambrick said.

Merkowitz led WMC's Program Committee in listening to the more than 110 submissions received for this concert. The call for submissions includes a request for pieces that require smaller instrumentation, either solo, duet or small chamber works, Mahaney said, yet the variety is always impressive.

“A lot of the music is not traditionally ‘classical,' but has folk influences or electronic elements,” Slater said.

That variety does come into play when making selections, Merkowitz said, if it's not always the primary consideration.

“We're always kind of thinking about the variety on the program, and so when we're looking at the first cut, we're thinking, ‘How can we create some variety in this program with instrumentation?' And [we're] also thinking about variety in style and aesthetic,” Merkowitz said.

“It's certainly the goal for every one of our concerts to give a high-quality musical performance, so the quality of the [programming] choices we make and the performers themselves are very important,” Mahaney said. “And we do try to keep in mind our audience, asking: ‘Is it a good piece?'; and, ‘Is it a fit for our members to perform?'; and, ‘Is it a good fit for our audience?'”

The program includes pieces that speak to a woman's point of view. “She Was Warned” is a work by Kala Pierson that quotes Mitch McConnell's well-known “Nevertheless, she persisted” comments from the floor of the Senate. And Melissa Dunphy's “Hervararkvida” is a song cycle that concerns a young Norse woman who decides to dress like a man and leave her village to reclaim the sword of her father who was killed in a storied battle. Regardless, topicality is not a consideration of the committee.

“When women get their music performed, it is by definition a different perspective,” Hambrick said. “[Works by women] are just so infrequently performed. And it could be the case that women composers are attracted to certain themes. But it was never mentioned in our discussions.”

In all, works by 11 composers will be featured in the program. Other works include “Light,” a vocal piece from a larger work by Cuban-American composer Sabrina Pena Young, and Jennifer Margaret Barker's “A Lassie's Love,” based on the poems of Robert Burns.

“Theoretically, the opportunities for women composers are the same as for any other living composer,” Merkowitz said. “People are starting to get the memo that you have to be a little more intentional in finding the music of women composers, because it's easy to find if you look, but people have in their head what the canon of works is. We just need to kind of keep pushing to make sure that women become a part of that canon.”