The 2015 Women Composers Festival of Hartford is underway at various locations in the capital city. For the 14th year, the festival has highlighted and promoted the work of women composers past and present.
I spoke with musicologist Penny Brandt, president of the festival's board of directors, about what's happening at this year's festival.
Penny Brandt: Our festival celebrates both historical music by women composers and the music of living women composers. We are involved in educational outreach, to let our community know about the diversity of music that is available to them, and we support composers, performers, and researchers in their work.
WNPR's Ray Hardman: Are women either underrepresented or not getting the big commissions in the classical music world?
In our first concert at Capital Community College last night, I talked about the historical invisibility of women in music, and how that feeds into a societal idea that classical composers are all "dead white men in wigs," as musicologist Sophie Fuller put it.
Women have always been involved in the creation and performance of music, but because music history classes tend to focus on great individuals who were men, there aren't as many role models for women, and especially for women of color. So, part of the problem is that women are self-selecting out of classical music – particularly out of composition and conducting – much the same way that women tend to self-select out of math and science fields.
Another problem is that the big orchestras focus on old music, and often the same old music, over and over. Many orchestras will perform Rachmaninoff's second or third piano concerto every season, but they will never perform Clara Schumann's piano concerto. And yes, the big commissions have tended to go to men, but that is starting to change.
Only five women have ever won the Pulitzer Prize for music, but two of those were in the last five years. It's definitely getting better, and we like to think that our festival is a part of that change.
Tell me about some of the composers you are featuring this weekend.
Our headlining composer is Dr. Lisa Renée Coons, and she is a fantastic and unconventional composer. She welds sculptures out of scrap metal, then amplifies them, and works with percussionists to create music that has a mix of composed and improvised moments.
You have to get a tetanus shot before she lets you play her instruments.
Dr. Coons likes to incorporate gesture in her works, and she has been talking with students at Trinity College, UConn, Hartt, and Western New England University about the difficulty of notating her music. We will have one of her sculptures [Friday night] at 7:30, and another of her pieces on Saturday's concert, also at 7:30.
We are also featuring violist and composer Jessica Meyer, who will be playing two of her own compositions on Saturday, which are for viola and electronics.
Tell me about some of the performers.
[Friday night's] concert features Iktus Percussion, who are working with Dr. Coons, and also performing the winning pieces from our international score competition. They are a New York-based ensemble that plays a lot of new music by women composers.
The rest of our performers are more local. We are featuring the New England Guitar Quartet, based in West Harford, Saturday afternoon at 2:30 for a read-through of brand new music, and two Hartt students will be playing Dr. Coons's bass clarinet duet on Saturday.
We also have a concert on Sunday afternoon at 2:00 featuring pianists Julia Mortyakova and Miguel Campinho. And then there are forum events today and tomorrow at Charter Oak, including mini-lecture/recitals. A full list of events is available at womencomposersfestivalhartford.com.
What are you most excited about this year?
I am a musicologist and teacher, and I've been working on the educational outreach part of our festival, so I was most excited about our free event last night at Capital Community College, which was very well attended by CCC students and Hartford residents.
We are in the process of becoming an independent non-profit organization, and the board of directors has been talking about directions for the festival in the future – how we can be a safe space that truly promotes diversity and innovation in classical music for the benefit of the greater Hartford community. So, I'm very excited about all of that.
I made sure to get a tetanus shot, just in case Dr. Coons will let me try out her percussion sculpture!