A Labor of Love
When introducing her work, Above Light, a Conversation with Tōru Takemitsu, Xi Wang described hearing her music as “seeing my own child.” The development of a composition is indeed a labor of love, and the Showcase for Works by Women Composers, held by The Philadelphia Orchestra on September 6, provided an opportunity for Wang and five other composers to see their pieces come to life in a collaborative working session.
“The composing process is like the process of pregnancy, with the music inside of me,” said Wang. “What’s most important for a composer is to hear our music once we write it. When I hear the music, then it’s alive.”
Xi Wang introduces her work, Above Light, a Conversation with Tōru Takemitsu.
During the showcase, a partnership between The Philadelphia Orchestra and American Composers Orchestra (ACO), each composer’s work was read by the Orchestra in a rehearsal led by Assistant Conductor Kensho Watanabe. The session was free and open to the public.
“The Philadelphia Orchestra is one of the top orchestras in the world,” said Wang. “They have such intuition. The musicians and conductor were very open and well-prepared. And the audience was curious, which is important. We have to foster contemporary music today, otherwise we won’t have classical music tomorrow.”
Wang was joined by Melody Eötvös, Hilary Purrington, Chen-Hui Jen, Robin Holcomb, and Nina C. Young, all alumnae of the ACO’s Underwood, EarShot, and Jazz Composer Orchestra Institute programs. [Click here to read more about their works.]
“It was really fun to be in a room with all of my ladies,” said Young. “It was a really supportive, refreshing environment.”
(Left to right): Composers Nina C. Young, Hilary Purrington, Chen-Hui Jen (obscured), Robin Holcomb, and Xi Wang listen as Melody Eötvös’s The Saqqara Bird is rehearsed.
The Orchestra rehearsed each piece twice, allowing for discussion with the composer in between each reading. Young encouraged the musicians to “play with a romantic feel” and to “exaggerate the dynamics.” She found the session to be a rewarding experience.
“The Orchestra was so amazing. Their interpretation of my language and my voice and everyone else’s individual language and voice was immediate. There was so little explanation needed. It was remarkable.”
Nina C. Young follows along as the Orchestra rehearses excerpts from her work, Agnosco veteris.
Melody Eötvös and Kensho Watanabe confer during a break in the rehearsal.
Following the readings, each composer received feedback from co-facilitators, ACO Artistic Director Derek Bermel and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and native Philadelphian Melinda Wagner, and participated in roundtable conversations with members of the Orchestra’s Artistic Committee.
“They not only talked about technique and provided comments, suggestions, and praise, they also talked about what they thought musically about the experience,” said Young. “It was really evident that they were actually interpreting the piece.”
Musicians from The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Artistic Committee held a roundtable discussion following the readings with the composers and mentor composers: (left to right) mentor composers Derek Bermel and Melinda Wagner, Xi Wang, Associate Principal Horn Jeffrey Lang, Principal Bass Harold Robinson, English horn player Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia, Kensho Watanabe, violinist Barbara Govatos, Hilary Purrington, and Nina C. Young.
As part of the event, Orchestra President and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky announced several new initiatives to strengthen The Philadelphia Orchestra’s commitment to women artists, including the commissioning of a work from each composer in the showcase.
“The Orchestra provides such an inspiration for writing a piece,” said Young. “This is so much more than a typical commission. We had the opportunity to work with these musicians and see their individual personalities. It’s a really special way for us to build a piece.”
The Orchestra also announced that Gabriela Lena Frank will serve as composer-in-residence through the 2020-21 season, with a community commission to premiere in that season.
Gabriela Lena Frank
“I’m thrilled to partner with the esteemed Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who have long been supportive of my work, including touring it internationally,” said Frank. “As a disabled woman of color who is the daughter of an immigrant and who recently founded a small music academy out of her farm for emerging composers, I know how momentous it is when a storied and monumental institution throws its weight behind nuanced civil progress. Such work is vital for the health of our industry. Thus, as I’m grateful for The Philadelphia Orchestra’s confidence and for the new commission of a large-scale symphony utilizing South American creation myths to explore racial/ethnic origins—a topic of poignant relevance in these politically polarized times—I’m especially grateful to be of service in holding conversations regarding the remarkable wealth of other deserving musical voices in our diverse America. The trust is flowing both ways and I’m indescribably honored.”
In addition, more than half of the subscription programs in the Orchestra’s 2019-20 season will feature works by women, beginning with a commission from Valerie Coleman that will debut during opening weekend.
The Orchestra is also launching a mentor composer project, partnering emerging women composers with mentor composers to write new works for the 2019-20 season.
“Every Philadelphia Orchestra season should be representative of the diverse, global communities that we serve,” said Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. “I am delighted to be able to commission both emerging and established women artists to give their music the exposure it deserves, to breathe new life into what we do on stage, and to inspire members of our audience to always see a place for themselves in our work. These new initiatives represent the beginning of a long-term collaboration that will not only elevate the work of our Orchestra, but also the future of the art form.”
“The Philadelphia Orchestra is committed to strengthening the role of women in the arts,” said Tarnopolsky. “We are grateful to American Composers Orchestra for their important collaboration in the composer showcase. With the announcement of commissions offered to all six of the participating composers, an exciting collaboration with Gabriela Lena Frank, and a commitment to programming more works by women composers, we support here the development of contemporary music and the ideals of ever greater diversity on our stages.”
Looking forward, the participants of the composer showcase expressed hopefulness for the future of women in the arts.
“I think things are definitely shifting,” said Holcomb. “There are so many types of diversity to be improved upon, and [women in the arts] certainly is one. Today’s event was a wonderful step in the right direction. It was a great initiative that I’m so happy to have been part of.”
“We are six really individual, qualified, talented artists,” said Young. “Are we different composers because we are women? I don’t think so. It’s really beautiful to see a shift happening in all fields right now recognizing that all genders, however you identify, are equal and should be offered the same opportunities. I think there’s a correction in the imbalance taking place.”
For Wang, the issue of gender equality is a deeply personal one, rooted in her upbringing during China’s one-child policy.
“My father was very disappointed that I was a girl. But my mom always told me, ‘You can be as excellent or even more excellent than a boy.’ So, equality has always been on my mind, starting as a young child. I was very aware that I needed to work hard and that I can achieve what I am passionate about, regardless of my gender.”
Today, Wang says that when she works as a composer, she doesn’t think about her gender. “But when I do think about it,” she adds, “I’m really proud of being a woman composer.”
Kensho Watanabe (center) poses with the composers: (left to right) Nina C. Young, Hilary Purrington, Melody Eötvös, Robin Holcomb, Xi Wang, and Chen-Hui Jen.
Composers Showcase photos by Jessica Griffin