In Sea-Change Summer Of U.S. Music Festivals, Women Rule The Waves

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Set design by James F. Rotondo III for the Glimmerglass Festival production of Damien Geter and Lila Palmer’s ‘Holy Ground.’

Call it the Summer of Women.

After decades when women were all but absent from concert podiums, the American orchestral world, spurred in part by the #MeToo movement, is racing to right past wrongs and bring some gender equilibrium to its choices of conductors.

These efforts can be seen at summer classical-music festivals this year across the United States, and especially just outside Chicago at the Ravinia Festival, where Marin Alsop, one of the most outspoken advocates for women in classical music, serves as chief conductor and curator.

The Ravinia Festival’s Marin Alsop. (Photo courtesy of the Ravinia Festival)

Alsop has made gender inequity in the conducting world the focal point of the first installment of Breaking Barriers, a mini-festival she hopes will become an annual event at Ravinia. It runs July 29-31 and includes four concerts and a symposium (breakingbarriers.ravinia.org).

In part, Breaking Barriers: Women on the Podium, marks the 20th anniversary of the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship, which provides coaching and other career support for emerging female conductors.

Current Taki Fellow Anna Duczmal-Mróz and Taki alumnae Laura Jackson and Jeri Lynne Johnson will join Alsop for a Chicago Symphony Orchestra program July 29 that includes Michael Daugherty’s Time Machine (2003) for three conductors and orchestra.

Other up-and-coming women conductors are scheduled to appear at festivals across the country, including:

  • July 14-16, Philadelphia Orchestra, Nathalie Stutzmann, conductor, Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, Vail, Colo. (bravovail.org). Stutzmann’s recognition skyrocketed in October, when the Atlanta Symphony announced she would take over as music director in 2022-23, becoming just the second woman (after Alsop, with the Baltimore Symphony) to head a major American orchestra.
  • July 28-29, Minnesota Orchestra, Yue Bao, conductor, Summer at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis (minnesotaorchestra.org). Bao, who was promoted to assistant conductor of the Houston Symphony in November, leads a program that includes Beethoven’s ever-popular Fifth Symphony.
  • Aug. 12-13, Grand Teton Festival Orchestra, Eun Sun Kim, conductor, Grand Teton Music Festival, Jackson, Wyo. (gtmf.org). Kim’s career is soaring, especially in the opera world, and it’s not hard to understand why. She is bursting with energy and enthusiasm and displays an instinctive sense of drama and pacing in the orchestra pit. She will be conducting works by Gershwin, John Williams, and Rachmaninoff.

Here is a look at some other highlights of the 2022 summer festival season:

+ July 7, 14 and Aug. 12, Emanuel Ax, pianist, Pathways from Prague, Tanglewood Music Festival, Lenox, Mass. (bso.org/tanglewood). Emanuel Ax, one of the deans of the American keyboard world, is respected as much for his musical intelligence as his prodigious technique. The 73-year-old pianist has curated a chamber-music series at Tanglewood titled Pathways from Prague that focuses on the music of Antonín Dvořák, Leoš Janáček, and the less widely known Vitezslava Kapralova (1915-1940), who produced a surprisingly large body of work despite her death at a young age.

The opening program centers on Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared, a song cycle for tenor, alto, three female voices, and piano that is sometimes staged. The work, which debuted in 1921, is based on an anonymous series of poems published in a Czech newspaper, and tells of a peasant boy who falls in love with a gypsy girl. He leaves his family to be with her and ultimately kills himself out of love for her. The opera was sparked by the composer’s own love for Kamila Stösslová, who was also the inspiration for Katya in the opera Kát’a Kabanová. As might be expected, the cycle offers some of the composer’s most passionate and sensual music. Joining Ax for the performance are tenor Paul Appleby and singers from the Massachusetts-based Lorelei Ensemble.

‘Holy Ground’ librettist Lila Palmer (Photo by Daniel Welch)

+ July 29-Aug. 20, Damien Geter’s Holy Ground, Glimmerglass Festival, Cooperstown, N.Y. (glimmerglass.org). Geter leads a split career between his composing and his performances as a well-regarded bass-baritone, but his work as a musical creator is increasingly taking precedence, as this commission makes clear. His second opera, with a libretto by Lila Palmer, reimagines the biblical story surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ. In this contemporary version, angels have approached more than 450 other women who have turned down the chance to be the virgin mother, and they have now put their hopes in Mary. The world premiere, which Glimmerglass bills as a mix of “satirical fantasy and divine comedy,” will be featured on a double bill with composer Kamala Sankaram’s Taking Up Serpents.

But Holy Ground is far from the only significant opera to be debuted this summer. The Cincinnati Opera is unveiling Castor and Patience by Gregory Spears, whose Fellow Travelers was premiered in 2016 by the same summer company and has gone on to enjoy follow-up performances by such major companies as Lyric Opera of Chicago. Performances are set for July 21-30 (cincinnatiopera.org). From July 9 through 22, the Des Moines Metro Opera (desmoinesmetroopera.org) will present A Thousand Acres, Kristin Kuster’s adaptation of Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same title. Few Broadway plays in recent decades have received more attention than David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. The playwright has adapted the story for opera with Chinese-born composer Huang Ruo. It premieres July 30-Aug. 24 at the Santa Fe Opera (santafeopera.org). 

+ Aug. 5-14, Rachmaninoff and His World, Bard Music Festival, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. (fishercenter.bard.edu). The Bard Music Festival chooses an annual theme, and this year it is a look at Sergei Rachmaninoff, who has a history of being misunderstood and undervalued. In the 1954 edition of the authoritative Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, musicologist Eric Blom derided the composer’s “artificial and gushing tunes” and went on to assert that “the enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last.” While the composer’s standing has soared since then, too much attention is focused on his hugely popular piano concertos, and the full scope of his output is not always fully comprehended. Through a series of concerts, lectures and panel discussions, the festival aims to offer a fuller appreciation of the composer and the often-fraught century in which he was at work.

The Bard Festival will celebrate the art of Sergei Rachmaninoff this summer.

+ Aug. 15, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Santa Fe, N.M. (santafechambermusic.com). Few works offer a more profound and moving emotional journey than Olivier Messiaen’s evocatively titled Quartet for the End of Time, one of the chamber masterpieces of the 20th century. The composer wrote the eight-movement work during World War II while imprisoned at Stalag VIII-A, a German prisoner-of-war camp where the piece was premiered in 1941. He chose its unusual instrumentation based on the group of professional musicians who were with him — clarinet, cello, violin, and piano. The French composer, who was a devout Catholic, was inspired by the Book of Revelation, the apocalyptic final section of the New Testament.

For this performance, which also includes works by Mozart and Stockhausen, the festival has gathered an extraordinary group of musicians starting with violinist Leila Josefowicz, who has devoted her career to modern and contemporary music, which she plays with fiery intensity and keen technique. She will be joined by Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein, the sixth recipient of the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award, cellist Paul Watkins, and clarinetist Carol McGonnell.