Importance Of Women Composers, Conductors Focus Of Summer Fests

Marin Alsop will preside over the second ‘Breaking Barriers’ mini-festival this summer at the Ravinia Festival. (Photo courtesy of the Ravinia Festival)

PERSPECTIVE — Amid the rising acknowledgement of women conductors and composers, the Ravinia Festival in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Ill., is offering the 2023 edition of its “Breaking Barriers” mini-festival devoted to a celebration of women composers. At the same time, many other summer festivals across the country are offering women-themed programs and making an effort to include female conductors and composers in programs across their seasons. Here are a few of the highlights:

July 21-23, “Breaking Barriers,” Marin Alsop, conductor, Ravinia Festival. Last summer, the Ravinia Festival and its chief conductor, Marin Alsop, unveiled the inaugural “Breaking Barriers” mini-festival that focused on women conductors. This year’s installment celebrates women composers, with three concerts, including a July 21 opener that comprises Gabriela Ortiz’s Antrópolis, Gabriela Montero’s Latin Piano Concerto, with the composer as soloist, and Roxanna Panufnik’s Across the Line of Dreams. The three-day event also incorporates workshops, panel discussions, and other offerings that include the involvement of Chicago-area composers Augusta Read Thomas and Stacy Garrop and local business leaders.

Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki will lead the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood this summer. (Photo by Chris Lee)

Aug. 12, Susanna Mälkki, conductor, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood Music Festival, Lenox, Mass. Susanna Mälkki, who just ended her tenure as chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, is one of today’s most exciting conductors, and she seems primed for a music directorship with one of the world’s top-drawer orchestras. She will lead two concerts at Tanglewood, this one with the Boston Symphony and another Aug. 20 with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. She is one of a dozen or more women conductors featured in festivals across the United States this summer. Others include: Gemma New, July 12, Grant Park Orchestra, Grant Park Music Festival, Chicago; Yue Bao, July 16, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Caramoor Festival, Katonah, N.Y.; and JoAnn Falletta, Aug. 17, Peninsula Music Festival Orchestra, Peninsula Music Festival, Ephraim, Wis.

Aug. 7, Recital: Music by Women of Chicago’s Black Renaissance, Michelle Cann, pianist, Aspen (Colo.) Music Festival. In large part because of prejudice surrounding her gender and race, African-American composer Florence Price was all but forgotten after her death in 1953. But her music, which blends Post-Romanticism with Black folk music, has skyrocketed in popularity since a large cache of her manuscripts and papers were found in her former summer home in St. Anne, Ill. Michelle Cann will perform Price’s Fantasies négres Nos. 1 and 2 as part of program of music by Black Chicago composers from the early 20th century. But the three others featured — Margaret Bonds, Irene Britton Smith, and Betty Jackson King — have yet to achieve Price’s level of new-found recognition.      

The Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater at the Bravo! Vail Music Festival (Tomas Cohen Photography)

Aug. 25, Fanny Mendelssohn, String Quartet in E-flat Major, SummerFest, La Jolla (Calif.) Music Society. For much of the time since her death in 1847, Fanny Mendelssohn (Hensel) was overshadowed by her better-known brother, Felix, and was largely dismissed as a dilettante. But a reconsideration has been under way for several decades, in part because of the rediscovery of many of her works that had been in libraries and archives behind the Iron Curtain. Now, more than 450 compositions are known to exist by Fanny Mendelssohn, including this quartet written in 1834, and she is increasingly seen as a major composer in her own right. The quartet will be part of a program titled Unsilenced Voices, and it will include Augustin Hadelich as first violinist. Here are some other works by women featured this summer: July 12, Florence Price’s Symphony No. 3, Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor, Bravo! Vail (Colo.) Music Festival; July 28, Julia Wolfe’s Her Story, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Lorelei Ensemble, Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor, Tanglewood Music Festival; and Aug. 2, Unsuk Chin’s subito con forza, Grant Park Orchestra, David Danzmayr, conductor, Grant Park Music Festival.

Here is a look at some other concerts across the United States with noteworthy programs:

July 19, Recital: An Evening of Elliott Carter, Aspen Music Festival. Carter was one of the high priests of American musical modernism, writing knotty yet compelling works with complex chromatic harmonic structures. Since his death in 2012 at age 103, his music has quickly fallen out of fashion, in part because it is out of sync with the audience-friendly, sometimes cross-genre styles more popular now. But if the Pulitzer Prize winner’s music can be challenging to take in, it still deserves to be played and heard. And that is exactly what will happen during this concert featuring five musicians, including pianist Robert Spano, who has served as the festival’s music director since 2011. Among the featured Carter chamber works will be his Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord (1952).

Pianist Robert Spano will perform in a recital honoring Elliott Carter at the Aspen Music Festival.

July 21-30, Henri VIII, American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, conductor, Bard Summerscape, Bard College, Annadale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Camille Saint-Saëns is best known for instrumental works like his Organ Symphony or Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, but he also composed 12 operas. Of those, only Samson and Delilah has maintained a regular place in the repertoire, the rest having fallen into obscurity. As part of its annual mission to showcase a worthy yet little-performed opera from the past, Bard is presenting what is billed as the first fully staged production of Saint-Saëns’ Henri VIII in the U.S. “The music has fantastic beauty and drama,” Botstein said in an Opera News interview. “It shows Saint-Saëns at his most inventive, with fabulously well-written ensembles and solo moments. It has a natural, unforced romanticism, with none of the exaggerated and awkward elements — the fake sentimentality — of Samson and Delilah.”

July 29, Journey Into Light, SummerFest, La Jolla Music Society. What might be called “concept concerts” can sometimes be forced and tedious, but this program has all the makings of a fascinating experience. The idea is simple enough: take listeners on a journey from sunrise to what festival organizers are calling “sparkling moonlight.” Along the way are 13 short works from past and present by a wonderfully mixed group of composers, including Lili Boulanger, George Crumb, Claude Debussy, and Joaquín Turina. It all ends with Mozart’s String Quintet No. 2 in C minor, K. 406, which the composer described, appropriately enough, as “night music.” Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke joins a 13-member ensemble for this day-to-night musical evocation.

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke will be part of the La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest. (Photo by Stephanie Girard)

Aug. 13, Alan Gilbert Conducts Messiaen, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. Although Olivier Messiaen was one of the major composers of the 20th century, he remains under-appreciated because he was never part of a school or movement, and some of his music can be eclectic and unconventional, including his incorporation of birdsong transcriptions. Outside certain works like his Quartet for the End of Time, the Turangalila-Symphonie and his opera St. Francis of Assisi, which is getting increasing attention, many of his compositions are undeservedly little heard. This concert offers the rare chance to hear his Des canyons aux étoiles . . . (From the Canyons to the Stars . . .), a 12-movement orchestral work written to celebrate the American bicentennial in 1976. While composing the work, Messaien visited Utah and was taken with the birds and landscape, especially Bryce Canyon. Alan Gilbert, one of the most adventurous conductors of our time, will lead a 40-member ensemble and four soloists: pianist Kirill Gerstein, French hornist Stefan Dohr, and percussionists Daniel Druckman and Gregory Zuber.