sun 28/05/2017

'We should take a 1:1 ratio of male to female talent as the norm' | reviews, news & interviews

'We should take a 1:1 ratio of male to female talent as the norm'

'We should take a 1:1 ratio of male to female talent as the norm'

Conductor Odaline de la Martinez on the female composers featured in this year's London Festival of American Music

Odaline de la Martinez: first woman to conduct at the Proms

This year is the sixth London Festival of American Music, and I could not be more excited about it. From the first festival in 2006 – 10 years ago now – I had a very specific idea about what I wanted the London Festival of American Music to be like. At its heart the festival is designed to celebrate the contemporary American musical landscape, and to bring the best America has to offer to UK audiences.

The American music scene has never been stronger – there is an amazing range of styles and works being produced all across the states. UK audiences, however, tend to be solely familiar with contemporary American music through Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams, who don’t represent the diversity of the current scene on the other side of the Atlantic. For me, the festival is a chance to applaud the talent that is coming out of America at the moment, and to hopefully win over some new fans in the UK.

As well as making a celebration, however, it was also important to me that the festival acts as a platform for the many gifted composers who go largely unnoticed. I was especially keen to see women achieve greater recognition. Despite producing some of the most innovative and accomplished works around at the moment, women in our field just do not receive the same amount of attention as men. My own career has made me very aware of this issue: I was honoured to be the first woman to conduct a whole Prom at the BBC in 1984, but was astonished it had taken almost a century for that to happen. Having spent my whole career championing female composers, I believe that we’ve all got to work together to ensure that female musical achievement is recognised. Though female composers are gradually seeing more opportunities become available to them in the UK, the rate of progress is still slow.

Jennifer Higdon

On the other hand, America has perhaps been more supportive of its female composers as of late. Female composers make up 50 percent of this year’s festival programme: many of the works being featured have been made possible through funding or commissions. The Women in Song concert on 10 November includes a performance of "Ada’s Aria" from Jennifer Higdon’s celebrated opera Cold Mountain, a work that was co-commissioned between Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadephia and the Minnesota Opera. On 11 November we will be giving the UK premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’s jazz-inspired piece Scat, which was commissioned by the Walden Chamber Players. Scat has had a very positive response in the States: the Chicago Tribune described it as "electric". The works of Higdon (pictured above) and Thomas works are great examples of what can be achieved when we give female composers adequate backing, and I look forward to introducing them to new listeners.

In the seven days of the Festival, London audiences can be exposed to 11 UK premieres and seven world premieres. This year we have organised pre-concert talks wherever possible with composers in order to encourage audience engagement and reflection. The Female Composers’ Panel on 9 November should be particularly interesting. Journalist Jessica Duchen will be leading the discussion, talking to composers Hannah Lash, Julia Howell, Elena Ruehr, Barbara Jazwinski and Laura Kaminsky. This will be an excellent opportunity to hear insiders' opinions on the question of women in composition.

Julia HowellWe will also be premiering a couple of exclusively commissioned pieces, including one by Howell (pictured right) on 11 November. Howell is exactly the sort of composer that the festival was created for: only 30 years old, she is an American female talent pushing the boundaries of composition. Alongside concert music Howell has created work for theatre, film, dance, computer games and art installations, illustrating how female composers often must seek out alternatives to traditional commissions.

Alongside these women we are featuring some very high-profile male composers – John Harbison, Charles Shadle and Peter Child are all having works premiered. It should be very interesting to hear these men together with their female counterparts: the festival programme allows us to contrast pairings such as Harbison and Higdon, two major talents of the contemporary opera scene. I think that this year’s Festival programming is not just a step forward, but a benchmark for the field. If it seems that an unusually high number of women are being featured, we should ask ourselves why it is that a 50 percent female programme surprises us. We should take a 1:1 ratio of male to female talent as the norm, not abnormal. Those of us who have the resources and platform to campaign for equality in the arts should make it a priority. I hope that the London Festival of American Music is both a celebration and an affirmation of what American composers, conductors and musicians bring to music.

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