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Why adding women composers to the Philadelphia Orchestra mix isn’t only right, but also smart

It's just one of the ways the orchestra needs to better mirror the city in which it lives.

Composer Anna Clyne
Composer Anna ClyneRead moreJavier Oddo

Maybe you've never listened to an orchestra concert and thought to look down at the program to check the gender of the composer of the work being played. In a better world, you'd never have to; opportunities over the last three centuries would have been handed out impartially, and gender balance (not to mention the balance of other aspects of identity) would be an established fact.

In that better world, female composers would be readily apparent to young girls, who would, in turn, visualize themselves becoming composers someday. The equality loop would be humming along with the inevitability of a fugue.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has been struggling recently with gender balance on its composer roster. After drawing criticism for unveiling a 2018-19 season without a single female composer, the orchestra has in recent weeks announced a few make-up gestures.

>>READ MORE: The Philadelphia Orchestra schedule for 2018-19 scores a zero in female composers

>>READ MORE: After outcry, Philadelphia Orchestra adds female composers to its 2018-19 roster

These efforts, many of which were already being discussed before criticism broke out, are no doubt sincere, and the orchestra will be detailing more work with and by women for future seasons. The initial all-male season announcement aside, this orchestra actually has a good historical record of engaging female conductors, soloists, ensemble players, and administrators.

Still, among the overtures to women in the past weeks, the orchestra has hit upon some clumsy solutions. The addition of works by Anna Clyne and Stacey Brown to existing programs is all to the good. But both works are short and still leave the orchestra without a major artistic statement this season by a woman.

News last week that the orchestra would read through works by six female composers in a one-day workshop in collaboration with the American Composers Orchestra was welcome.

>> READ MORE: Philadelphia Orchestra to test-drive scores by six women

But looking at the list of composers, you might conclude Philadelphia had no worthy female composers of its own. Programming at least one Philadelphian — Andrea Clearfield, Anna Weesner, Cynthia Folio, Emily Cooley, and Rene Orth come to mind — would have sent a message about the value of hometown talent.

Jennifer Higdon has an extensive history with the Philadelphia Orchestra, but she's just the tip of the talent iceberg here.

And speaking of sending messages, the orchestra initially announced the Sept. 6 reading session as by invitation only but has now reconsidered and will open it up to the public. Every schoolgirl in Philadelphia should be there to claim her dreaming rights. My own daughter might have been 7 or 8 when, seeing a young pianist playing at a Philadelphia Orchestra family concert, she told me it had never occurred to her that someone her age could do that.

These small moments leave a larger impression than we grownups might know.

Why is this so critical now? It is surely true that this discussion wouldn't be happening were it not for the current larger national conversation going on around women, social justice, and delayed reckoning in any number of areas long swept under the rug.

But it's also not quite right to view this issue through the lens of political correctness. An orchestra never was able to stand apart from its listeners and succeed; a city must see itself in its orchestra, in what it hears and sees on stage. That the Philadelphia Orchestra has so few African American members — just three — remains an embarrassment. Not having more is a missed opportunity for an orchestra that has worked hard to connect with audiences beyond its home in Center City, and that still has much more to do.

How many is enough?

How many female composers should this orchestra and others be programming? What percentage of an orchestra in Philadelphia should be African American? Latino? Queer? To be prescriptive would be ridiculous. But what we do know is that in a city that is 44 percent African American, to have three African American members is also ridiculous.

And it means a lot to listeners when they see their own identity reflected in what their orchestra does.

"When I saw they were opening the season with Joan Tower, I actually teared up," Emily Hogstad, a Twin Cities classical music blogger, told the Star Tribune after the Minnesota Orchestra announced that women had written seven percent of the repertoire in that orchestra's 2018-19 season. "I hadn't realized how meaningful and inspiring that representation would be to me as a female audience member and subscriber and donor."

Significantly, Hogstad points out that the predilection for passing through the graduated hoops of listener to subscriber to donor hinges upon emotion. This is not about righting a social injustice, though programming more women is clearly that. Orchestras program pieces for all sorts of reasons. Ultimately, you hope distinct streams of repertoire — from traditional to new music to movie scores — will bring in its own constituency and stoke enthusiasm.

More women on the Philadelphia Orchestra's programs this season would have yielded relevancy and, in an otherwise quite conservative mix of Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and Rachmaninoff, newsworthy edge. Smart curation also promises attention to some fantastic scores. Clyne's Masquerade, which has been added to the orchestra's June 15-16 concerts, is an epic, colorful shot of adrenaline (even if it is only five minutes long). More of that, please.

There's great power in what kind of artist an orchestra chooses to shower with attention. And when an orchestra programs something that causes someone to tear up, it's time for an orchestra to go quiet and listen to the fans.