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The Philadelphia Orchestra schedule for 2018-19 scores a zero in female composers

The slight was an oversight, an orchestra vice president says. But this orchestra can do better.

Composer Jennifer Higdon’s new ‘Concerto for Low Brass’ will be played by the Philadelphia Orchestra next week. But the 2018-19 season has zero works by female composers.
Composer Jennifer Higdon’s new ‘Concerto for Low Brass’ will be played by the Philadelphia Orchestra next week. But the 2018-19 season has zero works by female composers.Read moreKarli Cadel

Zero can be a damning number. If a bank or an insurance company were to hire two- or three dozen new workers and zero were African American, the institutional intention would seem clear. If an orchestra programs an entire season of music and not one composer is female, does that also signify something is amiss?

Many think so. The Philadelphia Orchestra recently announced its 2018-19 season, and it looks only somewhat different from previous seasons. What's changed in a big way this year, though, is the outside world. Apparently failing to notice the larger discussion going on around all of us, the orchestra has managed to put together a season without a single work by a female composer.

Others did take notice. Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker, tweeted off a discussion, and readers piled on.

Wrote Ross:

Number of female composers programmed by the Chicago Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra for the 2018-19 season: 0

The response from one wag:

I'm sure they've committed to doubling that number by the 2023-24 season, though.

What's going on? It doesn't seem likely that the orchestra is anti-woman.

Next season's planning happened on the watch of a woman, Allison Vulgamore, the orchestra's president until this past Dec. 31. And to take a broader measure of this orchestra's relationship with artists and repertoire, there's a decent presence of female conductors both this season and next. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was just here, and next season, Emmanuelle Haïm and Nathalie Stutzmann are on the podium.

Composer Jennifer Higdon's new Concerto for Low Brass is being played by the Philadelphians next week, having just been debuted by the Chicago Symphony.

Philadelphia has a track record of drawing on women at moments of heightened visibility. When Yannick Nézet-Séguin started his tenure as music director, the orchestra commissioned Gabriela Lena Frank, who came up with her wonderfully original Concertino Cusqueño. The organization first kindled its relationship with  Higdon with one of a number of new commissions from various composers that helped celebrate its centennial. Her Concerto for Orchestra was led by then-music director Wolfgang Sawallisch to close the orchestra's first season in Verizon Hall. That piece has rippled out across the country to a total of 32 orchestras since its premiere.

A little reporting also shows the orchestra's longer arc of putting women in powerful places. It hosted famed pedagogue/conductor Nadia Boulanger in 1939, and, quite early on, conductors Dalia Atlas, Sarah Caldwell, and Catherine Comet. It has performed the works of Sofia Gubaidulina, Augusta Read Thomas, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Lili Boulanger, Joan Tower, Shulamit Ran, and other women before the current corrective movement acquired a hashtag.

Asked for a more comprehensive list, an orchestra spokeswoman came up with more than three dozen names of women whose works have been performed on subscription and nonsubscription concerts, or at chamber music, postlude, student, and other special concerts.

Still, the orchestra can do better, and booking no female composers in 2018 looks very much like the work of a leadership with a tin ear.

"Frankly, it's an oversight. It's probably something we can correct," said Jeremy Rothman, the orchestra's vice president for artistic planning. Subscription concerts for next season have been announced, but other concerts will likely fall into place later, giving the orchestra a chance to add a few women. The orchestra also is developing a 2019-20 celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth and aims to involve numerous female composers.

Is it the job of the orchestra to devote a certain percentage of its repertoire to women — something larger, say, than the 1.8 percent national average at the 22 largest American orchestras (according to 2014-15 data gathered by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)? What about African American and Latina composers? No one can say what reasonable percentages for diversity would be. But 1.8 percent clearly falls in the range of the absurd.

Some might argue that the point is to present the greatest works while being blind to questions of identity. It would be easier to deploy the greatest-music defense if orchestras hadn't already given up that concept (how do you define "great," anyway?) by programming for so many other reasons. Entertainment, for instance. Next season, after all, includes one program playing to Bugs Bunny cartoons and another with a circus act.

The orchestra has also embraced its social mission as never before. With its programming and social initiatives, it believes the musical and nonmusical issues have something important to say to each other. And the orchestra is right. So why not women?

It hardly needs saying, but one thing no one need worry about is quality. Frank's Concertino Cusqueño is virtuosic, individualistic writing. Gubaidulina's Feast During a Plague, co-commissioned and premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2006, is a knockout that should be brought back. Seeger is astonishing; her Andante for Strings from 1931, played by the orchestra a year ago, is as innovative and polished as anything being produced at that fertile time.

Nothing draws the knives out as much as orchestra programming in general. Every listener is absolutely convinced he or she has the answer to a programming mix that is worthy while selling out the house. The reality is that programming is a complex issue, guided by the music director, the CEO, and the artistic administrator by factoring in the particular passions of guest conductors and soloists, the marketing needs of partners like Carnegie Hall or the Mann Center, the wishes of record labels, and others.

But it's also clear that where there's a will there's a way. If the orchestra's artistic leaders are interested in developing relationships with female composers right on their doorstep, they need only look as far as students at the Curtis Institute, where Higdon teaches. Other ideas for discovering and beckoning talent await: bringing back a permanent composer-in-residence to field new scores, starting a reading-orchestra program in which the ensemble samples new work at open rehearsals, and developing a mentorship program for promising female talent.

These kinds of discussions inevitably edge into social justice, equality, and politics. Deservedly so. But looking at it solely as a fairness issue only partially captures what's at stake. Think of how rare truly towering talent is — of what would have been missed had Bach died in childhood, as did several of his siblings, or if Mozart's gifts had not been helped along by his father (not to mention the musical example of his older sister, Nannerl). What could possibly be the argument for not casting the net as widely as possible for finding any and all talent?

Beyond the known great female composers, there is undoubtedly overlooked work by others that deserves to see the light of day. And orchestras everywhere of good conscience must ask whether they have a viable pipeline for finding the leading voices of the future. The odds are pretty good that it's a sound already forming in the ear of some prodigy who happens to be neither white nor male.