An orchestra as an agent of feminist change? Given the traditional sexism that has been rampant in the field for so long, it sounds like the setup for a bad joke.
“On the surface of it, it seems quite off-mission,” says Marin Alsop, the BSO’s music director (and known to far too many simply as “the woman conductor”). But, she adds, “right now we’re comfortable doing this, trying to be leaders in our community. It’s important that we open our doors and embrace people from all different walks of life, not just this one segment of the population.” Not only the people, that is, who attend classical music concerts.
Indeed, classical music attendance is dwindling, and orchestras are increasingly seeking to establish their roles in a culture that increasingly marginalizes them. But it’s an unusual step to seek this role outside of music entirely.
WoW is the brainchild of Jude Kelly, the artistic director of London’s Southbank Centre, where the first WoW festival was held in 2011 (another iteration will be held there next week). Kelly, like Alsop, is a woman sitting nearly alone at the top of her field, and over the years she has watched the stubborn persistence of the equality gap.
“Young women were saying to me, ‘I’m not a feminist, but . . . ’ ” she says. “In the ‘but’ were all kinds of attitudes they were coming up against. I realized this is something that needs to be discussed now. The conversation needs to be had again.”
Most performing arts centers present a range of events, not only music. “I think of [the Southbank Centre] as being a safe space to talk about difficult things,” Kelly says. “That’s what art can provide.”
An orchestra has a different mandate. It has not, traditionally, courted diversity or looked for different kinds of things to do — much less stood up for women’s rights. What orchestras do is give concerts.
At least, that’s how it has been. But an orchestra is also, in most cities, the owner of an expensive piece of real estate — a concert hall — built and sustained with donations amounting to millions of dollars. Yet relatively few members of any given community go to concerts there.
“One of our long-term goals,” Alsop says, “is to create a destination venue at the Meyerhoff,” the orchestra’s concert hall in Baltimore. “We’d like [it] to become a destination point for people who aren’t just attending concerts but want to participate in the creative process, in gathering as a community.”