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.”
Alsop, an artist in residence at the Southbank Centre, took part in last year’s WoW festival in London; she is generally tapped whenever women’s issues in the arts are under discussion. She decided to bring a version of the festival to Baltimore and set out to explore with local women — and a few men — what subjects it might address.
The idea dovetailed nicely with the focus on women that runs throughout the orchestra’s 2011-12 season. One season highlight coincides with this weekend’s festival: “Voices of Light,” a work by Richard Einhorn conceived as live accompaniment to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”
But these performances are not part of WoW; they’re not even mentioned in the WoW brochure. There is a WoW concert at the Meyerhoff on Saturday — but it features Mary Chapin Carpenter and other female artists. The BSO won’t even be in town; it will be playing at Strathmore that night.
“In this particular instance,” Alsop says, “I think we want to be ambassadors to the community on a broader plane.” Reaching outside the classical music box has won the orchestra some new constituents: None of WoW’s sponsors had given money to the orchestra before.
The BSO’s festival is an extreme example of an orchestra taking on nonmusical issues. But it isn’t an isolated one.
“I think it just builds on what’s been happening in the field,” says Jesse Rosen, president and chief executive of the League of American Orchestras, “acknowledging that classical music inhabits a world of ideas. As orchestras are looking for more and more ways to engage more people, they’re increasingly looking at broader streams of cultural activity to plug themselves into.”
Other orchestras are also thinking outside the concert hall. The Cleveland Orchestra, under Franz Welser-Most, has joined in scientific symposia on music and the brain at the Salzburg Festival and elsewhere. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is partnering with Bard College and the Longy School of Music in an initiative called “Take a Stand” to train music educators around the country. A new consortium of four orchestras — the Pacific Symphony, the Buffalo Philharmonic, the North Carolina Symphony and the Louisville Orchestra — is exploring ways to work with museums and universities to show music’s place in a wider cultural context.
“What’s going on is a role change,” Rosen says. “Orchestras are looking at themselves as being responsive citizens in their communities. They do that first and foremost through the music they create. But they have capacities and interests that extend beyond just giving concerts.”
Given the rather creaky way in which orchestras have tended to address social change within their ranks, Alsop and the BSO may be wise to turn their focus outward. WoW is not setting out to reform orchestras — only, modestly, all of society. Alsop hopes that Baltimore’s WoW, like the Southbank Centre’s, will become an annual event. There are plans for other WoW festivals worldwide, from Iceland to Australia.
But by talking about something nonmusical, even an orchestra stands to benefit.
“I think there’s a vitality that comes out of artistic organizations feeling they belong to the society they’re in,” Kelly says. “It doesn’t split their focus; it energizes.”
And it’s not a bad idea to turn discussions of change into a celebration.
“Having fun,” Kelly says, “is a good way to convince people that changing the world is quite a nice thing to do.”
will be held Friday to Sunday at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and other venues in Baltimore. A one-day pass to festival events (daytime only) is $10; a weekend pass is $20.