It takes a national holiday to get classical music to program something different. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day and during Black History Month, you can hear black composers. For International Women’s Day, it’s female composers.
That day is March 8, and there are a number of related concerts, including, at the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony Orchestra and Ben Folds presenting a women-themed “Declassified” program with comedian Sarah Silverman (March 8) and cellist Steven Isserlis contrasting three well-known works by men with three lesser-known works by their female contemporaries (March 6).
But for sheer length and intensity, these can’t hold a candle to a three-day festival that weekend at Blind Whino and Strathmore’s auxiliary venue AMP. The festival will flood the zone with female composers and performers, starting Friday night with marquee violinist Jennifer Koh and composer Missy Mazzoli. On Friday and Saturday, a day ticket gives you access to a kaleidoscope of performances, from a meditation embracing precepts of Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening by Amanda Gookin to a brass quartet called Izula Horns.
The festival is the maiden outing of the Boulanger Initiative, formed last March to promote the music of women through a concert series (starting next season); by helping organizations curate more diverse seasons, and offering advice and support; and through this festival, which is projected as an annual event.
“We were aware of all these little things popping up around the country,” says Laura Colgate, a violinist and the initiative’s co-founder. “But we said, ‘There’s no hub, there’s no big grand gesture that everyone can go to.’ ”
Why do we need a festival of women’s music? The statistics offer an eloquent answer. In the 2014-2015 season, only 1.8 percent of the music performed by the top 22 American orchestras was by women, according to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. For the coming season of 2019-2020, the Institute for Composer Diversity at the State University of New York has surveyed 40 American orchestras and seen a slightly better number of 6.5 percent — perhaps reflecting a degree of consciousness-raising in the past few years, as well as a larger pool of orchestras. Orchestras, obviously, are only one part of the classical music world, but these statistics reflect an ongoing underrepresentation of women in the field that increasingly, but slowly, some are trying to correct.
The problem, of course, is even more acute when it comes to historical figures. A number of people believe that the whole point of classical music ensembles is to perform an established canon of masterworks — written almost exclusively by men. Too few realize that this canon was not shaped entirely by artistic merit. There were plenty of periods when women were active as composers. They just happened to get left out of the history books.
“There’s such a wealth of repertory from history that just isn’t played,” says Colgate, the Boulanger Initiative founder. “That was a shot in the head for me: ‘How has it not occurred to you that this was a problem?’ ”
Once Colgate realized this, she wrote her dissertation at the University of Maryland on neglected female composers, coupled with three concerts spotlighting the music of 22 women.
While writing in a coffee shop at College Park one day, Colgate was introduced to the organist Joy-Leilani Garbutt, who also was writing a dissertation on neglected female composers. The idea for the Boulanger Initiative, named for Lili Boulanger, the gifted French composer who died at age 24, was born at their first meeting last year. While Garbutt is in France on a Fulbright scholarship, Colgate is holding down the fort with a 14-member volunteer staff and 22 volunteers on the side — all while serving in her first season as concertmaster of two orchestras, in El Paso and Greenville, S.C., in addition to doing freelance work. “Executive director by day, violinist by night,” she jokes.
The number of Boulanger volunteers reflects the level of interest in the project, right from the start.
“We put out a call for submissions” for performers, Colgate says, “and we sort of expected 20 or 30 regional submissions. We got 80, and 10 of them were international.” At that point, they changed their concept for the festival to involve significantly more events. The goal, Colgate says, is to “put someone in a building for eight hours, have them wander around and be blown away by how much women composers are doing and offering, the vast array that’s out there.”
One feature of the festival is an afternoon of “boot-camp booths” during which music professionals — musicians, publicists and managers among them — will take free half-hour appointments to talk to anyone interested in their services. These are being curated by the Baltimore-based composer Alexandra Gardner.
“Usually I shy away from the all-ladies initiatives,” Gardner says. “I haven’t participated so much in the women-only festivals, and I honestly, truly hope there is a time in our lifetime when we don’t have to think about this at all.”
But the Boulanger Initiative, she says, “is an unusual thing to happen in D.C. It felt like a good thing happening in my hometown. . . . They’re working to create a sustainable model for the music world that isn’t just about, dare I say it, building walls. It’s less about bashing up against things and more about opening a door to a landscape of a musical world that looks more like life on planet Earth.”
The Boulanger Initiative’s WOCO (Women Composers) festival March 8-10 at Blind Whino and Strathmore. boulangerinitiative.org.
Dora Pejacevic: Symphony in F-sharp minor (1918)
Elena Ruehr: String Quartet No. 5, “Bel Canto” (2010)
Caroline Shaw: Partita for eight voices (2009-12)
Grazyna Bacewicz: Quartet for four violins (1949)
Meredith Monk: Songs of Ascension (2008)