The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Women composers take the spotlight — and the National Cathedral bell tower — at WoCo Fest

Violinist Laura Colgate is entering her third year producing WoCo Fest, a four-day festival presented by Strathmore and the Boulanger Initiative. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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An earlier version of this story said that Sunday’s free carillon finale at Washington National Cathedral would be live-streamed to listeners in the amphitheater on the grounds below. Plans have been changed, and listeners now will gather in the Cathedral Cloister Courtyard (a.k.a. the Garth), and the bell ringing will not be live-streamed. This version has been updated.

When, around 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 6, the bells of Washington National Cathedral ring out over Northwest Washington carrying Hildegard von Bingen’s “O frondens virga,” will anyone within earshot pause to wonder by whom the bells toll?

“I think in people’s imaginations, I have a hunchback and I’m swinging from bell to bell,” says Julie Zhu, artist, composer and talented, hunch-free carillonneur, who will take to the bell tower to close out this year’s installment of WoCo Fest.

The four-day festival (June 3-6), presented by Strathmore and the Boulanger Initiative, is an extension of Boulanger’s founding mission: advancing the work of women in classical music.

But the other, more pressing-feeling item on the agenda this time around is right there in this year’s theme: “Revelry.”

“After not being able to experience live music for so long, there’s just such a hole in all of our spirits,” says violinist Laura Colgate, who is entering her third year producing WoCo. “I think this year, everybody’s just grasping onto the thought of finally being able to do this.”

The Boulanger Initiative, which Colgate and organist Joy-Leilani Garbutt co-founded, has offered performance opportunities and commissions for women composers since its launch in 2019. The initiative also has put an intensive focus on educational programs: creating curriculum supplements and teacher training; offering online courses and workshops at elementary and high schools; and soon, launching residencies at conservatories — where faculty may have as much to learn about unheard music by unsung women as their students.

“Now when they’re learning about Mozart, when they learn about Beethoven, they’re also learning about all these women composers who have just dropped out of history,” says Colgate, who is also concertmaster for the National Philharmonic at Strathmore and the Greenville Symphony Orchestra in South Carolina. “If we can start with that generation that’s coming up, that fixes the problem for the next generation.”

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The omission of women from the classical canon is often presumed to be a passive function of absence, as though these Women Who Compose Music simply never existed. A database the Boulanger Initiative started last year offers a bold corrective to this notion, having assembled some 600 composers and more than 7,000 pieces of repertoire from across history and around the world.

The festival opens Thursday with an afternoon of online workshops for composers led by the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble, followed by a performance of the ensemble’s “Fresh Voices” program, featuring Becky Turro, Patricia Wallinga, Chelsea Komschlies, Ayanna Woods and others.

Friday’s program at Strathmore’s new open-air Trawick Terrace features New York’s Overlook Quartet, as well as a set by Big Dog Little Dog, composer Jessie Montgomery’s intriguing Americana-hued duo with composer Eleonore Oppenheim. The North Carolina-based composer-performer Brittany J. Green will close the evening with a set of improvised electronics.

Saturday’s program (also at the Trawick Terrace) includes cellist Amanda Gookin, flutist-composer Allison Loggins-Hull, evening performances by Brooklyn’s ChamberQueer and JACK Quartet, as well as a centerpiece panel including Zhu, Montgomery, Green, Loggins-Hull and composer Inti Figgis-Vizueta.

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And Sunday’s free finale at the cathedral will assemble listeners in the Cathedral Cloister Courtyard (a.k.a. the Garth) to hear Zhu aloft in the towers hammering away at the Kibbey Carillon’s many keys and pedals, striking bells that weigh between 17 pounds and 12 tons. (It’s the third-heaviest in the world.)

Along with the von Bingen transcriptions (from Beverly R. Lomer and Sofia Gubaidulina), Zhu will perform folk music adaptations (such as Sally Slade Warner’s arrangement of “Londonderry Air”) and, for good measure, a dash of Beyoncé. (I guarantee Zhu’s “Sandcastles” beats the one I pull out at karaoke.)

“People don’t choose to listen to the carillon,” Zhu says with a laugh. “It’s just sort of broadcast, so there’s a responsibility, I think the carillonneur has, to play music that everyone is able to appreciate.”

Tickets for the WoCo Fest are sold in pods of four, and can be purchased for individual sessions or full-day passes. Virtual passes also are available, as the entire festival will be live-streamed.

A cursory glance at the program reveals a healthy amount of crossover — composers and performers playing one another’s works, collaborating in new forms and engaging in a kind of mutual discovery — and a seizing of the moment.

For Figgis-Vizueta, the creation of active creative space for living, breathing communities of composers might be even more important than repairing a long-broken history.

“We have a really rich community practicing right now,” says the composer originally from Washington and now based in New York. “And a space like this is actually how some of that moves forward — outside of closed rooms and whisper networks.”

Representation and inclusion should be as much about amending the past as taking practical steps to shore up the future.

“The majority of my inbox is young people,” Figgis-Vizueta says. “They’re like, ‘Hey, I saw you do this thing, that’s so cool, I never thought this was possible.’ When you see different legacies and different lineages appearing and affirming themselves in spaces like this, that’s how people can start to see themselves there.”

And for Colgate, whose drive to open ears to a new canon seems fueled by just the right balance of celebration and frustration, the best reason to fill one’s days with music by women doubles as the simplest: Because, contrary to popular belief, you can.

“I still get the question, ‘Is there really enough music written by women to do a full concert?’ ” Colgate says with a melody of exasperation. “I’m banging my head against the wall that I still get that question. Come to the festival — it’s an entire weekend and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”