The Wiener Festwochen say: “There are no more excuses” for inequality

In the world of classical music, progress towards gender equality can seem incredibly slow.

Recent big wins include allowing women in the New York Philharmonic to perform in pants and naming the second woman – ever – to the role of music director in one of the 25 largest orchestras in the United States. The Berlin Philharmonic, one of the world's largest ensembles, hired its first female concertmaster last year.

Frustrated by the stubborn gender imbalances in classical music, the directors of the Wiener Festwochen, a prestigious arts festival in Vienna, formed the “Academy of Second Modernism” this year, an initiative that will present works by 50 female and non-binary composers in five year period.

This season, fewer than 8% of the approximately 16,000 works performed by 111 orchestras around the world were composed by women, according to a report by Donne, Women in Music, an organization that works for equity in music. classical music industry. Of those works, the vast majority were by white women.

According to the report, three of the 10 orchestras that performed the highest percentage of works composed by women were in the United States: the American Composers Orchestra in New York, the Chicago Sinfonietta and the National Philharmonic in North Bethesda, Maryland. York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestra, two of America's top orchestras, only about 10% of the music programmed was by women.

“There are so many of us,” said Bushra El-Turk, a British-Lebanese composer who often blends Western and Eastern musical traditions in her work. “The issue is whether we are given opportunities.”

El-Turk is one of 10 composers joining the Second Modernism Academy this year. On Saturday and Sunday the group's original works will be performed by the chamber ensemble Klangforum Wien, under the title “No Excuses Anymore I and II”. El-Turk's opera, “Woman at Point Zero,” a lament about the struggles of womanhood, was also performed at the Wiener Festwochen last month.

The Arnold Schönberg Center, dedicated to the modernist composer and his contemporaries, will offer a space for some of the initiative's activities.

“From Schoenberg to today we have had many initiatives and talked about emancipation and inclusion,” said Milo Rau, the director of the Wiener Festwochen. But little has changed, he added.

This year, the festival received 13.6 million euros (about 14.8 million dollars) from the Vienna government, and “with the privilege of all this money that we have at our disposal we have a great chance to really change the system” , Rau said. “This is what public funding can do.”

The 10 composers of the Academy of Second Modernism will participate in a two-day summit with representatives from institutions such as the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, the African Women's Orchestra and the Grand Théâtre de Genève. They plan to work on a joint document – ​​or declaration – that outlines steps towards creating equity in classical music.

“We don't want another round table after which nothing changes,” said Jana Beckmann, the initiative's leader. Beckmann said she wants to see institutions commit to “structural changes with concrete measures” and she hopes that uniting people from different countries and sectors of the industry can create sustainable change and maintain accountability.

Mary Ellen Kitchens, who is on the board of the Archive of Women and Music in Germany, is helping to draft the statement. “We're also trying to focus on programming more contemporary music,” Kitchens said. “The chances of greater equality or diversity are much greater that way.”

One reason for the continuing injustice in classical music appears to be that living composers are often surpassed by their long-dead predecessors. According to the Women, Women in Music report, about 80% of the works performed by orchestras around the world this season were composed by dead white men like Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

Those responsible for music programming are fixated on the idea, Beckmann said, that “audiences want to see the canon.” But, he added, they must ask themselves: “How can we seduce the audience and invite them to new experiences?”

Vienna's classical music scene, one of the most renowned in the world, has long been particularly unequal. The Vienna Philharmonic did not offer women the opportunity to audition until 1997, and today only 17% of its members are women. In 2011, it hired its first female concertmaster, the highest-ranking member of an orchestra.

According to the Women, Women in Music report, during the most recent season, none of the 69 works performed by the Vienna Philharmonic were composed by women or people of color. The orchestra's New Year's concert, a popular event that was seen live by millions this year, has never been conducted by a female conductor.

Du Yun, a New York-based composer of Chinese origin who is part of the Academy of Second Modernism, said some institutions appear to be afraid of introducing new composers for fear of obliterating heavyweights from previous centuries.

“When people are afraid, sometimes, they think we exist to tear down everything else, to tear down the white man, to tear down Beethoven,” Du said. “But I cry for Beethoven. Bach is one of my favorite composers. Why is a boy from Shanghai not afraid of Bach, while the audience in Vienna is afraid of a boy from Shanghai?”

Monthati Masebe, a South African composer and one of the initiative's first 10 members, said it is a mistake to think of classical music as a strictly Western tradition.

“The birth of classical music as a genre has influenced people from all over the world, and there are many examples of classical composers across the African continent, across all types of diasporas,” Masebe said. “Music continually crosses borders and boundaries.”

The international appeal and influence of classical music is evident from the backgrounds of the composers chosen for the first round of the Second Modernism Academy, who come from countries including Turkey, Iran, Belarus and the Philippines.

El-Turk said that in addition to their love of classical music, the group is also united by its mission: “It seems like we all care about making change and giving a voice to those who have no voice.”

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