No Fiction Festival: Musical Truths

photo of Nathalie Joachim and Amy Beach

Above:  Composers Nathalie Joachim and Amy Beach

By Paul Finkelstein, Artistic Planning Manager

If you have a chance, I highly recommend listening to the recent On Being podcast, “Song of Haiti’s Women” featuring flautist, composer and SPCO Liquid Music Series collaborator Nathalie Joachim. Throughout the podcast, Nathalie paints an image of her family’s native Haiti that is different than the one I am used to seeing portrayed in the media. Haiti’s tragic history of exploitation, poverty and natural disasters is just one side of a very complex coin. The people of Haiti have shown incredible resilience in the face of distress. Acts of kindness and giving are commonplace in Haitian culture. As Nathalie explains strikingly, “there’s something very beautiful about people who can find it in themselves to love, when everything around them has crumbled.”

Nathalie’s Liquid Music project, Fanm d’Ayiti, seeks to tell stories of the women of Haitian song. Also part of the Liquid Music Series, Brian Harnetty’s Shawnee, Ohio traces the fraught history of a thriving Appalachian mining town of the late 19th century through over 100 years of economic, environmental and social stress—and on to today’s controversial fracking boom. These are two of three events featured within the SPCO’s No Fiction Festival, which uses music to get at the emotional heart of true, powerful stories that have all too often been misrepresented.

The third project, Strong Sisters, centers around the music of Nadia and Lili Boulanger. In 1913, Lili was the first female to win the coveted grand prize of the Prix de Rome for composition. Her older sister Nadia was the first female to conduct many of the world’s great orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony. Perhaps even more notably, Nadia was the most influential teacher of music in the 20th century. Her students included Aaron Copland, Daniel Barenboim, Philip Glass, Elliot Carter and Astor Piazzolla.

Another part of the Strong Sisters program I am very excited to hear is Amy Beach’s Piano Quintet, Opus 67, particularly its luscious and breathtaking second movement. Beach was one of the first American female composers to gain prominence, despite significant societal pressures working against her. Just as Fanny Mendelssohn 60 years earlier, Beach lived in a society in which music was thought to be merely ornamental in a woman’s life. The work of composition in particular was deemed too intellectual and scientific for a woman. Despite showing great musical promise as a child, Beach was denied opportunities to study composition formally. And so she taught herself.

In a wonderful recent New York Times article, William Robbin celebrated Amy Beach, her struggles and her contributions to the field of composition. While the story of Amy Beach might seem dated, the larger story of the under-representation of women in the field of composition today makes her story completely relevant. In 2014, Alex Ambrose found that just 15% of the faculty at top conservatories are women. Even more startlingly, women represented only 9 percent of the recipients of major musical composition prizes. To cement this inequity, Ricky O’Bannon with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra found that in the 2014-15 season, women composers accounted for just 14.3 percent of performances of works by living composers at the 22 largest orchestras in America.

While the logic that held women back in composition 100 years ago is patently false, systemic biases remain that prevent women from having equal opportunities in the world of classical music. Our No Fiction Festival represents some of the work being done to realign those misplaced preferences, but there is still much more to do. As programmers at the SPCO, the work of telling these stories helps to crucially place equal opportunity at the forefront of our consciousness. Too often, I hear the gender imbalance scapegoated on “the pipeline” of music education. In reality, we all have to do our part: from the public schools to the conservatories to the composition competitions to the orchestral presenters. As we at the SPCO program future seasons, we will hold ourselves accountable to a high standard of gender equality, particularly in our commissioning of new music. The time for making excuses is over.

Enjoy the upcoming SPCO No Fiction Festival performances at the: 

  • Amsterdam Bar and Hall (Liquid Music Series, Nathalie Joachim: Fanm d’Ayiti), 
  • Turf Club (Chamber Music Series: Strong Sisters, March 15),
  • Capri Theater (Chamber Music Series: Strong Sisters, March 16), 
  • Center for the Performing Arts at St. Paul Academy and Summit School (Chamber Music Series: Strong Sisters, March 17-18) and
  • Mairs Hall at Macalester College (Liquid Music Series, Brian Harnetty: Shawnee, Ohio)!