Evolution of women composers a missing link in new concert series

Why does the NCH need €20,000 before it will bother exploring music by women?

The first of the 13 concerts in the National Concert Hall's new International Concert Series gets under way tonight with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Leonard Bernstein centenary celebration. Marin Alsop conducts and Nicola Benedetti is the violin soloist in the Serenade after Plato's Symposium that the composer wrote in 1954.

The title International Concert Series was first used by the NCH in 2011, the year the hall's current CEO, Simon Taylor, took up his post, but before he would have been in a position to influence any naming decisions, let alone programming choices.

His predecessor, Judith Woodworth, had grouped the hall's main promotions into orchestral and celebrity strands. Taylor has used the single strand he inherited in an inclusive way, adding choral concerts (this season's come from The Cardinall's Musick on Tuesday October 9th and Chanticleer on Sunday January 20th) and blending the orchestral component with chamber ensemble and solo recitals.

He has tinkered with the formula over the years. He created strands within the series with headings such as Great Artists, International Orchestras, Piano Masters, International Choral Series, and Sunday Matinee Series before returning in 2016 to the single overarching title. The number of events fluctuated, too, beginning with 17 in 2012-13, peaking with 18 in 2017-18 before reaching this year’s nadir of 13.



Taylor has also overseen an increase in the range of non-classical events that the hall promotes, and within the hall’s classical promotions he has filtered out separate chamber music series: 16 concerts with leading international performers in 2014-15, 33 with mostly Irish-connected musicians in 2017-18 and 20 for the new 2018-19 season.

In 2017 he started a New Year Chamber Music Gathering early in January, three concerts in a single day bringing together different generations of Irish performers. And he has also run other, shorter strands in the Kevin Barry Recital Room since it opened in 2016.

He has shown a willingness to take risks and given a broad embrace to Irish musicians on a scale that the hall seems never even to have contemplated before his arrival.

What has me thinking about Taylor is the NCH’s new Chamber Music Series. It’s got four strands in it: Sunday String Quartets, the Evolution of the Trio Sonata, Female Composers and Couperin 350, marking the 350th anniversary of the birth of the great French baroque composer François Couperin. The major development here is the concentration on music by women: six concerts between November and April which are being presented in partnership with Sounding the Feminists and with special support from the Department of Culture.

The starting point of the concerts is miles away from the kind of development that has taken part in the world of theatre. Waking the Feminists has inspired the theatre practitioners to focus on gender balance at all levels of theatre activity. The NCH is taking a more historical approach.

Sets the tone

The opening concert by the Fidelio Trio on Thursday November 1st sets the tone: a work from 1846, Clara Schumann's Piano Trio, is followed by pieces written in the first half of the 20th century by Enniskillen's Joan Trimble, Lili Boulanger and Rebecca Clarke.

The second and third programmes blur the waters. In the second, Charles Villiers Stanford's Cello Sonata No 2 appears along with works by Fanny Robinson, Nadia Boulanger and Leokadiya Kashperova, long known as Stravinsky's piano teacher but only recently gaining recognition as a composer.

Debussy and Fauré are the cuckoos in the nest in the third programme, where they feature along with works by Cécile Chaminade, Augusta Holmès, Adela Maddison, Hope Temple and Lili Boulanger. It’s not at all clear why two of the programmes require the contemporary contextualisation of music by men and the rest do not.

Concorde offer an evening of living female "trailblazers". The Irish Baroque Orchestra's Donne Barocche include Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Barbara Strozzi, Antonia Bembo, Rosa Giacinta Badalla and Isabella Leonarda. And the cello and piano programme by Miriam Roycroft and Lance Coburn covers Louise Farrenc, Vítezslava Kaprálová, Ethel Smyth, Luise Adolpha LeBeau and Henriëtte Bosmans. There won't be many listeners at any of those concerts who will be familiar with everything that's being played.

The NCH seems torn between integrating music by women and consigning it to a ghetto

The string quartet strand juxtaposes established ensembles with emerging groups without any distinction in ticket price, and only the Ficino Ensemble's opening programme on Sunday September 23rd fails to include work by a living composer. The living composers chosen by the Navarra, Carducci, Shandon, Esposito and Lir quartets are all men. The two programmes by the RTÉ ConTempo Quartet feature pieces by Jennifer Walshe and Linda Buckley.

Misses a trick

Overall, the chamber music series misses a trick by leaving women completely out of the Evolution of the Trio Sonata strand, while including in the female composer series a work by composer who could have usefully contributed to the trio sonata strand. And no female composer contextualisation is offered in Malcolm Proud’s three Couperin programmes, although other composers (Telemann, Marais and Purcell) do get a look-in.

The NCH seems torn between integrating music by women and consigning it to a ghetto.

The biggest mystery, however, lies elsewhere. Why does the NCH need €20,000 from the Department of Culture to put on concerts of music by women? It seems the entirely the wrong message that the State’s only national cultural institution for music can only bother to explore music by women in depth if they get extra money for it.

Yes, I know that the hall’s female composer activities will also include the commissioning of work by women and a strand on “female artists working in today’s contemporary music space”. But requiring extra money for those, too, sends out an equally unhelpful message.

Music by women is way down the agenda in the International Concert Series. Creating a ghetto for it only with special funding does not suggest that Simon Taylor and the NCH have yet absorbed the message that the theatre world has been so ready to embrace. In music, as I have already pointed out, the West Cork Chamber Music Festival and the BBC in Belfast have shown a seriously integrated way forward. It’s time for the NCH to think about following their lead.