March is Women’s History Month and the Houston Symphony is marking the occasion by talking with Joan DerHovsepian, acting principal viola; Aralee Dorough, principal flute; and MuChen Hsieh, principal second violin; about their musical influences and the women that have inspired and helped them along the way.
Houston Symphony: Who are some of your female influences that have inspired you throughout your career?
Joan DerHovsepian: A strong love of music was most definitely nurtured by my musician mom, as well as guidance from some exceptional viola teachers who are phenomenal women. When I first joined the working world, I realized there were great female role models all around me for inspiration. I feel a kinship with my female colleagues in this orchestra. Each one of them has a rich and unique story to tell about their musical background and the effort it took to land a job in a major symphony orchestra. And now, every week they grace the stage while balancing the complex responsibilities women have of work, family, and all the rest.
Aralee Dorough: I have quite a few! Nadine Asin, former piccoloist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and faculty member of the Aspen Music School, became my private lesson teacher when I was 15 and helped me through the difficult process of auditioning for music schools. She had only recently graduated from Juilliard herself, but was already working professionally in New York City. I was completely inspired by her amazing sound and technique, her musical depth, her professional aura, and her tough, no nonsense demeanor. She was the perfect role model for me at that formative time. I also deeply admire my colleague here in Houston, flutist Leone Buyse, the Joseph and Ida K. Mullen Professor of Flute at Rice University.
Women’s History Month, as related to the symphonic world, would not be complete without my mentioning some of the first female principal players in the United States. When Doriot Anthony Dwyer—distantly related to suffragist Susan B. Anthony—was hired as principal flute with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, critics doubted a women would have enough “breath stamina” to play a wind instrument. She proved them wrong, and had a logical retort, “What about opera singers?” Although I never got to meet her, I did have the pleasure of speaking to her on the phone once. I grew up listening to her recordings with the BSO, an LP of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé.
Alice Chalifoux, harpist with the Cleveland Orchestra, was my chamber music coach at Oberlin. My father bought me an LP of Mozart flute concertos when I was starting the flute, featuring a photo of soloist Elaine Shaffer on the cover, looking very confident. The cover and her playing inspired me, and when I joined the Houston Symphony I was delighted to find out that she had played here between 1948–1953. She was the wife of Music Director Efrem Kurz.
MuChen Hsieh: My musical influences are Janine Jansen, Masuko Ushioda, and Kathleen Winkler. They continue to be my inspirations daily. I am drawn to Janine Jansen’s deep musical expressions. Both Masuko Ushioda and Kathleen Winkler are my former teachers. Every single day I play the violin, I am reminded of their wisdom, care, and love for music.
HS: Do you have particular female composers that you admire? Why?
JD: Composer and concert pianist Clara Schumann is a special hero of mine and is someone I will always wish to have seen in person. She was a multifaceted human being and musician, a real powerhouse—and mother of 8! To be doing what she was, at that time in history, is truly remarkable. Rebecca Clarke is a notable composer for violists. Her sonata entry at a U.S. composers’ competition caused quite a stir when it was favored by the judges and then discovered to be penned by a woman, in the significant year of 1919. Clarke’s imaginative and beautifully written viola sonata is one of our best pieces to date. Nowadays, there is a wealth of impactful female composers and we’re finally paying attention to them.
AD: Right now, my favorite female composer is…me! I’ve been using my extra time this year to explore my interest in writing music. I’m studying remotely with a terrific musician in Berlin named Markus Reuter and he is patiently working with me towards the goal of recording a whole album of original music. Although I know a lot about playing music, this is the first time I’ve worked on the basics of creating music and I’ve been learning so much! Way back when I was a freshman at the Oberlin Conservatory, I met with someone on the composition faculty and asked about starting a minor in composition. After looking at two of my pieces and saying they were not very interesting, he pointed me towards a class titled “Composition for Non-Majors.” It should have been called composition for non-composers. It was taught by an old professor with Albert Einstein hair who had been Arnold Schoenberg’s personal secretary in Vienna. Each class was a monologue during which he would gleefully attack the piano, hammering out Beethoven’s sonatas and explaining their construction. I was highly entertained by his antics and personality, but the underlying message seemed to me: Beethoven was such a genius, why should the rest of us even bother? I steered clear of composition classes from then on with no regrets. If I hadn’t put all my focus on developing my flute playing and learning the orchestral repertoire over the next years, I might not have this career as an orchestral player that I love so much. But in hindsight, I do marvel at that lack of encouragement. To the active composers of today, female and male, I want to say, thank you for persisting and being brave in your work so that we can have more music in the world.
HS: What guidance or advice would you give you aspiring female musicians?
JD: The orchestral world is a forward thinking one and a wonderful place for a life in music, gender aside. The Houston Symphony is a bright example of this equal representation, both onstage and off, from our concertmaster to our senior management. I have never felt my musical contribution in any way defined by my gender. The dream of a fulfilling career in music requires vision, passion, and grit. It is the sound emanating from the instrument that matters. That is our North Star.
MH: Be yourself and continue to strive for the best version of yourself.
AD: Work hard!
Hear Joan, Aralee, and MuChen in the upcoming concerts Esa-Pekka Salonen Conducts Bach, Beethoven, and Salonen on March 26–28, and A Bach Easter on April 2 & 3. In-person and livestream tickets are available now.