To close out the end of Women’s History Month, we spoke with Director of Artistic Planning Rebecca Zabinski about inspiring women in the orchestral world—from composers who pioneered the path for future generations and influential women in music today transforming the classical landscape as we know it.
Houston Symphony: Who are some inspiring women throughout orchestral history?
Rebecca Zabinski: It’s only been very recently, in many of our lifetimes in fact, that a lot of firsts have happened for women in classical music and in orchestral music in particular. In 2007, Marin Alsop made history as the first female music director of a major U.S. orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Until 1913, women were not allowed to be in orchestras with men at all. They were only in separate ensembles. Women even had a hard time finding teachers who would work with them, especially to study instruments that weren’t considered “feminine.” The first woman appointed to a major U.S. orchestra didn’t happen until 1930, so there are people alive today who will still remember that. Even some of the biggest orchestras, like the Vienna Philharmonic, didn’t have their first woman musician until 1997, which is pretty crazy if you think about it, especially because to many of us seeing women in an orchestra is, thankfully, very normal.
Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) was very involved with the British women’s suffrage movement and her composition, “The March of the Women,” became the official anthem of that movement. She was thrown in prison for throwing rocks at someone’s house during a protest. Her friend, Sir Thomas Beecham, a famous British composer and conductor, was worried and went to visit her in prison. He found her leaning out a window conducting the other women prisoners with a toothbrush as they sang “March of the Women.” She’s a composer that many of us are just rediscovering now. Like many women composers, she struggled to get her work published and performed.
Florence Price (1887–1953) was the first African American woman to have a large-scale composition performed by a U.S. orchestra. We featured Smyth’s Songs for Mezzo-soprano with Instrumental Accompaniment and Price’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor this past September in Live from Jones Hall: Great Women Composers.
Like Price and Smyth, there are so many female composers who wrote beautiful music that hasn’t been performed regularly and isn’t well-known because they didn’t have the same opportunities men had, even though they’re very influential, like Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979) and Lili Boulanger (1893–1918).
Lili was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome composition competition, which is one of the most elite composition competitions in the world, especially in her day. Her sister, Nadia, came in second place. Lili died at a very young age and Nadia stopped composing after that, but Nadia went on to become a very influential teacher, teaching many famous musicians like Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones, and Thea Musgrave. The list of her students is very long. She was friends with Stravinsky and conducted his premieres. Even so, unless you’re someone who is really studying music, you may never come across the names of the Boulanger sisters.
There are so many women out there with similar stories, whose names are unfamiliar for no reason other than that they’re women, and they happened to live during a time when women were discouraged from pursuing careers in music. Who knows what these women could have achieved if they had been afforded the kind of opportunities men had and didn’t have to worry about proving themselves just because they’re women?
HS: These women helped paved the way for females today. Who are some of the women inspiring you in the 21st century?
RZ: Thinking about women who have made great achievements in areas that are considered traditionally male, for lack of a better term, Evelyn Glennie is a percussion soloist who is incredibly iconic. She’s a female percussionist which is already rare, but she is also deaf, so she’s figured out a way to sort of feel the music with her whole body. She’s transcended many obstacles to become a world-renowned percussionist.
On Opening Night, we played a piece by Keiko Abe, Conversation in the Forest, for Two Marimbas. She helped develop the five-octave marimba, which is the standard marimba size for solo marimba. This is the marimba size Brian Del Signore, principal percussion, will use for his concerto movement in May.
Valerie Coleman is also a composer and founder of a Grammy-nominated wind group called Imani Winds, which really spotlights minority and women composers. That’s such important work.
Jessie Montgomery is an alum of the Sphinx Organization, based out of Detroit. Their mission is to transform lives through the power of diversity in the arts. The Houston Symphony usually presents the winner of their senior division solo competition at Miller Outdoor Theatre during the summer. They have a composition mentorship program and a touring ensemble of young musicians. Jessie was a part of that program and actually came to Houston with the Sphinx Virtuosi when they were on tour. Since then, she’s written a lot of great music for strings and we were able to program several of her pieces during the pandemic, including Banner at our Opening Night Gala, Strum on our Bank of America POPS series, and we were supposed to perform another work of hers called Starburst on the program we unfortunately had to cancel due to the winter storm.
Gabriela Lena Frank is a former composer-in-residence here at the Houston Symphony, and she also runs the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music where she mentors young composers with an eye towards diversity and inclusion, as well as a focus on climate citizenship.
The orchestra recently performed music by Missy Mazzoli for the first time, Dark with Excessive Bright, a concerto for double bass, during Live from Jones Hall: Mozart and Mazzoli this past August. Mazzoli was one of the first two women to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in 2016. Before that, Ethel Smyth was the only other woman to write an opera that the Met performed!
It’s really cool to see all these women from different backgrounds making their mark and people are really starting to pay attention. It’s creating curiosity to discover more about great women from the past, like Price and Smyth. There are so many others to discover and rediscover!
HS: What do you hope for the future of women in music and the industry as a whole?
RZ: Some day we won’t have women conductors, or women composers, or women musicians, we’ll just have conductors, composers, and musicians.
Jennifer Higdon, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, and Marin Alsop get questions about what it’s like to be the first woman to do things all the time. On one hand, they’re artists, they want to be considered as such. Marin has said that just because people see she was the first music director of a major orchestra or that Jennifer Higdon was the first to win a Pulitzer Prize doesn’t mean that the work is done in terms of gender equality in music. There has to be a second, third, fourths, and many women after them to really make some sort of progress.
Here at the Houston Symphony, you’ll see many women on stage, including in important principal positions. Three of our five string principals are women, including concertmaster Yoonshin Song. All of our department heads here are women, which is something I don’t think a lot of people know. Our planning team is all women, even in operations. And a lot of our managers here are women, which is something a lot of people might not realize is unique for the classical music industry.
This past summer, inclusivity and equality became a much more different type of conversation. When we resumed concerts in July with a re-imagined season, we decided to take the opportunity to include something on every program by a woman or another underrepresented group, and we plan to continue to do so moving forward. We’ve made some strides this year diversifying the composers we feature, which we all feel is a true silver lining amidst the challenges that we’ve faced during the pandemic. The audience response has been enthusiastic, and the orchestra has enjoyed playing works that have been new to many of them, as well as bringing forth suggestions about composers and other musical ideas. It’s changed the way we think about programming and the way we approach future programming. I don’t think the work is done, but I’m happy we’ve been able to move the needle on that area of our programming, and we’re all excited to continue that work.
April programming at the Houston Symphony includes A Bach Easter, led by Baroque specialist Jane Glover and featuring soloists Yoonshin Song, concertmaster, Jonathan Fischer, principal oboe, and Aralee Dorough, principal flute, along with guest vocalists Yulia Van Doren and Elizabeth DeShong; Hollywood Serenade: The Artistry of Caroline Campbell, featuring the incredible Campbell on solo violin; and Brian Del Signore Plus Brahms, featuring Jennifer Higdon’s “Celestial Blue” from Dance Card to open the program.