Dallas — North Texas has a strong classical music scene with internationally known organizations, but at this time in particular, the focus on women in classical music is shining a national and international spotlight on us.
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra is in the middle of a Women in Classical Music Symposium, with a flagship event of panels and workshops, plus the debut of Gemma New as the DSO’s Principal Guest Conductor on the podium on a program this weekend that is bookended by works by Debussy, with a world premiere by Steven Mackey and a Dallas premiere by New Zealand composer Salina Fisher. Additionally, the fifth Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors, an initiative of The Dallas Opera, ends this weekend with a collaboration between the Dallas Symphony and the Hart Institute, a concert featuring the six women conductors selected as Hart Institute fellows this year. And next week, on Nov. 16, The Cliburn in Fort Worth hosts a concert at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth entitled Women of the Pulitzer that will feature work by Pulitzer Prize-winning women composers Jennifer Higdon, Caroline Shaw, and Julia Wolfe.
Although disparity between the opportunities available to women conductors, composers, and classical music administrators and those available to men still exists, Dallas is — when compared to other cities — a relatively welcoming place for women in the field.
Kim Noltemy, who is closing her second year as president and CEO of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, describeS her first few months at the DSO: “I was just investigating more and more in the Arts District and what was happening in Dallas and finding out what an important role women have played in the arts in general and at the Dallas Symphony.” She added, “Dallas in every respect is a little more welcoming by virtue of the people who live here and the fact that it is full of transplants from all over the country.”
But the fact that Dallas continues to be a welcoming place for women is the case not for incidental reasons but because the city’s music institutions have worked hard to open doors. The two most notable examples of this are the Hart Institute and the DSO’s new initiative.
The Hart Institute, launched by former Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny in 2015, has now become the “gold standard” for educating women conductors and empowering them in the field, according to David Lomelí, Dallas Opera Director of Administration, who now runs the program. “This week we have some of the best of the best in the business here…We are very big leaders and pioneers and innovators in the field of gender equality in classical music,” he says.
Speak to program alumnae, and they will affirm: The Hart Institute has shaped careers for women conductors around the world. This year the institute welcomes back Elizabeth Askren as the first alumna to serve as faculty ambassador for the six 2019 fellows. “It really is a sustained and meaningful relationship that the program has with its participants, and we are all very grateful,” Askren says.
The institute is unique in offering not only fellowships for six conductors but also fellowships for three opera administrators, as well as at least three observers. The decision to include administrators reflects the fact that the difficulty for women in classical music is not that there is a lack of talented and artistically innovative women but rather that getting access to the business and marketing skills can be hard to do, especially as a woman.
This year’s Hart Institute fellows are Tiffany Chang (USA), Jane Kim (USA), Tamara Dworetz (USA), Marta Kluczyńska (Poland), Madeline Tsai (Taiwan), and Molly Turner (USA). This year’s three observers are Sarah Klein, Rebecca Henry, and Rachel Waddell. To see our update on the women from the first four years of the Hart Institute, go here.
Stephanie Rhodes Russell, a former fellow who now serves as associate conductor of the Grand Teton Music Festival and conducting fellow at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, understands this problem intimately. In 2018, three years after she attended in the Hart Institute as a fellow, she founded the Women’s Artistic Leadership Initiative, a non-profit organization that that aims to give women in the arts leadership skills and business acumen necessary to succeed in their respective fields. It was, in part, her participation in the Hart Institute that made her realize the importance of gaining skills beyond music in order to take control of her own career. “They address a lot of business aspects of the profession,” she says. “And I felt that those messages were very-opening for me. I’m not just a creative personality. I have a lot of that organizational, business savvy, if you will, but then [during the Hart Institute programming] I realized how much I just didn’t know —– and also when it comes to leadership styles or characteristics, how often I have placed myself in the backseat.”
Advancing the careers of women administrators in classical music, as the Hart Institute does, is one piece of the puzzle. Lomelí points out, “What makes us successful is not only that it is a very dear-to-the-world issue that we are addressing and that we’re putting our money where our mouth is, but it is also the fact that our methodology works. We train commercially successful conductors…commercially successful meaning that they can pay their bills from conducting. It’s not only teaching them the craft — it’s also teaching them how to eat from their craft.” This year the institute curriculum includes classes on basic marketing principles, digital marketing for the arts, and other business skills.
Noltemy also pointed out that one of the main challenges for women conductors, composers, and music administrators is that can be hard to build a Rolodex deep enough to get a foot in the door of classical music at higher levels. She noted of her own career as an administrator that it was only when she started reaching the higher ranks of administration that she realized how male-dominated certain boardrooms could be. She explains, “It totally is about your network and your connections and how many people you know who embrace your work and then will talk about it and promote you. So, it’s ultimately networking once you have a certain level of talent.”
The DSO Women in Classical Music Symposium is designed not only to raise awareness about the challenges women face and roadmap a path forward, but it also offers a chance for women in classical music to network over a period of several days with the goal of building lasting relationships in the field. Rhodes Russell and Lomelí echoed Noltemy. Both the Hart Institute and the Women’s Artistic Leadership Initiative aim to provide women with a roster of contacts to other women.
Rhodes added that sponsorship is key: “Sometimes when we get momentum for change, we think that it’s naturally going to get the ball rolling, but I don’t really believe that is the case.” As a result of a culture that privileges men in classical music, women sometimes encounter more trouble finding sustained sponsorship from institutional supporters.
For this reason, the Hart Institute maintains long-term relationships with past fellows, offering guidance, promotion, and mentorship well beyond the length of the institute’s programming. Askren explains, “The fact that we were mentored not only very intensively in the two weeks when we were in residence here but also continually in not only in the months to come but also in the years to come I think really sets the program apart from really any other program that is out for young conductors, period.”
She adds that after her fellowship, the Hart Institute continued to give her opportunities, like inviting her to showcase her work at the OPERA America conference. The DSO, for its part, has committed to requiring that at least 50 percent of all commissioned works in the future will be by women composers — in recognition that sponsoring women in the field still requires solutions like self-imposed quotas.
Caroline Shaw, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013 for her Partita for 8 Voices and whose work will be featured by The Cliburn on Nov. 16, said that her relationship with other women composers is critical for professional fulfillment and success as a woman. “It especially means a lot to me to be on a program with Julia Wolfe and Jennifer Higdon because, music aside, of both them have been such wonderful friends in music. I think Jennifer Higdon reached out to me on the day after I won the Pulitzer back in 2013, just saying, ‘How are you? How are you doing? Do you want to meet up for coffee sometime?’…It’s such a real sense of support and friendship.”
When asked to describe their vision of the future of women composers, conductors, and other leaders in classical music, everyone expressed high expectations.
“I think the challenges are changing and certainly I think a lot different than they were 10 or 20 or 100 years ago,” Shaw says. “It was strange to grow up when I was a teenager and younger not ever knowing any female composers and not even being able to find them in the library, and now I think that has changed quite a bit. I am really grateful to the women who came before me who had a much harder time than I have…I think at least in the time from when I was in school, about 10 years ago, until now, I certainly see a lot more women and non-binary people in composition programs around the country.”
It should be noted that in this decade, five women have won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. In addition to Higdon (2010), Shaw (2013), and Wolfe (2015), Du Yun won in 2017, and Ellen Reid in 2019. In 2017, the two finalists were Ashley Fure and Kate Soper, the first time in the award's history that the winner and both finalists were women. Previously, only three other woman have won the Prize: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, 1983; Shulamit Ran, 1991; and Melinda Wagner, 1999.
And yet, there are still major opera companies not producing works composed by women. In 2018, the Metropolitan Opera announced it would start commissioning works by women. And this year, the Fort Worth Opera produced a work by a woman, Rachel J. Peters' Companionship, its first mainstage production by a woman in its 80-year history (and in 2021, it will premiere Gabriela Lena Frank's The Last Dream of Frida and Diego). And while the Dallas Opera is to be commended for its women conductors program, and despite having commissioned a number of new operas this decade, it has yet to present a mainstage opera by a woman composer.
The Cliburn is making strides. It was recently announced that at the 2021 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the jury will be chaired, for the first time, by a woman: Marin Alsop, who made history when she became the first music director of a major American orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony. She’ll also conduct the finals of the competition; and will lead a jury of nine, with five women and four men.
Still, despite all of the forward momentum, being a woman in classical music requires constant tenacity.
“Perseverance,” said Askren when asked how she counters challenges in her own career. “You have to be resilient. It is true that while you’re growing and while you’re trying to evolve professionally, you will be confronted with setbacks. This is not a safe profession. This is a profession of risk. This is a profession of vision and drive. You have to be prepared for that. You have to be prepared for setbacks, for rejections, for closed doors, and you have to be prepared to find that open window.”
- For tickets to the Dallas Symphony concerts with Gemma New conducting, Nov. 8-10 at the Meyerson Symphony Center, click here
- For tickets on the Dallas Opera/Hart Institute’s concert, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9 at the Winspear Opera House, click here
- For tickets to the Cliburn’s concert of music by Pulitzer Prize-winning women, click here