By the beginning of the 20th century, women’s roles were changing drastically. Women were becoming more and more autonomous, working increasingly outside the home and receiving better education. When America entered the war in 1917, women had played an active role in the war effort and a year later, women had acquired equal suffrage with men in 15 states. Commemorating this historic day is a perfect time to reflect on and draw your attention to a handful of strong 21st century women in classical music.
Triple GRAMMY award winner Evelyn Glennie (pictured) has been dubbed the world’s premiere solo percussionist. The Scottish-born virtuoso was the first person in history to successfully sustain a fulltime career as a solo percussionist. In fact her career is wall-to-wall ‘firsts’. She gave the first ever percussion concerto in the entire history of the BBC Proms in 1992. The performance acted as a sort of landmark in instrumental music, leading to similar undertakings worldwide. Before Glennie, the classical percussionist was confined to a performance life the back tier of the orchestral stage – now percussionists of a certain calibre can bask in the limelight! She has been a major champion of brand new works for solo percussion since early on in her career and has commissioned over 170 works from numerous internationally renowned composers. “It’s important that I continue to commission and collaborate with a diverse range of composers whilst recognising the young talent coming through”. Speaking of young talent, Glennie’s masterclasses and workshops are a source of priceless inspiration to young percussionists worldwide. Her principal goal is to teach the world to listen, a passion that she has spoken about famously in TED talks.
One of America’s most prized conductors has another unforgettable ‘first’ under her belt. That is Marin Alsop, the first ever woman to conduct at the majestic closing night of the BBC Proms in its almost 120 year history.
The American composer Luna Pearl Woolf is at the pinnacle of a new generation of politically conscious and artistically progressive composers. Her work spans both many genres and many art forms: she frequently collaborates with authors, filmmakers and dancers. Many of her works show a thought-provoking parallel to current and historical events. Woolf’s highest-profile work to date is the highly politicized Après Moi, le Déluge, which premiered in Carnegie Hall in 2012. In 2000 Woolf and the renowned cellist Matt Haimovitz co-founded the classical record label Oxingale Productions, and Woolf personally produced 13 albums. Woolf’s work has been called “Somber, sardonic and bluesy” by the New York Times and “sorrowful, deeply political, and aching with universal regret” by Strings Magazine.
Sally Beamish has risen to become one of the UK’s best-known and well-respected composers. The London-born violist-turned-full-time-composer was raised by a mother who was a prominent violinist – a member of Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields – and a father who worked for the Philips record company. She is currently working on a ballet for the Birmingham royal Ballet and Houston Ballet with choreographer David Bintley due to be premiered in 2016. Beamish has received an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow, a Creative Scotland Award and is a visiting lecturer at the Leeds College of Music.
Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina has a thoroughly unique compositional voice and is regarded as one of the most influential living composers. She has been specifically cited as ‘the most important living woman composer’. In 1973 she was attacked in the lift of her apartment building in Moscow. A man approached her and attempted to strangle her. She scared him off simply by asking him ‘why so slow?’ Speculation was rife as to whether it was a Russian State Security Agent (the soviets had banned her music) or merely a random attacker. Afterwards she remarked she is afraid not of dying, but of violence.
There is still a long-standing tendency for men to promote other men, as I mentioned in a previous article, however, women are still reaching impressive heights and long may it continue. It is encouraging to see increasingly impressive feats by women in music, heading toward a more balanced gender demographic in the musical sphere.