Orchestra for women's works wants reason to disband

January 17, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

BETTY SCOTT is president of an organization that she'd like to see go out of business as quickly as possible.

It's the Women Composers Orchestra, which gives the first of two concerts this year tomorrow evening in Friedberg Hall at the Peabody Conservatory. The orchestra -- a chamber-orchestra sized group whose membership ranges from 20 to 50 players -- is made up equally of men and women, but it performs only music by women composers.

Tomorrow's concert features composers who range from the relatively well-known and established (Ruth Schonthal and Tina Davidson) to the young and obscure (Tonya Brown, a talented young woman who is a graduate of the Friends School). But what they have in common is the handicap of being female.

"The Encyclopedia of Women Composers lists 6,000 women composers, and how many men and women even know they exist?" Scott asks. "As long as that's the case, an organization like ours is -- unfortunately -- a necessity."

The orchestra was founded in 1985 as the Maryland Women's Symphony. It changed its name three years ago partly because it has always had men players and partly because the new title better defined its purpose. All of the players are professional -- the organization pays union scale -- but the WCO operates on a shoestring.

"We have no trouble finding good works and good performers. We have more problems finding funds," Scott says. "Our budget this year is $24,000, but we have an $11,000 deficit."

The problems that women composers once faced is the one many women faced for centuries when they tried to do things outside the home and the kitchen. Felix Mendelssohn's sister, Fanny, for example, was an even finer pianist than her brother and a phenomenally talented young composer. But her father and her husband collaborated in forcing her to give up music. And while Clara Schumann was one of the 19th century's greatest pianists, her composing -- while full of promise -- was never encouraged in the same way her piano playing was.

Until very recently the most successful of all women composers may have been Amy Cheney Beach, whose works were popular around the turn of the century and somewhat later and whose music now is enjoying a tremendous comeback.

"Amy Beach was lucky because she had a rich husband who supported her," says Antonia Joy Wilson, the music director of the Women Composers Orchestra. "Most women composers weren't that fortunate, and there were a lot of terrifically talented women."

The situation for women composers has improved enormously, but they often don't have the contacts that men have, Wilson says. In a way, their situation corresponds to that of African-American composers. (Incidentally, two of this Saturday's six composers are African-American.)

But while most American orchestras -- the Baltimore Symphony is one of the leading examples -- are beginning to seek out minority composers, they haven't made the same effort to search for talented women, probably because there aren't the same economic and social pressures on them to do so.

Wilson describes the Schonthal work, Music for Horn and Chamber Orchestra, as "a piece that's full of brashness and that sits on the edge." Tania Leon's "Para Jote Delate" is a birthday tribute -- "a fun piece," says Wilson -- to another woman composer, the well-known Joan Tower. Rebecca Clarke's Trio for piano, violin and cello is "angular but lyrical."

Tina Davidson's "A Woman Dreaming" is the "most difficult of the pieces," Wilson says, "but has a long line that culminates in an ending that's sublime." And she adds that Alexis Alrich's "Avenues," which ends the concert, "is an aggressively joyful and emotionally affecting piece."

Wilson, who is also the music director of New Jersey's Livingston Symphony Orchestra, says that when she accepted the WCO's music directorship three years ago she liked the attitude of the board.

"This board saw the need for the orchestra only as long as other orchestras didn't perform these composers," she says. "When David Zinman starts conducting this music, what we do here won't be necessary. I love conducting here, but I hope that day arrives soon."

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