Musing on Women in Classical Music

Kim Noltemy CEO of the Dallas Symphony, 21 years at the BSO

By: - Nov 19, 2023

The Women in Classical Music Symposium in Dallas was not acrimonious. No one whined. Instead, the spirit was exploratory.

There was some feeling that 'what you heard here should stay here' in Dallas. This was odd because many of the problems that were raised and then discussed were common to men and women across the color and gender spectrum.

Protecting yourself is so important, particularly for performers. Think of Angela Meade’s career. We heard her sing Norma at Caramoor. She immediately leaped onto the Metropolitan Opera roster. She probably would have been better served by taking five years to travel around the Festival Circuit in Europe, honing her beautiful instrument and building confidence. Yet an offer from the Met is tempting. 

In the effort to create new operas that will bring in new audiences, the foremost young composers of our time get joined with librettists who often take advantage of their inexperience. Or perhaps these librettists are not up to the task of collaborating with a newbie. Missy Mazzoli and Rene Orth are strong composers who have not always been well-served by their collaborators.  How does this happen?  Who is in the protector's seat?  

Then you hear really fabulous stories. Barbara Hannigan, who conducted the Juilliard Orchestra in New York in February of 2019, appeared at the same time as the Symposium, now conducting the Cleveland Symphony. Franz Welser-Möst, its music director, has encouraged her.  Allison Loggins-Hull, a young composer who is a  Lewis composer fellow with the Cleveland Symphony, proposed going out into the Cleveland community to create her new music.  It was not something that had been discussed before her arrival in town. But Welser-Möst and the rest of the Cleveland staff immediately said Yes.  She is Black and Cleveland is 50 percent Black.  

Sometimes, although it was never said and enthusiasm for the future of classical music was often expressed, you had a sense that women are now being put in the same position as Mary Barra when she became head of General Motors.  (And for that matter, Obama’s position when he was elected President and the economy had tanked).  Minorities and underdogs get jobs when no one else wants them.

Deborah Borda’s arrival at the New York Philharmonic was heralded. It may well be that the renovation of David Geffen Hall would not have been completed without her.  In response to my frequent pleas to use available resources to promote classical music, one of her main assistants said to me, “You are preaching to the choir.”  It is a choir that is not heard by the Lincoln Center executives.  It may be that Borda jumped a sinking ship. She is back at work again, so retirement was not the prompt for her exodus.   

At the Symposium, Alicia Lawyer, a particularly charming entrepreneur from Houston, Texas, spoke of taking up the recommendation for women who want to conduct: create your own orchestra. She has. ROCO, the Houston-based 40-piece professional classical music ensemble, has been on the leading edge of creating and experiencing classical music. Lawyer has championed accessibility and inclusion in the field with endeavors such as Braille programs, QR codes, and the signature ROCOrooters music education/child care program during and after concerts. Focusing on relationships rather than transactions, she has built an orchestra model that leans into “pay what you wish” and is supported by a vast portfolio of supporters to achieve 90% of revenue from donated dollars. With 132 world premiere commissions in 18 seasons, ROCO’s debut album was recognized with a GRAMMY® for Producer of the Year, Blanton Alspaugh.

Many of the resumes of Dallas participants look like Lawyer’s. Her path is probably not recommended, however, as it is a particularly tough one.

I did not hear anything about classical music performance dying. Yet problems were not soft-soaped. Instead solutions seem to be at hand. Big cities have big problems. Only Carnegie in New York has solved theirs. They can muster an audience without dumbing down programming,

In smaller cities and local areas, classical forms are thriving under women’s leadership. The Dallas Symphony is fortunate to have a tigress at its helm.  

Again, the problems women face are the problems of everyone in the classical music business. One Symposium panelist suggested that we return to normalcy, where women are judged on their performance. It is not a big ask, but perhaps a difficult one to achieve. We, after all, have the same problem people of color do. When we enter a room, we are immediately defined as women.  Thank heaven.