Getting a Jump on Hearing Tomorrow's Classics: Female Composers Have Outlet for Their Works to Be Heard

By Rauschart, Lisa | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 29, 1999 | Go to article overview

Getting a Jump on Hearing Tomorrow's Classics: Female Composers Have Outlet for Their Works to Be Heard


Rauschart, Lisa, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Melinda Wagner knew something was up.

A lot of calls were coming into her publisher's office, and the callers generally were asking for something more than the usual music orders. They were asking about her.

The 42-year-old composer soon found out why. She had just been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her composition, Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion.

"I was incredibly honored and very surprised," recalls Mrs. Wagner, who was reached at her home in Ridgewood, N.J. "It was a very thrilling thing to have happened."

In the music world, winning the Pulitzer is a bit like winning an Oscar. For composers, it means that your music will be taken seriously. A major orchestra also is likely to offer to perform your work.

That's important, because contemporary composers often have a hard time getting their works heard. Unused to new musical forms and distrustful of new musical expressions, audiences often are unwilling to accept new works. That reluctance remains, although new pieces span a full spectrum of styles, from the expected atonal dissonances to music that is eminently melodic.

"This is an exciting time to be a composer," Mrs. Wagner says. "All styles are acceptable, with a tremendous palette of approaches, from world music to a romantic sound to dissonance, atonal or minimalist music."

In Washington, the place to hear the full spectrum of new music, especially those works composed by women, is at performances of the National Women's Symphony.

Along with works by two other contemporary female composers, the NWS presented the Washington premiere of Mrs. Wagner's Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion on May 23. It was the first performance of the piece since it was awarded the Pulitzer.

Made up of some of the area's best free-lance musicians, the organization, which first performed in 1992, offers a chance to hear music long overlooked. Past concerts have run the gamut from historical works to those by contemporary composers.

In a departure from the symphony's usual format, the debut concert featured only the music of living artists.

"Contemporary music has unusual demands," says the symphony's music director, Amy R. Mills. "It's important to have the best possible players to achieve the finest possible results, and give the work a true hearing."

That's a big task for a small orchestra that is not yet sure where funding will come from to produce its next concert. Nevertheless, the men and women who make up the symphony - the group devotes itself to the works of women, but has members of both sexes - exhibit fine musicianship.

That's in large part because of the influence of its founder, Mrs. Mills, the first woman to hold the position of music director for the chorus of the U.S. Air Force and the first female conductor and commander of the Air Force Band. She doggedly pursues unusual and unfamiliar music, although at first nearly missed the opportunity to perform Mrs. Wagner's piece.

Mrs. Mills and flutist David Whiteside had talked for a couple of years about doing Katherine Hoover's "Medieval Suite." Composer Sylvia Glickman, who is editing a 12-volume survey of female composers, also seemed a natural choice for a program devoted to female composers.

Two other historical pieces by now-deceased female composers also were programmed. Then, Mrs. Mills remembers, she got a call.

It was from the president of the NWS board. She said a female composer had just won the Pulitzer.

Convinced that the winning work would be scored for an orchestra too large for the requirements of the NWS, Mrs. Mills shrugged off the news.

Then she got another call.

It was from Mr. Whiteside, she remembers. He said a female composer had just won the Pulitzer for a piece for a small orchestra - a flute concerto.

In just three weeks, the company secured the score and learned the parts. …

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