Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Women Composers on Radio 3

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Women Composers on Radio 3

Article excerpt

Hurrah for Radio 3 and its (long-overdue) efforts to give us music not just performed by women but composed, and conducted, by them too. Last year's innovative day of programming for International Women's Day introduced us to composers many of us had never heard of, such as Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and Barbara Strozzi, Charlotte Bray and Anna Clyne. Yet to the surprise of even the most sceptical critics, the day was a huge success, proving that some of this music is really good. As Edwina Wolstencroft, producer last year and responsible for this year's celebration of women in music, says, 'We know that as many as 6,000 women composers have been identified in history.' Why, then, do most of us know of only a handful -- such as Hildegard, Smyth and Holst (I)?

Twenty-four hours in which every note of music played on the network will have been written by a female composer could not have happened even ten years ago, explains the conductor Jessica Cottis. Partly because no one thought there would be enough music to fill those hours, and partly, it has to be said, that those in charge were doubtful whether the music would be of a consistently high standard. Yet why should this be so? As Cottis says, 'Talent and creativity is gender-blind.'

She conducted the live concert on Tuesday night of music by composers including the familiar, Thea Musgrave, Sally Beamish and Roxanna Panufnik, with names much less well known, Libby Larsen and Joanna Marsh. Growing up in the 1990s, Cottis never thought of herself as a conductor because she had never seen a woman on the podium (apart from when she played in the school band). 'I didn't realise women could conduct.' You only have to look at the photos used to promote the recordings of conductors like Herbert von Karajan to realise that conducting is 'an archetypal male discipline ...focusing on strength, power and virility'.

Cottis only became a conductor after she was forced to abandon her career as an organist after developing carpal tunnel syndrome, losing all feeling in her hands when she was in her mid-twenties. In desperation she took a conducting course at the Royal Academy of Music as the only thing she could still do in music. Once on the podium, though, she found her 'musical voice'. Her mission now is to be a role model to young girls and to show them it is possible for them also to take up conducting (she was the only woman on her course back in 2006). …

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