Classical Music

Women, Modern Artists Take The Spotlight With Houston Symphony

Photo by Wilson Parish
Even performing at a socially distanced and smaller sized group, Houston Symphony represents big movements in the world of arts and culture.
Wouldn't it be cool to Zoom Beethoven? Or to text Mozart? Or to tweet Bach? The composers of yesteryear (or yester-century) are still relevant and considered canon for musicians, but let's face it, we'll never be able to know firsthand what they were thinking when they wrote the music we still love and listen to. But fret not, music lovers. Their influence lives on, and it is memorialized in the works of the modern century. And what's even better is that more and more women are picking up the torch where the gentlemen left off, which leads us to this weekend's Houston Symphony concert.

In this livestream performance, Houston Symphony will shine a spotlight on extraordinary women composers, past and present. The program starts with music of Reena Esmail, whose compositions have been hailed as “crystal clear, beautiful, thought-provoking, and unlike anything I’ve ever heard before” by the Los Angeles Times. Also on the lineup are Florence Price’s exuberant 'String Quartet in A minor' and Ethel Smyth’s 'Songs for Mezzo-Soprano,' featuring internationally acclaimed, Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor. Tickets for the live-streamed performance are available for the 8 p.m. performance on Saturday.

The Houston Press had the luxury of catching up with a symphony musician to talk about this weekend's performance and all the importance that it brings, both for modern day composers and for women in the arts. Joan DerHovsepian, Acting Principal Viola, shared her thoughts about why this weekend makes a difference in arts and culture.

"Every great warhorse and beloved piece of music had a first performance. I hope this will encourage us not to shy away from something new. All of these wonderful pieces are accessible, moving and uplifting upon first hearing. It’s exciting as a performer to imagine these new works standing the test of time and becoming those new tried and true pieces we know," she said. "With past works, we have tradition to guide us in these beautiful performances that we know, but the main difference now is that when preparing for a new work, we have living composers with us to let us into their minds and into their worlds for what they envisioned for their own music."

Each of these composers has left an indelible mark on music or is currently creating her legacy.

Indian-American composer Esmail is the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s 2020-2023 Swan Family Artist in Residence and Seattle Symphony’s 2020-21 Composer-in-Residence. Previously, she was named a 2019 United States Artist Fellow in Music, and the 2019 Grand Prize Winner of the S & R Foundation’s Washington Award. Esmail was also a 2017-18 Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow. 

Price became the first Black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra when Music Director Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played the world premiere of her 'Symphony No. 1 in E minor' in 1933.

Smyth's history reads like the rule-breaking granny we all wish we we had. From 1911 to 1913 Smyth was closely involved with the English suffragette movement. One of her compositions, 'The March of Women,' was adopted as the anthem to The Women's Social and Political Union. She was one of more than 100 feminists arrested for breaking windows in March 1912, for which she served two months in Holloway Prison. She was also the first female composer to be awarded damehood, and when she wasn't writing music, she cavorted with Tchaikovsky, Clara Schumann, and Brahms. She had an interesting life, to say the least.

To see women represented on stage, whether it be as composers or Houston Symphony's conducting fellow Yue Bao, who is making her Classical Series conducting debut this weekend, shows a seismic shift in the way that we approach and appreciate the greatness that occurs when we provide space for everyone.

"There is a growing body of female composers, and we’re seeing a wave of that now. It’s definitely time. In history, women’s lives didn’t allow for the kind of work and time for creativity that perhaps there is now and with the support in our society now. Although we saw female composers in the past, the quality we’re seeing now is undeniable, and it's a force," DerHovsepian said. "This concert reflects the organization of the Houston Symphony. There is significant female leadership in all parts of the organization: from our concert master, to our senior staff, to leadership, on our dedicated board and throughout the orchestra on stage."

Seeing women on top is nothing new for the Symphony. The organization hired Josephine Boudreaux, one of the first women concertmasters, in 1931. Now, the organization has Yoonshin Song as concertmaster. Unfortunately, in today’s orchestra landscape, it is still unique to see a women in the concertmaster chair, and Houston Symphony is one of the few major orchestras with a woman in that post.

This author wishes we didn't have to tout the position of women in creative control — like they are some type of unicorn — yet unfortunately, this is the day and age we live in. Change is slow, and progress is a street paved one brick at a time. This concert is Houston Symphony's way of paying tribute and bringing attention to an underrepresented segment of our cultural landscape that we're all the better for having.

The call for pushing the needle forward has been one the Symphony has never shied away from, nor have any of the other branches of the arts for that matter. It's one they dutifully answer, especially in a city as multicultural as Houston. Step by step, we all play a part in inching toward a better, more equitable tomorrow.

"It’s important to recognize and call attention to these underrepresented groups. I think this is an issue in all areas of music. This will be a catalyst for new ideas and for fresh creativity, and hopefully it will expand our musical language," DerHovsepian said. "With Houston being the most diverse city in America, I think it’s important for us to reflect the community that we are and we hope to be. I feel this program by the Houston Symphony is a perfect way of representing our city."

Houston Symphony's 'Live from Jones Hall: Great Women Composers: Esmail, Price & Smyth' starts at 8 p.m. Saturday via Livestream. For tickets or information, call 713-224-7575 or visit $20.