JoAnn Falletta was embarrassed.
It was the mid-1980s, still early in the orchestral conductor’s career, and she’d taken a position as music director of the Bay Area Women’s Philharmonic in San Francisco. The mission for the group was to play music written by women. But Falletta, a Juilliard graduate who was breaking ground herself as one of few female conductors in the country, had no clue about classical music written by women.
“I was just out of college, and I know it’s so odd. You’d think I would have asked about women composers,” says Falletta, the longtime music director for the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. “But I never did. We just studied the staples of the repertoire, so we were studying men.”
The mission to find classical music by women for the Bay Area Women’s Philharmonic turned Falletta into something of a detective. What she found – compositions long forgotten and tucked away in libraries – deepened her appreciation for the classical music she’d loved since growing up in the Queens borough of New York City. Also, the back stories of the female composers inspired the young Falletta to become an advocate for music by marginalized composers.
More than 30 years later, the mission for that early position in San Francisco now informs “Women in Music,” a program on Thursday night that Falletta will conduct at the Tidewater Community College Roper Performing Arts Center in Norfolk.
“Now we know there are lots of women studying to become composers,” says Falletta in a phone interview. “But in the 18th century and 19th century it was very rare. So that’s the premise of the concert: to get to hear from all over the world from composers who were extremely gifted and whose music may not be known that well today.”
The concert makes its premiere at a particularly contentious time in Hollywood. Sexual harassment allegations against some of the most powerful men in film and television have been trending on social media and dominating the headlines for the past month. Long a male-centric genre, classical music isn’t exactly Hollywood. And Falletta demurs from making any correlations between the two worlds. But sexism is the main reason the women composers featured in Thursday night’s program have largely been overlooked.
“It was typical that women in those days, in the 18th and 19th centuries, weren’t really working as artists. They weren’t public about it. A lot of things they did revolved around their home,” Falletta says. “They would write music for their family or their friends. It wasn’t really the thing to do to work as an artist then, but that didn’t make them any less gifted.”
Take Fanny Hensel, the German pianist and composer whose Overture in C major will open “Women in Music.” She showed prodigious talent early on for music and composition, often overshadowing her brother, composer Felix Mendelssohn. But their father encouraged Felix to pursue music as a profession while he described Hensel’s talents as an “ornament.” Still, Felix was supportive of his sister and cautiously published some of her compositions under his name, the only way her music would have been published.
“While he was able to have a career as a composer, she was not. It just was not possible for a woman of her class to have a career of any sort,” Falletta says. “Her music was locked in a library in Berlin. It took someone going over to Berlin to bring it back to San Francisco, where we played it for the first time. No one had ever heard it. But a lot of it is no longer saved.”
And there’s Alma Mahler, the Viennese author, editor and composer with two compositions featured in Thursday night’s program. She was married to composer Gustav Mahler, who was 19 years her senior and director of Vienna Court Opera. From all accounts, it was a stormy marriage. At the start of it, Gustav made one condition clear: Alma would have to give up music.
“Gustav felt very strongly that there was room for only one composer in the family,” Falletta says.
But there were women who defied the prevailing sexism of the time and carved out a place for themselves and their music, like Amy Beach, the first woman in America to achieve success in the classical music world. Her Symphony No. 2, Op. 32, in E minor closes “Women in Music.”
“She was an astonishingly gifted young woman, but she wasn’t encouraged to study,” Falletta says. “The feeling at that time was that if women were gifted it was best not to train them because that might destroy their very fragile gift. So she had to teach herself how to compose.”
And she did. Beach’s “Gaelic Symphony,” a celebration of her Irish roots, premiered in 1896, played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was the first symphony composed and published by an American woman.
The complexities and beauty of the melodies and harmonic structures in the compositions in “Women in Music” aren’t discernibly different from what famous male composers published at the time.
“That’s the question I always get, ‘Does this music sound different than any male composers of the time?’ No. It proves that art can be written regardless of any other aspect of the person’s being,” says VSO’s Falletta. “If you were to hear these pieces for the first time, there would be no way of knowing these were written by women. And I guess that’s the point, to show that it’s genderless in a way.”
Gender, however, played a substantial part in why many of the compositions by these women were relegated to private salons or never heard at all.
“We go to concerts and we hear Beethoven and Brahms and we expect that,” Falletta says. “It took me to become the music director of the Women’s Philharmonic and I had to do a lot of research to really understand that this was something that was true then, too, because they weren’t able to do it publicly. It makes me sad in a way because I think of all of the music we could have had now that has been lost.”
But what’s left will finally receive its due.