Classical Music Gets a Modern Makeover by Women

Tamara Mumford as the Pilgrim, Eric Owens as Jaufré Rudel and Susanna Phillips as Clémence in Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

In many ways, it might have been any other Wednesday night at the Metropolitan Opera. From the balcony, I watched an ornate canoe creep slowly across the stage, now an ocean of glittering lights. At an equally measured pace, the prince-troubadour aboard the vessel spun out an aria declaring his love for a woman across the sea, one rumored to be “ideal”. By the end of this 12th century love story, a journey and illness had given way to an ill-fated meeting; someone died, and another contemplated monastic life.

However, there was a lot more going on in L’Amour de Loin or Love from Afar. Its masterful, gorgeous score carries most of the drama in the deceptively simple narrative, building emotional tension through subtle shifts of color throughout a shimmering bed of strings. Additionally, it was composed by renowned Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho — a woman, and one of our time. As I sank into L’Amour’s surreal dreamscape, a number of recent thoughts congealed regarding women in music, experiences with art of our time and how each of these weave into the current and future state of classical music.

Composer Kaija Saariaho. Photo: Metropolitan Opera

First, to the elephant in that particular room. Much has been made (see also here and here) of L’Amour’s opening, in part because it’s the Met’s second-ever production of an opera written by a woman, and the first since 1903. I think a pause to reread that sentence fits nicely here. Speaking of milestones which are simultaneously victories and embarrassments: while I thrilled to see a woman, Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki, at the podium, she was the fourth in the company’s history to appear there. Yes, the entire music industry, like much of global society, has miles to go in overcoming the achievement gap, systemic discrimination, and an old guard of openly misogynistic attitudes. Saariaho herself was in the audience that evening. To see composer and conductor embrace at the end gave me cold chills, and a confused pride I wished wasn’t necessary.

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As with fair representation, one marvels that contemporary thought in art somehow requires active advocacy. Yet as Alex Ross points out, audiences resist modernization in music much more than in visual mediums. “New music” is still an unsavory, if not scary, term to many concertgoers, and it’s still not uncommon to see new works neatly injected between placating layers of Beethoven and Schumann on a program. In my own conservatory training, little to no knowledge of contemporary works was required, despite having composition majors in the same building, and performance opportunities were happily left to those who were “into new music” (stated meaningfully, eyebrows raised).

If that’s where classical fans obstinately stand, public discussion is even more collapsed and distorted — mostly surfacing every six months or so, when some incendiary article appears asking with sadistic glee whether or not the art form is dead. My ennui regarding these pieces knows no bounds (though if a new cause of death is identified, by all means toss it onto this highly entertaining list). I do believe, however, that this inane question houses a better one: why is classical music relevant?

the organic connection between art and daily life which the beloved masters understood

I’ve personally struggled to answer this, as both a musician and marketer. I love the canon, surely, but can’t subscribe to the folly that an 18th century German symphony is necessarily a ‘better’ choice for someone than the decades of truly great pop music stored on their iPhone. Besides, with the vast amount of fascinating cross-genre work taking place, such as Pulitzer prize winner Caroline Shaw’s collaborations with Kanye West, there’s less reason than ever to enforce cultural walls. I think the classical music industry has sold audiences short by underestimating the organic connection between art and daily life which the beloved masters understood so well (consider Brahms’ Academic Overture: ‘high art’ made of drinking tunes); I think they would be puzzled that we continue to cherish them at the expense of recognizing new voices.

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classical music at the Met by Saariaho
Tamara Mumford as the Pilgrim and Susanna Phillips as Clémence in Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Back to L’Amour, where I was reminded how right it feels to experience contemporary work. I sat straight up in my plush seat the moment that Jaufré, the troubadour began to sing of his longing for a woman of “ideal” characteristics, and the mysterious Pilgrim suggested she was out there; now, where was this headed, in 2016? I could actually play with the question in a way that say, L’Elisir d’amore might not inspire. Likewise, as Jaufré of France traversed great physical and cultural distances, and corresponding levels of ‘otherness’ and familiarity, to reach Clémence in Tripoli, I was appreciative that this work’s authors, like the audience, were engaging with these concepts from a modern frame of mind.

Contemporary music is relevant, and relevance matters. In ignoring this, do we not have a real miss? Like some cultural Craigslist Missed Connections scenario, classical music continues to bemoan its dwindling status while feigning indifference towards the here and now. Simultaneously elevating female composers and new music is a surefire strategy to engage more audiences — the obvious thing to do for people, and for art. As Saariaho herself tells us, “half of humanity has something to say.”

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There’s tremendous work to do on all fronts. To have more women behind soundboards and in mixing booths, to see them proportionally playing in orchestras and premiering works, to see a second woman finally conduct the last night at BBC Proms, and to get people actually attending and enjoying more performances, we’ve first got to change the conversation. I’m thrilled to help do this as a columnist for the Marbury Project. There are fascinating composers, who happen to be women, writing phenomenal music of all kinds right now. On my list to dive into this week are Saariaho’s works with electronics and oratorio on the life of philosopher Simone Weil, and to explore more of Unsuk Chin’s manically delightful opera Alice in Wonderland. With so much to talk about, and listen to, I hope you’ll join me.