As part of an ongoing effort to diversify its roster of composers, the Philadelphia Orchestra will collaborate with the American Composers Orchestra on a Sept. 6 reading of scores by six female composers.
The reading session in Verizon Hall isn't open to the public. But by inviting select decision-makers such as conductors and artistic administrators from other orchestras, the organizers aim to encourage further exposure and opportunities for these composers.
Works by Melody Eötvös, Robin Holcomb, Chen-Hui Jen, Hilary Purrington, Xi Wang, and Nina C. Young will be played and recorded, and the experience is to be augmented by a round-table discussion and feedback from orchestra players.
The initiative marks a new direction for the orchestra. Orchestra officials say the ensemble has not in recent memory played through new works with no planned performances, but, rather, with the sole intention of providing feedback to and cultivating relationships with composers.
"I think it is a good first step in the right direction," said Linda Reichert, who recently stepped down as artistic director of Philadelphia's Network for New Music and who is unconnected to the orchestra's showcase. "Of course, it is a terrific opportunity for any composer to have their work read and recorded by a major orchestra, and certainly this is a rarity for the Philadelphia Orchestra to hold this kind of event," she said.
Will this mean one or more of the works will end up on a Philadelphia Orchestra concert bill?
"They may," said Jeremy Rothman, the Philadelphia Orchestra's vice president of artistic planning. However, he said: "We want to go into this process without any set expectations. We want works to be workshopped, read, and heard without that pressure. If we discover a composer we want to connect with or commission, or maybe perform one of these works or another work, that would be a wonderful outcome."
The orchestra stirred an outcry in January when it announced a 2018-19 season without a single female composer. It has since added two short works by women to the season, and Rothman says this newly announced reading session was already under discussion before the 2018-19 announcement and its reaction.
The Sept. 6 readings will be conducted by Kensho Watanabe and played by the Philadelphia Orchestra, not members of the American Composers Orchestra; that organization, based in New York, brings pre-existing relationships with the six composers.
"The Philadelphia Orchestra is one of the great ensembles of the world, and having the opportunity to hear works played not just by a professional orchestra but an orchestra on this level is a great gift," said Edward Yim, president and CEO of the American Composers Orchestra. The experience also offers the composers a chance to introduce themselves and their works "to decision-makers at a very important level," he said.
"Every rehearsal process and subsequent reading or performance is a learning experience," says Purrington, 27, who lives in New York and whose Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky will be played. "Everything that I learn from hearing my music, whether practical or artistic/creative, influences how I approach subsequent works."
The recordings made of the reading sessions will be for use by the composers and won't be distributed commercially, said Yim.
Encountering a score by a woman in a U.S. orchestra hall is rare, says Rothman. "We are seeing it more often, but it's still obviously the exception rather than the rule."
In fact, only 1.8 percent of pieces played by the 22 top-tier U.S. orchestras in the 2014-15 season were penned by women, according to a survey by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Among works by living composers performed in 2014-15 by those same orchestras, 14.3 percent were written by women.
"Female composers are still outnumbered to a great degree, but things are much better than they used to be," says veteran composer Melinda Wagner, who is serving as a composer-mentor for the Sept. 6 showcase.
What isn't clear, says Yim, is how many female composers there are today, which makes it difficult to measure how under-represented women are in concert halls if, in fact, women account for 14.3 percent of living composers being programmed by orchestras.
What number would be enough?
"It's a little bit tongue-in-cheek," says Yim, but it's like when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked how many women should be on the Supreme Court — what number would enough — "and she said, 'When there are nine.' "
The Philadelphia Orchestra's score-reading session isn't open to the public, but those interested in attending may send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis.