When Lexington Philharmonic general manager Sarah Thrall talks to people around town about the orchestra’s opening its 2019-20 season with a concert featuring a piece by composer Julia Perry, they invariably say, “Who’s that?”
Which proves Thrall’s point — that women composers like Perry (1924-1979), an African-American who grew up in Lexington’s East End neighborhood, are almost unknown in the male-dominated world of classical music.
That’s why the Philharmonic is taking the step of beginning each of this season’s concerts — including Saturday’s series opener at the Singletary Center for the Arts, featuring Perry’s alternately propulsive and lyrical “A Short Piece for Orchestra” — with a composition by a woman.
The concerts will be conducted as auditions by candidates for the Philharmonic’s vacant music director position.
Three of them will be by women: Libby Larson’s “Deep Summer Music” (Oct. 25); Jessie Montgomery’s “Caught by the Wind” (Nov. 22); Jennifer Higdon’s “blue cathedral” (Feb. 21); Missy Mazzoli’s “River Rouge Transfiguration” (April 17) and Loren Loiacono’s “Smothered by Sky” (May 16).
Saturday’s concert, conducted by Thomas Heuser, also includes Stravinsky’s neoclassical Violin Concerto in D major, featuring the young American soloist Stefan Jackiw, and Tchaikovsky’s romantic Symphony No. 6, known as “Pathétique.”
Julia Perry’s obscurity
“In her time,” Thrall said in a recent interview at the Philharmonic offices, “Julia Perry gained recognition as a composer in Europe and elsewhere —”
“But not here,” executive director Allison Kaiser says.
“They know about (jazz great) Les McCann,” Thrall adds, “who grew up across the street from her.”
Perry’s relative obscurity in Lexington might have as much to do with her race and her genre as with her gender, but the point remains that women composers have historically struggled to get their works performed by symphony orchestras around the country.
Philharmonic’s diversity push
The Philharmonic’s push for greater prominence for women composers this season is part of a larger, ongoing effort by the orchestra to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in its programming, its audience and its staff and board, Kaiser says. She hopes it will help keep the organization relevant in an era in which orchestras around the country are recognizing a need to look hard at themselves in the mirror.
“We’ve been the primary music maker in Central Kentucky for almost 60 years, and when an organization achieves that kind of age and longevity, you really have to step back from time to time and look at how the organization is perceived, what people think it stands for,” she says. “We’re in a period now that we have to challenge our old assumptions, our old ways of doing things. It doesn’t serve our community if we don’t take a look at how the orchestral industry operates in modern America.”
That community includes, presumably, a great many women (and men) who may feel that it’s time for women composers to be heard from alongside Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and other titans of the classical music canon.
Thrall noted that several orchestras around the country around the same size as Lexington’s — such as the Albany Symphony, which has commissioned a number of new pieces from female composers and has dubbed its current season “Phenomenal Women” — are taking the lead on the path to greater inclusion. Why not Lexington?
“I just think it’s the time to highlight underrepresented populations, including women,” says Thrall, whose personal commitment to gender equity at the Philharmonic was the guiding force behind this season’s focus on women composers. ”This year is also the centennial of passage of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. It’s time.”
Lexington Philharmonic season opener
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: UK Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St., Lexington
Tickets: $11-$75 at lexphil.org