Anna! I am so excited that you’re joining me to talk about Women in Music / Mujeres en Música!! You and Isabel Pérez Dobarro are the founders of Women in Music, which aims to reduce the existing gender gap in classical music composition by commissioning and presenting works composed by women in concerts around the world. This is an incredibly important and timely goal. You have a concert coming up on Wed, January 24, 2018 at 7:30 pm in the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center. For this concert, you’re working with mezzo-soprano Nan-Maro Babakhanian and 2Flutes which is Laura Falzon and Pamela Sklar to perform music by Alexa Babakhanian, Consuelo Díez, Mary Ann Joyce, Diana Pérez Custodio, Marga Richter, Rosa María Rodriguez Hernández, Pamela Sklar, and Mercedes Zavala.
I want to know all about your work!
So, let’s get to the questions!
What draws you to promoting the work of women composers from the United States and Spain? Do you worry about tokenism when presenting an all-female composers concert?
AT: Both Isabel and myself enjoy very close ties to Spain. I was Fulbrighter to Spain in 2007-2008, returning there two to three times a year to work. I have a soft spot for women composers as well as women writers, poets as well as historical figures in my programming for the past 10 years. In 2014 I programmed concert regarding Marianna Martines, an Austrian composer that lived in the spheres of Mozart, Haydn and Metastasio; for a concert regarding Post Civil War Spain, I was determined to signal at least one women composer from that era, and programmed the works of Elena Romero (1907-1996). Other women composers that I program often are Maria Rodrigo (1888-1967) from Spain, Modesta Bor (1926-1998) from Venezuela and Marion Bauer (1882-1955) from the US. This coming year, I’m part of music concert that celebrates the life of 19th century Venezuelan piano virtuoso Teresa Carreňo at the Hispanic Society of America Museum & Library in New York City with bass Robert Osborne and with Isabel personifying Teresa Carreño.
Last year I become a member of Asociación de Mujeres en la Música in Spain, which accepts members from all spheres in classical music. A couple of years back I was part of project that involved the music of New York Women Composers, Inc., via a seed grant that composer/soprano Alla Borzova applied for; this is when I started to become familiar with the organization. When I was approached by Spanish pianist and New York resident Isabel Pérez Dobarro to cook up a project for us to do together, I thought up a concert that would unite the musics of both of these associations. That’s how our initiative “Women in Music/Mujeres en Música” was born.
Isabel is a native of Spain, and has been in New York City for the past six years, first earning an diploma in piano performance at the Manhattan School of Music, and currently as Ph.D candidate in piano performance at New York University. She has been imparting piano instruction at NYU since she was 19 years old. She is all about 25 years old right now. I also need to add she has an international law degree, as well as currently serving in the United Nations Youth Council. She is devoted to issues of how the arts contribute to the United Nations seventeen tenets of Sustainability. She is a promoter of music composers from her native Spain; and has a passion for contemporary music, which she actively programs in her concerts.
Regarding the tokenism item, women composers are so under-represented in classical music programming across the world and the gap so wide, that I have no problem in creating projects that brings awareness to women music creation in these kind of “isolating” concerts repertoire wise. I do both activities, concerts that are dedicated to women classical composition as well as programming fine women composers in concerts with themes that are much more general and include male composers.
In 2016, the New York Women Composers, Inc. awarded you a Seed Money Grant for increasing awareness of women composers worldwide. Can you tell me about how that grant application came about? Did you know about the grant first and create the project or did you brainstorm the project and were looking for funding?
AT: Like I mentioned before, I had been a co recipient of these same grant two years in a row in a vocal music project with composer/soprano Alla Borzova. I became aware of the Seed Grant then. Since a big part of my career and interests lie in Spain, I thought this convergence of creators from both associations would be interesting. Isabel is huge contemporary music champion, and she had already started making inroads with women composers in Spain. I created the project for this seed grant specifically and tailored to give NYWC, Inc. exposure in Spain and NYC, as well as trying to bring them in contact with the analogous association in Spain.
What do you see as the main challenges in eliminating the existing gender gap in classical music composition (particularly for your specialities – voice and piano – or otherwise)?
AT: I think the main challenges are awareness of who these figures are, hearing works performed and programmed, so singers can even have an awareness of the works. In my experience, projects, whether I create them and produce them or I’m hired for them, I put together based on the ingredients that I’m either aware of, heard or have come in contact with. Putting together a vocal recital or chamber music recital with colleagues is really like planning a dinner party. Recipes, ingredients, guests, etc…. Contemporary composers in general and even more so women composers have stumbling blocks getting into that kitchen cabinet. Now with the internet and social media, there are more opportunities for these composers to make some noise out there with their works. I truly wish that writers, poets, performers, painters would interact and hang out together much more. Collaborative projects within the different art forms, and forming tribes that are supportive of your work no matter what genre, would greatly benefit women composers.
Which brings me to my totally human tendency to go with my “tribe” or relationships that I have with composers (men or women!) when it comes to programming contemporary music. I naturally want to promote creators that I admire or have a friendship with.
This upcoming concert also features two young female composers from the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers Program. How can more individual musicians help support the educational pipeline of female composers?
AT: Individual musicians can “show the love” by programming works by these composers in their own programs; if they are part of brainstorming sessions for programming in their own chamber ensemble groups, to bring up suggestions of women composers that they admire and want to see programmed. Asociación de Mujeres en la Música have an educational outreach project in Spain in which music scores by women composers are part of conservatory libraries (the conservatory system there starts as an after school program for kids that want to learn to play instruments, its part of the public school system) as well as presentations and concerts for these conservatories of these works and women historical composers. Their idea is to provide a platform for having role models that kids can know about and have access to during their formative years of study, that are women composers. I’m not sure if here the Educational Arts community provides arts programming for kids, that have any kind of directive in the Department of Education here in NYC to incite curriculum that points towards women artistic figures. This question of yours is giving me ideas!
You have previously presented this project at the International Institute (Madrid, Spain), in collaboration with American Spaces Madrid and the U.S. Embassy in Madrid. How do you envision that this performance will be different? Do you promote the project to the audiences in Madrid and New York similarly or dissimilarly?
AT: This concert emulates almost 100 percent in programming with the one in Madrid. We switched out the songs by Marga Richter for her Two Sonnets with Shakespeare text. The piece Cadenas de amor in Spain was performed in collaboration with two young flute players from Spain. In the NY performance, this piece will receive its New York City premiere by the 2Flutes Ensemble (Pamela Sklar and Laura Falzon) as well as with Isabel and myself. Pamela Sklar of 2Flutes is the composer of Cadenas de amor. 2Flutes will bring their awesome and eclectic experience to this performance, as well as having Pamela coaching us in her own work. All the works were new for Isabel and myself last May, so it will be a different experience with these pieces now more mature interpretation wise. I would like to add that our guest mezzo soprano Nan-Maro Babakhanian is participating with me in the cycle Las damas del Quijote, written by her sister, the New York based composer Alexa Babakhanian. Nan-Maro will be performing in her home town of New York City. She currently lives in Madrid full time, but is coming to NYC to perform for us once more this concert. There are many reasons why this concert I think will be more emotional for us. With the inclusion of the two young students from Very Young Composers program of the New York Philharmonic, it will highlight the inter-generational aspect of this particular concert, as we have Marga Richter in the program, who was born in 1926. Empowerment for young female composers in my opinion needs to rooted in role models and significant experiences of mentorship and support, in their formative years.
The other difference is the title of the concert in Spain was “Evocación of Cervantes”. The title in NYC is wanting to focus on a different aspect, “A musical conversation between United States and Spain”, emphasizing that the project is a cultural bridge, which we are completing with this concert event in NYC on January 24th.
The texts from the performance are based on William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. Do you think that female composers and performers provide a different lens on these enduring writers’ works? Is there new relevancy in these texts for you as you’ve worked on this project?
AT: I would say yes to this question in terms of the women composers in this particular concert. I can’t say I have performed many works with Shakespeare texts, aside of songs for voice and piano by Richard Hundley and Christopher Berg. Ten years ago I was part of a concert of newly created vocal chamber works called 21st Century Shakespeare, entirely by male contemporary composers. Most pieces were “traditional” vocal chamber music settings in many senses, with varying aesthetics, very beautiful but I wouldn’t say they were “experimental”. One of the pieces in the current concert by Spanish composer Diana Pérez Custodio called Ostinato Rap 02 employs chanting, rapping, speaker piano as well as the usage of both tambourine and tibetan bowl. It’s actually very ritualistic yet up-beat at the same time, with no hint of self consciousness; it’s super fresh. She utilizes texts by both Cervantes and Shakespeare. American composer Pamela Sklar curiously chose a short poem by Cervantes (she is a non Spanish speaker), setting it with alternating texts between the original Spanish and English translation.. The piece is for flute, alto flute, piano and mezzo. Vocally she has the mezzo in extremely low tessituras in which I use chest, giving the effect of a very present and sung “whisper” that seems to come from the lower unconscious, jumping up to more normal tessituras. It gives the effect of conscious and subconscious of the singer to be somewhat interactive and operative, while digesting Cervantes meditative and highly philosophical (but brief) poem about the nature of love. Both Custodio’s setting and Sklar settings are highly original and sensitive, using very different ingredients from the composers of 21st Century Shakespeare.
New York based mezzo soprano Anna Tonna is known for her versatility in musics from Bach to Zarzuela. She is known for her promotion of works by composers of Spain and Latin America. She can be heard in her recent commercial disc “España alla Rossini” with iTinerant Classics.