“Her/Music;Her/Story” offers a fresh look at the lives of women composers

“Her/Music;Her/Story” offers a fresh look at the lives of women composers

Through excavating the past, ‘Her/Music;Her/Story’ looks toward a more inclusive future in classical music

As organizations in the performing arts space continue to reconcile a history largely dedicated to the work of men, a new series produced in concert and airing on WQXR devotes itself to overlooked women composers.

Created and hosted by soprano Allison Charney and pianist Donna Weng Friedman, “Her/Music;Her/Story” is a refreshing dive into the careers and personal sagas of virtuosos such as former child prodigy Clara Schumann (1819-1896), the highly successful Amy Beach (1867-1944) and history-making Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944). The hosts boost these women up from the footnotes of music history with obvious care and reverence, carving out a space for them to match those long reserved for male counterparts.

And, while the brunt of their show focuses on composers of the past, Charney and Weng Friedman simultaneously concern themselves with offsetting current inequities in classical music. In the final installment of the WQXR series, premiering Oct. 4, the duo dedicate airtime to living women who innovate the genre in spite of gender biases that still permeate the industry.  Moreover, each season “Her/Music;Her/Story” commissions a new piece by a woman — or by a man whose composition was directly inspired by that of a woman. The first of these new commissions arrives with Kim D. Sherman‘s “The Clara Cycle,” which draws from Royce Flippin’s poetry imagining the life of Schumann.

ALL ARTS corresponded with the Charney and Weng Friedman ahead of next week’s episode, discussing everything from how they choose their subjects to advancements in gender parity. Read the interview below, and tune in to listen on WQXR on Fridays at 9 p.m. All 4 episodes will also be available for streaming here. 

Can you give us a little background on how this project came to be?

Donna Weng Friedman: We met when I  was a guest artist on “PREformances,” Allison’s concert series at Merkin Hall [at Kaufman Music Center] – and we just hit it off right away.  Over lunch the next week, we knew we had a similar passion for the under-looked music of women composers…and before long, “Her/Music; Her/Story” was born.

How did you go about choosing the subjects?

Allison Charney: We knew we had to start with Clara Schumann – due to Donna’s lifelong obsession with her!  Also, 2019 marks the 200th year since her birth, so the timing seemed auspicious. We also knew we wanted to honor the legacies of the Boulangers, since both of us have direct connections to Nadia. Once we saw that Gena Branscombe and Amy Beach set the same Robert Browning poem to song, we came up with the idea to combine all these composers whose last names happened to start with B into an episode! As far as Cecile Chaminade goes, her story is just so compelling, we felt we needed to include her in this first go-around. And, no matter what, we are always focused on music of our times, so the final episode about living composers was a given. The hardest part has been narrowing down our choices; we clearly need to do many more episodes!

Your first episode focuses on Clara Schumann, who was overshadowed by the success of her husband Robert Schumann. Can you talk a about this theme has resonated throughout music history?

DWF: Well, we don’t think this notion — of women’s work taking a backseat to men’s — is particular to the history of music, but to the history of humankind. We’re hopeful that the tides have turned and most people are now interested in learning about the triumphs and struggles faced by women throughout the ages in all disciplines. In the case of music history, this interest will be rewarded with the uncovering of so many glorious pieces of music to enjoy.

And do you feel that this is changing? Have we made any strides in representation across genders?

AC: Certainly women are being heard in all fields in a new way these days; and many major orchestras are doing their part by starting to program music by women as a matter of course. That said, Women in Music conducted a survey and found that of all the music being presented by orchestras across the globe from 2018-2019, only 5% will be composed by women. So, we still have a long way to go

Can you walk us through what’s exciting about the upcoming episodes?

DWF: Our (latest) episode focuses entirely on Cecile Chaminade, whose rise and fall is truly the stuff of movies! We are especially looking forward to sharing our live in-studio recording of Chaminade’s “signature” song, “L’anneau d’argent” as well as my performance of another Chaminade favorite, “Les Sylvains,”  from our concert at Steinway Hall celebrating Women’s History Month. And, as we’ve said before, we are serious champions of music of our times. We are so excited to be presenting works by SIX living composers in the final episode of the WQXR series

What has the audience reception been like for the first episode and do you have plans to do another round of the series?

AC: So far, we have been overwhelmed by the positive reaction to the series. From professionals and casual music-listeners alike. In fact, the only “negative” comments have been regarding disappointment that we haven’t included even more composers! We definitely will continue this series with our live performances, including two upcoming in NYC. First on “PREformances,” on October 24th at 7pm at Merkin Hall, then on January 13th at 7:30 p.m. at the National Arts Club and again on April 5, at 7:30pm at Princeton University.

Listen to the series by visiting the WQXR page.