Conductor Robert Istad, now in his second season as artistic director of the Pacific Chorale, believes that classical music has a problem, specifically in the area of programming. With the aim of alleviating that problem, he and the group are launching a new series this week at Segerstrom Concert Hall. It’s called “UnSung Heroes,” and as its punning name suggests, features the music of unjustly neglected composers, which is to say just about any composer who is not a dead white male European.
This first round of “UnSung Heroes” (others are planned) will be devoted to the music of women — from 12th-century mystic Hildegard von Bingen to 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw — and the reason, Istad said, is simple.
“It’s because I believe that the voice of women in classical music specifically has been stifled, for all known history. And it’s time for us to start seriously looking at the ways we represent composers on our programs. I wanted to make an intentional statement about lifting women up and the voices of women.”
Before undertaking the initiative, Istad, who also teaches at Cal State Fullerton, made a little study of the programming of musical organizations both locally and nationally. The results may not have surprised him, but were nevertheless disappointing. “I was just completely shocked about how very few performing arts organizations, professional or community, programmed music composed by women,” he said.
The UnSung Heroes series is still taking shape, but has already caught the attention of the National Endowment for the Arts, which has awarded a grant for it. Future installments will probably focus on the music of Asian composers, Latino composers, African-American composers, and perhaps composers who have struggled with mental illness, Istad said. He foresees a big UnSung Heroes concert every couple of years, with the following season incorporating some of the composers from that program into concerts throughout the schedule. He doesn’t want to marginalize these composers, but, rather, bring them into the Chorale’s regular repertoire.
A Huge World of Styles
Saturday’s program, put together with the assistance of conductor/composer Karen P. Thomas, who also contributes a new work to the agenda, will feature the work of 17 women composers, including such relatively well-known figures as Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (sister of Felix Mendelssohn), Clara Schumann (wife of Robert) and Lili Boulanger (sister of famed pedagogue Nadia Boulanger). Istad inserted three songs by pop artists Kate Bush, Carole King and Joni Mitchell as well, because “I think all three are some of the best songwriters that ever lived” and because they provided familiar signposts on an otherwise unfamiliar slate.
Most of the music is new to Istad and to the Chorale. This makes the rehearsal process more than unusually grueling.
“It’s very difficult,” Istad said. “Not that the singers are not good musicians, but specifically, it’s that each piece is in a different style. You know, the Boulanger ‘Soir sur la plaine’ is far different than the ‘Zimbabwe Greeting’ of Rosephanye Powell, and it requires a different color and tone of voice to make it feel authentic, to honor the tradition in which it was written.”
Two pieces have really surprised him. Edie Hill’s “From the Wingbone of a Swan,” which will receive its West Coast premiere on the concert, is one. Istad describes it as avant-garde and yet somehow familiar, “really connected and totally new and interesting. As the singers and I have unpacked it we’ve really fallen in love with the piece.”
Galina Grigorjeva’s “In Paradisum” has been another surprise.
“She’s the first lady of Estonian music — I had no idea,” Istad said. “The foundation of the repertoire that she writes is really neo-Gothic, lots of imitation, but highly controlled. … She uses no time signatures, yet she fills up these bars, it’s very flexible music.”
Having a Good Cry
This kind of program is not only good for the composers featured and the audience who hears it, but for the conductor and choir as well, who explore and discover new things rather than rehash the classics. Istad said that journey has been amazing; one poignant piece, Ysaye Barnwell’s “Wanting Memories,” required a break in rehearsal. “We just had to stop and have a good cry.”
Istad senses that there’s something different about music composed by females. It’s not that it sounds different than male-composed music, but it expresses different things in different ways.
“There’s a level of intuition and rhetoric that feels more deeply connected sometimes — I’m talking about the way the words work with the music. The women, at least the women we’re featuring on this program, have this uncanny, innate ability to communicate so beautifully, and on such a deep level of soul and spirit that it affects you, it changes you.”
To those who might object that since women were discouraged from composing in the past there is not enough music by them to make a significant contribution to the repertoire, Istad has an answer.
“I would say they haven’t done their research. Because artists have to compose, true artists, whether they’re allowed to or not. And many of these women found a way. … There is so much music. In doing this research to put this program together, I found countless hours of repertoire, beautiful repertoire. There aren’t enough concerts in a year to feature all that repertoire. It’s remarkable.”
Timothy Mangan is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.