Forty years after Laura Lane began teaching music at Knox College, Galesburg, there are still too few women composers on classical music programs.
That’s not the case this weekend, as Lane directs Nova Singers in two performances of “A Voice of Her Own” — a program of all female composers — on Saturday, April 22, 7:30 p.m., at First Lutheran Church in Galesburg, and Sunday, April 23, 4 p.m., at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport.
From medieval wonder Hildegard of Bingen, to 17th-century prodigy Vittoria Aleotti to 19th-century geniuses Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and Clara Schumann to modern-day composers Abbie Betinis, Joan Szymko and Hyo-Won Woo, this is a dream come true for Laura Lane.
“This has been a program that I’ve dreamed of for a long, long time,” she said Friday. “When I designed it, I really took a lot of time to choose among so many different works by so many different great women composers and to choose my very favorite ones.”
“I am thrilled to finally be able to perform this beautiful music,” Lane said, noting the program was first planned for spring 2020, but it was cancelled due to the pandemic. It took three years to reschedule in order to find the required performers and dancers for the variety of works on the program.
“This one is unusual. This one is unique in all the variety of stuff on it,” Lane said. “I had to wait until we could pull it off, because it’s quite something to pull all this together.”
“There’s been an explosion of women composers in the last 20 years,” Lane said. Most people don’t know about the earliest one, Hildegard of Bingen, not only a 12th-century composer, but a poet, theologian, philosopher, and she ran a huge abbey.
“She is the only person whose name we actually know connected with chant,” Lane said. “Most people just know Gregorian chant, nobody signed their name to their chants, but she signed her chants and she collected her own works. She set her own poetry and she was working alone in this abbey surrounded by women writing for them, and she was so well-known at the time that bishops, experts in theology, medical experts, all kinds of people from all around Europe knew of her and came to visit her to study her and talk to her and that kind of all disappeared.”
Every female composer on this program was “adored and respected at their time and published. Known to be a composer, even though you might not recognize any of their names,” Lane said. The first half of the program highlights pieces from past centuries, and the second half more modern works.
That second half features Joan Szymko’s extraordinary “At Such a Dizzy Height,” with original choreography by Jennifer Smith and two professional dancers. “The music and the choreography are absolutely gorgeous,” Lane said. “I think this is the most unique program we have ever presented, and I want each and every one of you to hear it!”
The choreography is by Smith, professor of dance and director of the dance program at Knox College. The dancers, MJ Opulencia and Juan Enrique R. Irizarry, Jr. are a current and a past Knox student, respectively.
Not only is this the first Nova program of entirely female composers, but it’s also the first to feature dance, Lane said.
“The dancers are the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen in your life. They are unbelievable,” she said. “We have a professional dancer from Chicago, the young man who’s an alum of Knox. And then the young woman is a senior at Knox. They are amazing, and the choreography itself is so beautiful. It fits the music perfectly and it fits the idea of Marc Chagall and Bella and their love letters.”
Also featured on this program are pianist Sora Park Shepard, flutist Suyeon Ko, violinist Dortha DeWit and cellist Steven Jackson.
Mendelssohn and Schumann
Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) is the much less well-known sister of composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), and they were both musical child prodigies, the conductor said.
“And Fanny was raised and trained and educated exactly like her brother until a certain point in her teens, when her father said that’s it. You can’t publish, he’s publishing,” Lane said. “He’s going off to London to study further and you are not. This is the kind of thing that was very typical.”
“Fanny wanted to be a family person and so she continued to write music and organize concerts in the home and got married,” she said. “It wasn’t until she got married that her husband said, hey, this is great stuff. We gotta publish your music and then she did and then they did it together. But you know, she wasn’t gonna go against the cultural norms of the time or against her father.”
Clara Schumann (1819-1896), wife of the great Romantic composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856), was a gifted composer and pianist, who also raised seven children.
“Most people don’t even know that she wrote music but guess what? She wrote incredibly beautiful music and she didn’t publish because he was the composer in the family,” Lane said.
The conductor – who launched Nova Singers in 1986 and has taught at Knox since 1983 – has made it her life’s work to highlight women composers, commissioning new works from over 20 women over the years.
“To elevate women composers and to commission them and to study them and learn about them,” Lane said. “Because sometimes you can’t find, especially back in the day you couldn’t find a woman composer. It was harder, harder to find them.”
Her doctoral dissertation at University of Iowa focused on women writers, particularly Scottish classical composer Thea Musgrave. Lane’s doctor of musical arts degree in choral conducting was received in 1989; she has a master’s in choral conducting (1981) from Westminster Choir College.
Closing the gender gap
“In general, women composers are still seriously underrepresented on classical programs. I have been doing women composers on every program for years and years and years without saying anything about it,” Lane said.
“Of the composers who write for symphony orchestra, probably 30 to 40 percent are women, and it’s probably 3% of works represented in the programming of professional orchestras in the United States are by women,” she said. “So that tells you what a big gap there is. And the reason for that gap is that conductors don’t know about them, and aren’t actively looking to fix that.”
“There are women composing operas, women composing symphonies and solo songs, choral music — absolutely lots of them now,” Lane said. “But are they being programmed as much? No, not yet. Are they being commissioned as much? I don’t think so, and that’s really important to commission women because then you’re paying them to write a piece of music.”
There’s also a huge disparity in the number of female conductors versus men. Lane said when she came to Knox in 1983, she was just the third college-level woman conductor in the entire state.
“At the American Choral Directors Association, when I was coming up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there were almost no women conducting at the national conferences and that is changing. Now, there are more,” she said.
When Lane was in her conducting doctoral program at Iowa, she was just one of two women. The gender of a conductor shouldn’t make a difference in choosing gender of composers, she noted.
“The reason that I know all this is because I’ve devoted part of my professional life to lifting up women composers for the entire time,” Lane said. “For 45 years, I’ve been studying women composers.”
“When I was in school, I raised my hand, all of my professors were men. I raised my hand and I would say, where are the women composers? And they would say there aren’t any,” she recalled. “And that wasn’t true. They just didn’t know about them.”
Lane makes it a goal to try to make every concert diverse, representing a range of composers, including people of color.
“I just always did that and including music from all around the world. You’re gonna hear on this program, there’s a woman, a young woman composer from South Korea who is brilliant, who’s really incredible,” she said of Hyo-Hon Woo. “We’re closing with a piece by her.”
Abbie Betinis (now 43) may be a familiar name to Nova patrons. Originally from Wisconsin, she is a graduate of St. Olaf College (B.A.), the University of Minnesota (M.A.), and holds a diplôme from the European American Musical Alliance Institute in Paris.
A two-time McKnight Artist Fellow, she has won grants and awards from the American Composers Forum, ASCAP, and the Minnesota Music Educators Association, among others. At age 31, she was voted one of the nation’s top 100 Composers Under 40 by New York’s WQXR-FM and National Public Radio.
In 2016, in celebration of its 30th season, Nova Singers commissioned Betinis to compose a new work on a text by Carl Sandburg. “Harvest Moon” had its world premiere at the April 2016 concerts. Nova Singers also performed another Sandburg poem set to music by Betinis, “At a Window.” Both works celebrate the history and culture of the prairie Midwest.
Betinis has written over 80 commissioned pieces for world-class organizations, including the American Choral Directors Association, Cantus, Chorus Pro Musica, The Schubert Club, St. Olaf Choir, and Zeitgeist. She lives in Minnesota, where she is adjunct professor of composition at Concordia University-St Paul and co-founding executive director of Justice Choir.
This weekend, Nova will sing two of her pieces — “Cedit Hyems” and “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight.”
Tickets for the concerts are $20 for adults and $17 for seniors, available at the Nova Singers website HERE. Students are admitted free of charge. For more information, visit Nova’s Facebook page HERE.