The fundamental contradiction of the North Carolina Symphony‘s newly announced 2020–21 season is laid bare in a concert in March 2021, when the orchestra will play a “selection” from Amy Beach’s 1896 Gaelic Symphony, surrounded by a raging sea of Wagner and Prokofiev.
On one hand, it’s great that they’re playing so much of Beach’s music; this will be the American composer’s second appearance on the season, which opens with Bal Masqué, a brief sendup of a Viennese waltz.
On the other hand, there’s that pesky word: “selection.” It doesn’t appear on any other evening programs, and it certainly doesn’t apply to any of the 10 symphonies or symphony-like works the group will play, all of which are by the usual suspects.
So why is Beach’s symphony—one of the first published by an American woman, and a work with plenty of expressive range and power—only being presented in selections?
Over the past few seasons, the North Carolina Symphony has done a good job of performing more music by women, and this season continues that trend. Almost every concert includes a piece by a woman, including all of the pieces written in the 21st century.
Just play the whole damn symphony! Wagner will get over it.
That list of pieces is exciting: Polish polymath Grażyna Bacewicz’s churning Overture (1943), the impressionistic swirl of Linda Catlin Smith’s Wilderness (2005), the dissolving neo-Baroque textures of Caroline Shaw’s Entre’acte (2011), Helen Grime’s glittering Night Songs (2010), Gabriela Lena Frank’s multihued Elegía Andina (2000), and Hilary Purrington’s post-minimal Daylights (2017), among others. There are also works by Joan Tower and Jennifer Higdon that have quickly entered the orchestral canon.
It’s great that NCS is putting so much effort into performing more works by women. They’re not the New York or LA Philharmonics, but they’re doing better than many orchestras out there.
That said, the other thing that all these works by women have in common is that they’re short, with the exception of Higdon’s 23-minute Percussion Concerto. The longest ones top out at 15 minutes, while others flash by in the length of a long pop song. They largely fall at the beginnings of concerts, quickly giving way to fairly conventional recitations of 19th– and early-20th-century orchestral standards.
There’s the requisite three-concert celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, plus pairings of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, and Debussy and Ravel. If you squint, these parts of the programs don’t look appreciably different from last year or the year before. It is these same dead European and American men who get all the time they need to speak, and whose names appear atop each program—an unchanging set of marble busts in a dusty museum hallway.
It is in this context that reducing Beach’s symphony to “selections” jumps out so much. Just play the whole damn symphony! Wagner will get over it.
I realize that I wrote something fairly similar in these pages last summer reflecting on the NCS’s 2019–20 season. And I know that it’s become an all-too-common trope in recent years to trash the continued conservatism of orchestral programming, especially around the time of season announcements. I also don’t want to shortchange the musicians who do a consistently fantastic job of bringing all these pieces to life.
But it’s 2020. We’re past the point where you get credit for simply putting women somewhere on the program. Note, too, that all but one of the conductors the orchestra is bringing in, as it searches for a replacement for Grant Llewellyn, are men.
Give women time to speak. Other orchestras have shown that more inclusive programming is possible, and I hope I don’t have to write this same column again next year.
Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.