Woman's Festival works to shed light on female classical composers

The annual event, which traditionally takes place around International Women’s Day, March 8, is slated for March 7-9 at the Holon Theater.

 BE’ENAYIM SHELEE (In My Eyes) by the Platforma Theater company looks into the troubling issue of violence against women.  (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
BE’ENAYIM SHELEE (In My Eyes) by the Platforma Theater company looks into the troubling issue of violence against women.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)

The pandemic shenanigans have shuffled the global human pack. One could also observe that the way the virus-related affair has been handled has brought underlying matters to the surface, on a political, sociopolitical and psychological level. However, there are some burning issues that have been there all along and, sadly, still await a just denouement.

One of those is the gender gap. That is still evident in terms of career opportunities and salary levels, and across a wide range of other walks of life including, to a degree, the arts. That was certainly the case in the 19th century and the first half of the second century when, for example, female classical music composers predominantly had to take a back seat to their male counterparts.

However, there were some who would not be denied – in more senses than one – as will be evident from the Feminine Voice concert at this year’s Woman’s Festival. The annual event, which traditionally takes place around International Women’s Day, March 8, is slated for March 7-9 at the Holon Theater.

THE FEMININE Voice show features pianist Dr. Shira Shaked and soprano vocalist Sivan Goldman, who will perform a slew of works created by a glittering rollout of feminine talent from across the 19th and 20th centuries, on March 8 (7 p.m.).

It is very much a matter of giving the composers some modern day due and, as it transpired, the venture itself also had to be put on ice for a while, albeit for a relatively far briefer furlough. A couple of years ago Shaked and Goldman had done their homework and had the musical substratum fully in place.

 The indie scene gets a slot at the festival with singer-songwriter duo Vered Moshkovski and Omer Moshkovitz (credit: NADAV YAHALOM AND ZOHAR RALT) The indie scene gets a slot at the festival with singer-songwriter duo Vered Moshkovski and Omer Moshkovitz (credit: NADAV YAHALOM AND ZOHAR RALT)

“We were completely ready to go,” says Goldman. “We had done our research and we’d even made some video clips.” Then everything shut down. “We were about to lead off with this just before the coronavirus sprang into our lives. We uploaded our first video clip in February 2020. I returned from Germany in March and was told I had to isolate, and then all the [concert and festival] cancellations began.”

Goldman came up with the idea for the Feminine Voice a while ago, although it wasn’t until her old pal and partner in musical arms was back in the same neck of the woods after an academic sojourn in the US that the notion began to take on tangible and audible form.

“The project came out of my own curiosity,” she says. “I know there are female composers today. But I have been singing for so many years and I had never performed music that was written by women.

“I know there are poetesses and I know there are women who compose contemporary music, but I could not believe that women only started writing music now, in the 20th century. There must have been some in the past as well.”

Indeed there were, and the Holon Theater date showcases work by eight women composers, from early Romantic Era composer and pianist Fanny Mendelssohn, to Romantic Era fellow instrumentalist and composer Clara Schumann, through to the likes of Venezuelan-born New York-based pianist, soprano, composer and conductor Teresa Carreño, who died in 1917 at the age of 63. There are a couple of more contemporary creators in there too, in the shape of American composer and pianist Amy Beach, who died at the age of 77 in 1944, and British-American composer Rebecca Clarke, who died in 1979 at the age of 93.

Clarke was one of the first female professional orchestral players and Beach was the first successful American female composer of large-scale art music. Her Gaelic Symphony, premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1896, was the first symphony composed and published by an American woman.

The surnames of the first two are known by the vast majority of classical music lovers, but how many know, for example, that some of the pieces from Mendelssohn’s vast oeuvre – she wrote over 400 compositions during her short lifetime – were published in her famous younger brother Felix’s name? That was simply down to her family’s conservative view of life and the social mores of the time that dictated, basically, that women were generally, solely to be seen and not heard.

Schumann had a better run for her money. Her God-given talent was nurtured by her father from the word go. Both her parents were musical and after they separated and Schumann’s mother moved out, her father took responsibility for his daughter’s initial steps on piano. She was considered a child prodigy and made her debut appearance at the age of nine.

She was born Clara Wieck and acquired the surname she was to retain throughout her adult life from her husband, feted composer, pianist and music critic Robert Schumann. But, again in diametric contrast to Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann was lauded as the most gifted pianist of her generation. Then again, the vast majority of her own scores were never played in public and were largely buried in the annals of time, until the classical world exhumed them in the 1970s.

THAT MAY be all well and good, but it seems the word did not get around across the board.

“I only heard of Clara Schumann in the context of her husband,” says Goldman. “And I heard of Fanny Mendelssohn in the context of her brother Felix. And I heard of Alma Mahler in the context of her husband Gustav Mahler.” The latter is an intriguing case in point, as the famed composer initially did his best to discourage his young wife from continuing with her writing pursuits. He only relented after hearing some of her works played.

Goldman says that people she might have considered to be better informed did not enlighten her about the gifts and creative achievements of female composers.

“I heard about those composers only by dint of their familial connections. But my lecturers [at the Tel Academy of Music] did not really take the trouble to tell me that each one of them was a personality in their own right. No one told me that Fanny Mendelssohn wrote close to 500 works. That wasn’t something I would have known 20 years ago, when I was a student.”

 One can possibly understand the mass media outlets sidestepping the efforts of female classical music composers. After all, their principal line of thought is to pump out revenue generators, rather than advising the public about the lesser known and more rarified areas of human achievement, however admirable and moving they may be. But surely, academics have a far better grasp of and deeper vested interest in such matters. Not so, it seems.

“I recently spoke to one of my former lecturers with whom I have an ongoing close relationship and he said that reflects the abysmal failure of the universities. He said that the lecturers themselves were not told about these composers. That’s a great shame.” Indeed it is and that sorry state of affairs is now being redressed here by Goldman and Shaked.

GOLDMAN WASN’T about to let sleeping dogs lie and started digging into any material she could lay her hands on. It was a revelation.

“I started looking for information about female composers from the 19th and 20th centuries because I have a penchant for Romantic and post-Romantic music. I thought I would definitely find something I would love.”

She was not disappointed. “I didn’t have to work too hard to find material that was quite amazing. I was stunned by the amount of material I came up with, with intolerable ease. I couldn’t believe there was all this material that was not being performed.”

Now comes the proverbial $64,000 question: Is there something intrinsically different about a work written by a woman as compared with a creation by a male counterpart? Goldman believes so, although she notes there is room for maneuver there.

“Shira, who has a PhD in music and has greater knowledge than me, says that she doesn’t think that, if they sat her down to listen to some works, she would be absolutely sure which were written by a man and which by a woman.”

However, the singer feels there is a fundamental divide between the genders in this area too. “As a woman, when I encounter these materials, I feel that the songs each of the women wrote, they composed them in a very precise female way. I can’t really explain it. There is something in the spirit behind the composing, which is so powerful. The experience I have [with the music] as a woman and not just as an artist is so powerful. I stand behind all the songs I sing in emotional terms, as a woman.”

The soprano says her and Shaked’s Holon Theater audience are in for a treat. “The music the women wrote is by no means inferior to music written by men. The quality and beauty of the music just poured out every which way. It is just there crying out to be performed. All you have to do is sit down and listen to it and enjoy the music these women wrote.”

DESPITE THEIR long shared road (Shaked and Goldman studied at music academy at the same time) the pair agree to disagree on the musical composition gender differentiation issue.

“Sivan and I have been discussing this topic [of female composers] forever,” says the pianist. “Sivan sees this as an exercise in female empowerment and to salute these composers. I see it a little differently. If I, for example, take a work I have never heard before and I don’t know if it was written by a man or a woman, I look at the melodic line and the harmonic line, how it was written and whether or not it moves me.”

That, Shaked notes, does not constitute a spanner in their collaborative works. “Each of us approaches it from a different perspective, but that’s fine.”

Having spent some time in the big wide world, Shaked had greater access to works written by women. But she is just as fired up, as Goldman, to get charts by the aforementioned 19th and 20th century composers, plus many more, out there and into the mainstream fare of the classical music sector.

“These compositions have been ignored for over 100 years,” she notes. “We want to give all these composers a voice. And it is such wonderful music, which imbues this project with added value.”

Hopefully, next week’s Shaked-Goldman offering will spark greater interest in female classical music creations and there is absolutely no reason why the discriminatory gender divide should not be summarily done away with in this walk of cultural life too.

There is plenty more to be had over the three days of the Woman’s Festival, including a comedic spot by the grand dame of the Israeli entertainment industry, octogenarian Rivka Michaeli, with the Moshkovski and Moshkovitz twosome representing the local indie rock-pop crowd. Fans of legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell will get another chance to hear some recrafted renditions of some of her best-loved numbers at the Both Sides show, while Israeli-born Mitchell biographer and confidante Malka Marom enlightens the audience about Mitchell’s life and times.

Thespian threesome Adi Drori, Eden Amor and Chen Ochayon will take a satirical look at life’s trials and tribulations, while the Be’enayim Shelee (In My Eyes) Platforma Theater production examines the dark issue of violence against women. 

For tickets and more information, contact: 03-502-3001 or woman-festival.co.il.