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International Women's Day: Taking The Pulse Of Toronto's Women In Music

Updated: Mar 27, 2018



As Frances McDormand so eloquently said after her Oscar win this weekend, women in the arts are not trending. From the early days of Hildegard von Bingen to Barbara Strozzi to Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel to Clara Schumann to Lili Boulanger to Pauline Viardot to Amy Beach to current-day Kaija Saariaho and Missy Mazzoli to name but a few, women have been composing and performing music every bit as skilled, innovative and miraculous as their male counterparts for generations. The problem is, it’s taken until now for our society to even begin to expose, promote and resource women’s musical accomplishments the same way we’ve resourced men’s.


For last year’s International Women’s Day piece in Ludwig Van (then Musical Toronto), we celebrated the abundance of women in Toronto’s musical community creating their own opportunities and companies and leading esteemed musical organizations. Strong female musicians abound in this city, and the increased emphasis on the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement continues to expose and inspire female leadership and much-needed change in this industry we all hold so dear to our hearts.


Those who follow Toronto’s classical music programming and major organizations know where our problems continue to lie. Yet for this piece, rather than focusing on the many ways our culture still needs to change, we will celebrate ways women have shone over the past year in our city’s classical music community.


Over the past year, we’ve seen numerous concerts focused around female composers of whom Toronto hasn’t heard enough.


All-female groups including Collectif, Women on the Verge and the all-female concert series at the Royal Conservatory, Invesco Piano Concerts and Quiet Please, There’s a Lady On Stage, excited audiences with innovative, unique and world-class programming.


Blythwood Winds performed a concert of works by exclusively female composers, including Abigail Richardson-Schulte, Ana Sokolović, Anna Höstman, Norma Beecroft, Elizabeth Raum, Linda Caitlin Smith and Bekah Simms.


Opera5 dug up two gems of operatic history with performances of two one-act operas by Dame Ethel Smyth. Cleverly retitled Suffragette because of the performance’s inclusion of the original “March of the Women,” these operas featured music by the late nineteenth-century composer who holds the distinction of being the first woman to ever have an opera premiere at the Met.


Toronto-based soprano Clarisse Tonigussi launched the Canadian Women Composers’ Project, in which she and pianist Matthew Li toured Canada performing art songs exclusively written by Canadian female composers.


Soundstreams Canada’s annual 21C Festival focused on the works of the inimitable South Korean composer Unsuk Chin, one of the great compositional forces of today. The Toronto Symphony’s New Creations festival featured works by Cassandra Miller, Nicole Lizée, Tanya Tagaq and Christine Martin, and composers Cecilia Livingston, Vivian Fung, Jocelyn Morlock, Kati Agocs, Cheryl Cooney, Christine Donkin, Carmen Braden and Laura Pettigrew premiered pieces in honour of Canada’s Sesquicentennial (available to listen to on the TSO’s Soundcloud).


Canadian composer Tawnie Olson received an Opera America grant to develop a new opera about Hildegard von Bingen (speaking of female composers) with new Indie Opera T.O. group re:Naissance Opera, featuring a libretto by fellow-Canadian Roberta Barker.


Nicole Lizée served as the University of Toronto’s Roger D. Moore Distinguished Visitor in Composition, where she gave masterclasses and the Faculty of Music performed a concert of her works featuring percussion ensemble and electric guitar.


The Association of Canadian Women Composers, founded in 1981, continued to promote its members through archiving, journals and concert presentation, including in an upcoming performance with Caution Tape Sound Collective on March 24th, 2018 at Arraymusic.


Of course, fantastic female players and singers shone both locally and internationally – in ways too numerous to name. Looking for female Torontonian pride? It’s not hard to find when noting some of Toronto’s most exciting musical exports.


Last year, we also took note of the abundance of female conductors in Toronto, particularly in the world of choral music. While we hope more will come to prominence in the large-scale orchestral realm, we celebrate the female conductors who will prominently conduct in Toronto next season, including Han-Na Chang, Tania Miller, Gemma New and soprano and conductor, Barbara Hannigan.


In a recent interview with the Globe and Mail, the once-Torontonian soprano and conductor Hannigan noted her preference not to be labelled by her gender, but rather only to concentrate on the work she is doing. “All the conductors I work with, they don’t have to deal with being called male conductors,” she told Brad Wheeler. “They’re just conductors. … I don’t have to make a statement. I just have to show up and do what I do. And that’s an example.”


Indeed, as Hannigan notes, it would certainly be nice as a woman to be noted only for one’s work rather than one’s gender alongside their work. Female classical musicians have been setting the example for generations. Now it’s up to our society to keep promoting, celebrating and funding these examples. Writer’s note: while I have tried to point out some of Toronto’s prominent female classical musicians (aside from the ones that were given shoutouts last year), please help me to highlight women I have missed by commenting below.

Headshots by Jessica Osber & Kirsten Miccoli.