Pittsburgh Classical Music Group Puts New Focus On Gender Equity

Nov 1, 2019

Maria Sensi Sellner studied composition and conducting at Carnegie Mellon University, and has worked in music all around the U.S. for more than a decade. But she said she had to dig to learn about the many talented women composers' troupes, like her Resonance Works Pittsburgh, were ignoring.

Resonance Works presents "the national anthems": 8 p.m. Sat., Nov. 2 (Heinz Chapel, 326 S. Bellefield Ave.), and 3 p.m. Sun., Nov. 3 (Charity Randall Theatre, 4301 Forbes Ave.), Oakland.

So in its seventh season, Resonance Works has a new focus: At least half the works it performs from now on will be composed by women, said Sellner, the group’s artistic and general manager.

The new approach begins with its season-opening program. Seven of the 13 composers in “the national anthems” are women, including American artists Caroline Shaw, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Florence Price; Canadian composer Vivian Fung; and Finland’s Kaija Saariaho.

“Women today are writing some of the most exciting music in the classical world that there is, and they’re winning the prizes, too, the Pulitzer Prize and others,” said Sellner.

Maria Sensi Sellner is artistic and general manager of Resonance Works.
Credit Courtesy of Resonance Works

Five of the past 10 Pulitzer Prizes for music have gone to women, including Shaw, who won in 2013.

Sellner emphasized that Resonance will not stage programs explicitly meant to highlight women composers; it will simply incorporate more women composers into its programs. Exhibit A is “the national anthems.” Sellner said the question Resonance is asking is, “Musically, how can we celebrate our global community? What are the things that we all share?”

The program, with performances Saturday and Sunday at Heinz Chapel and the Charity Randall Theatre, features a chorus of 20 voices backed by a string quartet, flutist, and harpist. Sellner conducts. The evening is built around David Lang’s 2016 work “the national anthems,” which was inspired by his study of all of the world’s national anthems (193, at the time). The idea, Lang has said, was to create “a meta-anthem.”

The work in five movements, for choir and string quartet, runs 23 minutes. While the lyrics (many of which express the fear of losing freedom) are drawn from actual anthems, Lang’s piece sounds nothing like a traditional national anthem. Sellner describes it as “meditative.”

“It creates a fabric of sound,” she said. “So you’re hearing the same text sung by different voices in the choir at different times.”

The other dozen composers, from 10 countries and six continents, take a range of approaches. One piece, by South Africa’s Enoch Sontoga, is part of his country’s national anthem. Chen Yi, of China, contributes settings of folk songs from her homeland. James MacMillan likewise incorporates traditional Scottish music (along with verse by Robert Burns). Frank, who is of Chinese-Peruvian and Lithuanian Jewish ancestry, mines Peruvian culture for her a cappella work “Ccollanan Maria.”

David Lang is the Pulitzer-winning composer of "the national anthems."
Credit Courtesy of Resonance Works

Shaw’s work is a response to Emma Lazarus’ famous poem engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. From Price, who was African-American, come pieces for string quartet inspired by spirituals. Fung’s “Kecak Attack!” is her interpretation of the traditional Indonesian Monkey Dance. And the program features the world premiere of “Gitanjali #35,” by Mexican-American composer Jorge Sosa, inspired by a poem by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel laureate.

The concert also includes work by famed Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, Armenia’s Mary Kouyoumdjian, and Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. (All 12 works aside from Lang's are short; all the composers save Price, Sontonga, and Revueltas are still living.)

Both venues are on the University of Pittsburgh campus, in Oakland. In keeping with the program’s theme, each performance will be preceded by a musical prelude and a tour of Pitt’s Nationality Rooms, located in the nearby Cathedral of Learning.

Ticket information is here.