For hundreds of years, those proverbial "dead white male composers" have fueled — and ruled — the world of classical music, with lofty works by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, among others trumpeted on programs while their female counterparts have often been relegated to the shadows of history.
A few notable exceptions have included 19th century trailblazers Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, albeit both still playing second fiddle to their more famous composer kin: brother Felix Mendelssohn, and husband Robert Schumann, respectively.
The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra turns that paradigm on its head when it presents Feb. 27 its latest (A)bsolute Classics concert titled Naomi Woo Conducts Haydn and Farrenc, paying tribute to women composers (with a cameo by Joseph Haydn) on the eve of International Women’s Day on March 9.
Woo, who began her tenure with the orchestra as RBC Assistant Conductor during the 2019/20 season, replaces originally billed Winnipeg-born maestro Keri-Lynn Wilson, who last appeared on the WSO podium in January 2018 and had been slated to lead Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor on March 13. Wilson was unable to travel from her New York City home due to the global pandemic.
"For many people, the image of a white man, who’s probably dead, comes to mind whenever they picture a composer," Woo, also a pianist who conducts the University of Manitoba Symphony Orchestra, as well as serves as music director for the WSO’s life-changing Sistema Winnipeg music education program.
When asked about the prickly subject of perceived "quota systems," in which well-meaning concert presenters potentially risk "ghettoizing" women artists with gender-specific programs, Woo demurs.
"That’s a very good question," she replies, also aware of the flipside argument in which these same programs ostensibly further heighten public awareness and appreciation of works composed by women.
"As a (concert) programmer and curator myself, I choose repertoire by a wide range of composers writing beautiful music that I believe has value for my students and for audiences. I really do prioritize making sure many of those composers are women. Many are also people of colour, which is another priority of mine," she explains. "However at the same time, I still also believe these artists can be represented within a larger context, and that it’s absolutely possible to include them in concerts not specifically focused on composers who are women, or not white."
The livestreamed program features the local première of Marianne von Martinez’s Piano Concerto, with the 18th century Spanish composer so highly regarded that scholars have suggested that the Wunderkind himself, Mozart modelled one of his masses after hers. Martinez also became close friends with "Papa" Haydn — hence the inclusion of his Divertimento in E-flat Major on next weekend’s program — often playing duets with her mentor in gracious Viennese salons as their individual compositional styles and approaches rubbed off each other.
The Vancouver-born Woo, who also meticulously directs the camera operators from the Centennial Concert Hall projection booth during each of the WSO’s livestreamed shows this season, will be serving double duty as featured soloist while conducting the orchestra from her piano bench, a typical practice of the classical era.
"This is a brand new piece for me, and I’m really looking forward to performing it for the first time," she shares. "It’s very exciting to be able to showcase this wonderful composer with her exceptional keyboard writing, and I think our audience members will become absolutely hooked and want to know more."
The second offering is another lesser known work: Louise Farrenc’s Nonet in E-flat Major for nine string players, with the French composer equally known for advocating — and winning — pay equity as notably the sole woman appointed professor at the Paris Conservatory during the 19th century.
The 29-year old artist already possesses a jaw-dropping pedigree, including holding degrees in mathematics and philosophy from Yale College, piano performance from the Yale School of Music and Université de Montréal, as well as currently completing a PhD in musicology from Cambridge University. She’s performed as soloist with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, Yale Symphony Orchestra, and the Philharmonia Northwest (Seattle), with her Carnegie Hall debut in 2011 praised by the New York Times as an "elegant performance," among many other prestigious accolades and appointments.
Woo first began bitten by the baton bug at age "12 or 13," after winning a solo performance with the VSO led by its then assistant conductor Tania Miller.
"I was so charmed by her and had never thought that was a job that anyone could really have, or that I could do," Woo reveals, who subsequently interviewed Miller for a career skills project, ultimately leading to her own appointment as conductor of her undergraduate student orchestra that only whetted her appetite for more.
“There were 12 participants, 12 auditors and a crew of at least five teachers who were women. It was absolutely empowering, and powerful seeing that kind of representation.” – Naomi Woo on attending a training course at the National Opera Studio
She also credits her participation as one of only 12 accepted to a training course at the National Opera Studio for women conductors, hosted by the Royal Philharmonic Society and the Royal Opera House for further shaping her career trajectory, and helping establish a strong network of supportive colleagues who still regularly cheer each other on through social media and texts.
"There were 12 participants, 12 auditors and a crew of at least five teachers who were women. It was absolutely empowering, and powerful seeing that kind of representation," she recalls.
When asked what advice she might give to young girls dreaming of stepping onto the podium for themselves, or aspiring to compose their own music, Woo’s answer comes as swift and sure as a razor-sharp downbeat:
"I would tell them to reach out and ask questions. I’m always happy to talk. We need very practical mentorship, and getting to know people who are on the same career path that you’re interested in is one of the most important things," she muses, before adding a final grace note:
"I absolutely love what I do which is an incredible job and extremely rewarding. I feel so nurtured and supported by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and am grateful to be working with my tremendous colleagues in the orchestra, and as well as my fellow conductors on staff, Daniel (Raiskin) and Julian (Pellicano)," she adds. "I would tell any of these young girls and women to follow their passion and not be afraid."
The concert will be livestreamed on Saturday, Feb. 27. For tickets or further information, visit: https://wso.ca.