Across the 2018-2019 seasons of 15 top orchestras worldwide, only 2.3 percent of works programmed were composed by women, according to a report by UK classical music label Drama Musica’s DONNE: Women in Music project. Drama Musica gathered information from the programmed seasons of 15 major orchestras – including the Sydney Symphony Orchestra – selected by a panel of music critics, and the results are damning. Of 3,524 works programmed, only 82 were written by women composers, and of 1,445 concerts worldwide, only 76 featured at least one work by a woman – 94.7 percent of the concerts presented only works by male composers.

“What started as a personal interest, turned into an eye opener!” said soprano Gabriella Di Laccio, who curates the DONNE project, which aims to champion women composers’ equality. “The more I research, the more I discover about the fascinating stories and some outstanding music written by women composers that have simply been neglected for too long. I think it is time we all get involved: as performers and as organisations to make sure we increase the visibility, equality and education for future generations.”

The orchestras included in Drama Musica’s survey were the Royal Concertgebouw, Berliner Philarmoniker, Vienna Philharmoniker, London Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Dresden Staatskapelle, Boston Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. The programs and repertoire included come from the 2018-2019 seasons as listed on each orchestra’s website or literature and took into account primarily the mainstage concerts of each orchestra prior to the start of the seasons. Gala concerts, touring and family concerts were only included when the information provided included a full program of the pieces that will be performed and chamber music concerts were only included if they were performed by members of the orchestra.

The SSO’s 2018 mainstage season includes two works by female composers, Elena Kats-Chernin’s Heaven is Closed performed earlier this year and Jennifer Higdon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto, which will receive its Australian premiere in July. The SSO also performed Katy Abott’s Second Symphony as part of Vivid Music and will present Bryony Marks’ The Happiness Box in the schools and families program in November.

Emma Dunch, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, SSO, Women Composers, Composing WomenSydney Symphony Orchestra CEO Emma Dunch. Photo © Richard Blinkoff

“The Sydney Symphony Orchestra is passionate about ensuring that we work with a wide range of excellent composers,” SSO CEO Emma Dunch told Limelight. “This year, we have partnered with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on the Composing Women program – a national development initiative for four women composers in their Masters years. Designed to foster and empower women composers, participants work closely with Liza Lim, former Composer in Residence with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, to develop their work and projects.”

Dunch highlighted the importance to the orchestra of developing and performing works by women. “It’s very important to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and to me as its female chief executive,” she said. “Thankfully, our Orchestra has always had a strong culture of representation — it’s a strong platform upon which to build. We include Australian compositions in all our programming, and this features works by female composers. In recent seasons, we have commissioned new works from composers Kate Neal, Lisa Illean, and Natasha Anderson. In 2017, our Kaleidoscope and Meet the Music series, aimed at secondary school music students, spotlighted three prominent Australian singer-songwriters, Kate Miller-Heidke, Megan Washington and Katie Noonan, who each performed their own works with the Orchestra.”

Does the SSO have any programs planned to increase the representation of female composers in its programming? “We will shortly announce our 2019 season, along with a number of multi-year artistic initiatives that will be directly relevant to this question,” Dunch said. “But I can’t give away the details just yet – watch this space!”

In addition to the plans to be announced shortly, Dunch highlighted the SSO’s existing efforts in this area. “In our partnership with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra will continue to provide a platform to support Australian women composers,” she said. “As part of the Composing Women program, a creative development week will see the four participants work closely with our Sydney Symphony Orchestra Fellows, exploring the new work that the women have developed.”

“As part of the annual Music Count Us In event, a day in which primary schools around the nation stop to sing the same song, one of the women in the Composing Women program is currently arranging music to be performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra this year,” Dunch said. “The piece will be performed by the Orchestra at a schools concert, and then shared with children nationwide via livestream, for students to sing in a unifying moment. These women are also invited to feature at the Composing Wall pre-concert foyer activity at our Family Concerts, providing the opportunity for young children to engage with them, and potentially inspire the next generation of musicians and composers.

Dunch said that a quota system would not be something the orchestra would consider. “Musical excellence and artistic distinction are not ‘check-the-box’ exercises,” she said. “But what we can do – and have concrete future plans to do – is create completely new programs that deliberately break down and remove existing historical and gender barriers discouraging women and artists of diverse and underrepresented backgrounds from entering classical music.”