Long before the #MeToo movement, the classical music establishment had a long and inglorious history of sexism. Even in the supposedly liberated 20th and 21st centuries, female composers faced institutional discrimination, especially from orchestras.
In 2016, a widely cited survey from the Baltimore Symphony (conducted by a female musician — Eugene Symphony’s own music director laureate Marin Alsop) revealed that of the music performed this past season by 85 American orchestras, only a little more than 1 percent was written by women.
Things are changing. In 2017, all three Pulitzer Prize for Music finalists were women, several have won the award over the years (including four of the past seven), and names like Kaija Saariaho, Jennifer Higdon, Julia Wolfe, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Chen Yi and many more are regularly recognized as among the finest living composers, regardless of gender.
As the Jan. 24 Eugene Symphony concert illustrates, women have been writing great symphonic music for decades — including Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz (born in 1909), though it’s only recently that her music has begun to be widely played outside Poland.
Fortunately for us, the symphony’s music director Francesco Lecce-Chong is a fan and opens the show with her rollicking 1943 Overture for Symphonic Orchestra.
The rest of the concert is pretty old school. Tchaikovsky’s grand first piano concerto, written in 1875 and revised several times, is still one of the chestnuts of the orchestra repertoire (as well as the subject of a hilarious Monty Python sketch). This performance features another female classical music star, Natasha Paremski, who impressed Oregon Symphony audiences recently. It’s hard to find a symphony that wouldn’t be overshadowed by its drama, but Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s “Inextinguishable” fourth symphony, written during World War I, comes close, completing a program bursting with orchestral passion.
Delgani String Quartet’s opening concerts (Jan. 13 at United Lutheran Church and Jan. 15 at Temple Beth Israel) also look squarely backward in time, with music by the greatest masters of string quartets from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Almost all of Haydn’s 69 quartets are worth hearing, and many remain among the finest chamber music compositions in classical music. But his final full set, Op. 76, represents a real culmination, and the 1798 fifth quartet, which Delgani plays here, has a slow movement to die for — in fact, it’s nicknamed the “graveyard movement” because it’s often played at funerals.
Speaking of final farewells, the Delganis will also play Beethoven’s last quartet from his magnificent final set. Completed months before his death, the 1826 Op. 135 isn’t quite as forward looking nor as wondrously weird as the others, but it radiates an autumnal beauty that makes it one of the composer’s finest.
Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1949 fourth quartet has a bit of contemporary relevance: It’s one of several he wrote using Jewish folk themes inspired by the horror of the Holocaust and in protest against resurgent Russian anti- Semitism, something we in Eugene and America have sadly seen ourselves in recent months. Like the other two quartets on the program, it finds wintry beauty even in darkness.
A different kind of string music twangs out from the McDonald Theatre Sunday, Jan. 20, courtesy of progressive acoustic bluegrass band The Infamous Stringdusters. The 2017 Grammy-winning quintet busts out of the traditional bluegrass formula with a contemporary improvisatory exploration, pop covers (Allman Brothers, Marvin Gaye, even Daft Punk and the Cure), and an ebullient live show that shows there’s plenty of life in the old forms yet.