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Grand Rapids Symphony celebrates pioneering female composers with concert of music that blazed trails and shattered glass ceilings

Classical music counts Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann and Gustav Mahler as among the

greatest composers in history. But Mozart and Mendelssohn both had sisters who also were talented musicians and composers. Same for the women that both Schumann and Mahler married. But music by Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler are little known. What music Marianne Mozart may have written has been lost. All we know of music composed by Mozart’s sister, nicknamed “Nannerl,” is an occasional mention in her younger brother’s letters. It wasn’t until the 20th century that female composers entered the limelight.

Grand Rapids Symphony will conclude its 2018-19 Great Eras Series on Friday, May 3, with a concert titled The 20th/21st Century Concert: Celebrating Women featuring music by women plus a woman as guest soloist.

Associate Conductor John Varineau leads the Grand Rapids Symphony in music that shattered glass ceilings, composed by pioneering women who broke new ground and blazed new trails in music. The 8 p.m. concert in St. Cecilia Music Center welcomes back to Grand Rapids trombonist Ava Ordman, who formerly spent 24 seasons as principal trombonist of the Grand Rapids Symphony in the early 1970s through the late 1990s.

A part of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s PwC Great Eras series, the concert features music by American composers Ruth Crawford Seeger and Joan Tower and by British composer Anna Clyne, three women whose careers spanned more than a century from the early 20th century to the present. Highlights of the evening concert will be given at 10 a.m. on Friday May 3 as The 20th/21st Century Coffee Concert. Part of the Porter Hills Coffee Classic series, the one-hour program is held without intermission. Doors open at 9 a.m. for complementary coffee and pastry. The program is part of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s efforts to highlight the work of contemporary composers as well as to draw attention to the work of overlooked composers. Next season, one of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Great Eras Series concerts will feature music by Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann in March 2020.

“The Grand Rapids Symphony is such a wonderful symphony, and we really do have something for everyone,” said Music Director Marcelo Lehninger about the concert. Each of the three featured female composers shattered the glass ceiling in her own way.
In the first half of the 20th century, Ruth Crawford Seeger, a folk music specialist as well as a composer, became the first female composer in history to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1930. Though Seeger’s compositions included several modernist works that would inspire important composers throughout the 20th century, the Grand Rapids Symphony will perform two works by her, including “Rissolty Rossolty,” a fantasy for orchestra based on American folk tunes. Joan Tower, who turned 80 last September, in 1990 became the first woman in history to win the Grawemeyer Award for composition, a prize worth $100,000 today. Tower’s composition “Made in America,” which uses snippets of “America the Beautiful,” won her the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition plus two more Grammys for Best Orchestral Performance and Best Classical Album for the recording made by the Nashville Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Grand Rapids Symphony will perform her work titled “Chamber Dance.” Anna Clyne, a British-born composer, now based in the United States, is a winner of the 2010 Charles Ives Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the 2016 Hindemith Prize. Her double violin concerto, “Prince of Clouds,” was nominated for the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Grand Rapids Symphony will perform her piece titled “Within Her Arms.” The fourth work on the program, co-commissioned by the Grand Rapids Symphony, is titled “Their Eyes Are Fireflies” Composer David Biedenbender wrote it for Ordman, who today is a professor of music at Michigan State University.

Ava Ordman, who became principal trombonist of the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1974, is the only woman to hold a principal or assistant principal chair in the orchestra’s brass section since the Grand Rapids Symphony began the transition to a fully professional orchestra in the early 1970s. She has given the world premieres of several works including Steven Smith’s Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra with the Eugene Symphony Orchestra, and Libby Larsen’s “Mary Cassatt” with the Grand Rapids Symphony. Together with the Grand Rapids Symphony, Ordman recorded Donald Erb’s Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra for a CD released by Koss Classics in 1995. Ordman has performed regularly with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra, with the Cabrillo Music Festival in California, with the Western Brass Quintet at Western
Michigan University and with the American Classic Trombone Quartet. The complete The 20th/21st Century Concert: Celebrating Women program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, May 26, 2019, at 1 p.m. on Blue Lake Public Radio 88.9 FM or 90.3 FM.