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An Advocate for Classical Music and Women

They were also traditionally discouraged. Despite the fact that the first person to be named as a composer, Hildegard of Bingen, was a woman, history is littered with women who’ve been told either by their brother — Fanny Mendelssohn — or by their husband — Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler — not to compose, that one composer in the house is enough. Or their work has been hidden. So they’ve never been able to develop.

We’ve gone from a situation where very little women’s music was being performed to a reasonable amount now. It’s still nothing like enough. But in the U.K., the U.S. and internationally, there are some great women composers of the younger generation.


Alma Mahler (1879-1964) in a 1909 photo. Although she was a composer, her husband, the composer Gustav Mahler, discouraged her from pursuing it.

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With conductors, it’s taken actually even longer, because it’s only recently that we’ve had Marin Alsop, who’s an amazing pioneer. I guess it’s just taking permission to be in charge. It’s like women in the boardroom. It’s because you don’t see other people behind you. So the fact that Marin has put herself on the line and been such a role model means that this sudden flood that we’re having has been allowed to happen.

Where did you grow up and how did you get into music?

I was born in the East End of Glasgow. When I was a baby, we were sent out to the Glasgow overspill in the surrounding towns. It was a really pleasant upbringing. My parents were very interested in the arts.

I learned the piano from the age of 6. I was always obsessed with all kinds of music, because it was the age of the Beatles and the Kinks, but I also sang in church choirs. After studying music at university, I came down to London. I was in a pop band with my boyfriend at the time, John Lunn, who’s now the most successful television composer in the world, because he wrote the music for “Downton Abbey.”


U.S. conductor Marin Alsop, conducting at Royal Albert Hall in London in September 2015. She conducts orchestras around the world, is the only conductor to receive the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship and was only classical musician to be included in The Guardian’s “Top 100 women” in art, film, music and fashion in 2011.

Justin Tallis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When I didn’t become a massively successful pop star, I decided to look for a job. I was really lucky, because this ad in The Guardian said the London Sinfonietta, a contemporary classical orchestra, wanted to develop an education program. I applied, and to my astonishment I got the job.

It was in-depth, practical, detailed project work in schools, prisons, etc. It was a new concept. I became involved in the development of the music curriculum in this country in the early 1990s because of that work. Composing became part of the curriculum.

At the Sinfonietta, we worked with Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. He was just beginning to dip his toe in the water of composing notated music, because he had classical training. He was interested in the music of Olivier Messiaen, Krzysztof Penderecki, Gyorgy Ligeti, and really influenced by those composers. We worked with him on a concert program for the Royal Festival Hall, which brought together all his different influences. That reached very large numbers of people.

Tell us about a highlight of your coming season, Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.”

It’s a typical Southbank project, in that it’s presenting a major work and guaranteeing the highest possible artistic values, but making sure that as many different people as possible are involved in it. Marin is conducting. We’re creating an orchestra that reflects the diversity of London. The starting point is the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, but there are also players from Chineke [an orchestra of young black and minority ethnic players], as well as young performers, dancers and singers recruited from the local community, a children’s choir, a marching band and a video installation.

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