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Austin Symphony Orchestra is Celebrating Female Composers All Month

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Acclaimed pianist Michelle Schumann shares why the music trade is more welcoming to women and Austin Symphony Orchestra’s female-focused March schedule.

By Michelle Schumann, Photos by Allison DeFrancesco

I am not the first person to go on and on about what a fantastic city Austin is, but let me tell you, as a creative artist, Austin is the best! It has this perfect amalgamation of creativity, inspiration, resources and intelligence. And when I first came to Austin a little more than 20 years ago, I was immediately captivated by the seemingly endless amount of energy and spirit that radiated from the city. One of my favorite things is that Austin is an incredibly collaboration-hungry city.

So many people from so many different corners of the art world are constantly interested in working together, and I’ve been lucky to be a part of many partnerships. I’ve had great performing relationships with the Austin Symphony Orchestra, like the exciting concert I am joining them for this month; with visual artists and lighting designers I’ve worked with to create new visions of traditional works; and with fantastic choreographers I’ve worked with (Stephen Mills from Ballet Austin and David Justin) to provide vibrant live music for inspired new dances. I’ve collaborated with film, theater and opera in innovative ways. I’ve had the experience of recording a Grammy-nominated CD with the internationally acclaimed, locally based Conspirare Company of Voices, and as the artistic director of the Austin Chamber Music Center, I’ve partnered with countless arts organizations to produce fun, thought-provoking, imaginative, unexpected works.

One of my favorite things is that Austin is an incredibly collaboration-hungry city.

The performing arts are equalizing in so many ways. Great talent can be born anywhere, and people from all walks of life can appreciate the arts in many different ways. As a female pianist, I’ve been very fortunate to have an exceptional experience of equality and fairness. The great thing is that music starts with sound. You can close your eyes and listen to an instrumentalist of any sort and you would never know whether that person is a man or a woman. Relatively speaking, music performance is a level playing field and because of this, historically, there have been more successful women in this field than most others.

We can go back 200 years and look at one of the greatest pianists of all time: Clara Schumann, whose piano concerto I will perform with the Austin Symphony Orchestra March 22 and 23. From about the age of 10, Clara toured tirelessly as a concert pianist. She was a dazzling, passionate virtuosa, and everyone who heard her was amazed by her artistry. As she grew up, she married one of the greatest composers of all time, Robert Schumann, and was the closest of colleagues and friends with Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms and Joseph Joachim. She was her family’s primary breadwinner, managed her household, raised seven children (!!!) and was an international piano superstar. But while she was so highly esteemed (One of the most common flatteries offered to her was that she “played as good as any man.”), I would be remiss if I didn’t mention she lacked the support and encouragement to pursue a career as a serious composer. She believed composition was relegated to men and that she did not have a place in society to be a successful composer. What a pity that she was made to feel this way! Luckily, we have a few marvelous works that she snuck in during her lifetime and they point to an astounding amount of ingenuity, intelligence and virtuosity.

Works like Clara Schumann’s give great meaning to Austin Symphony Orchestra’s concert Creative Expressions: Celebrating Women Composers. Be prepared to hear the voices of some of the ignored mega-talents from centuries ago, like Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn, while helping to lift up one of the compositional superstars of our own time, Jennifer Higdon. Clara Schumann undoubtedly paved the way for women musician composers, and it’s a great thing to celebrate her during the 200th anniversary of her birth.

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