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Classical Music

Classical Music Moments In Women’s History, Part 4

Our final Women’s History Month installment about the classy ladies of classical music throughout history.

Each day on our Facebook page during Women’s History Month, Houston Public Media Arts and Culture made a post about the important contributions of women to classical music throughout history. Once a week, we’ve shared a “round-up” of these posts here on our website. Here’s our final round of classical music moments in women’s history so far!


Libby Larsen
Composer Libby Larsen. Photo by Ann Marsden. Courtesy artist’s website.

Libby Larsen (b. 1950) is one of the most sought-after and performed living composers today. She holds a Grammy award for her production of her own compositions and she was the first woman to serve as a resident composer with a major orchestra. In 1973, she co-founded the American Composers Forum, an influential resource for contemporary composers. She has previously held positions at the Library of Congress and has been given the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Chen Yi
Composer and Professor, Chen Yi. Photo courtesy of UMKC’s website.

When violinist and composer Chen Yi (b. 1953) was young, during China’s Cultural Revolution, she was sent to do forced labor, and took her instrument with her to practice. She returned home at 17. Chen became the first woman in China to receive a Master of Arts degree in composition. Subsequently, she earned her Doctor of Musical Arts degree at Columbia University where she studied under Wu Zuqiang, Chou Wen-chung, and Mario Davidovsky. Her accolades include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, the Lieberson Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, several honorary doctorates, and a Grammy Award in 1999.

JoAnn Falletta (b. 1954) is an American conductor who studied with classical luminaries like Leonard Bernstein. Originally a guitarist, Falletta developed an appetite for conducting while at Mannes College. The administration was initially concerned about her being ability to secure a music directorship position as a woman, but they allowed her to change her major nonetheless. She also earned degrees from Queens College, and the Juilliard School. She has been the music director of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra since 1991, and of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra since 1999. As an active modern conductor, she is enthusiastic about contemporary music, and has premiered well over 100 new works during her career. In 2013, she was honored by the Library of Virginia on their annual Virginia Women in History program.

Marin Alsop
Conductor Marin Alsop. Photo by Grant Leighton. Courtesy artist’s website./p>

Marin Alsop (b. 1956) is another American conductor as well as a violinist. She is currently the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor of the São Paulo State Symphony in Brazil. Since her appointment in Baltimore, she has started many education initiatives such as the Webumentary Film Series, a podcast named Clueless About Classical, and a new program for underprivileged children in the area called OrchKids. In 2013, she became the first woman to ever conduct at the Last Night of the Proms, the final concert in the BBC’s famous summer concert series. Her recording of Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra and soloist Colin Currie was awarded the Grammy for Best Classical Contemporary Composition in 2010.

Rachel Portman (b. 1960) is the first female composer to win the Academy Award for Best Original Score – Musical or Comedy, which she received in 1996 for the movie Emma. She began composing at the age of 14, and during her time at Worcester College, Oxford, she wrote music for student films and theater productions, which led her down her current career path. Though primarily a film composer, she has dabbled in contemporary classical music as well. In 2003, Houston Grand Opera commissioned her to write an opera, The Little Prince, the premiere of which starred Nate Irvin and Teddy Tahu Rhodes and was greeted with warm and positive critical reception.

Gabriela Lena Frank
Composer Gabriela Lena Frank. Photo by Sabina Frank.

Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972) might be best known in this area for her role as the current composer-in-residence for the Houston Symphony. She was also a student at Rice University, where she earned both her Bachelor’s and her Master’s Degrees. As a woman of multi-cultural descent, with a Peruvian-Chinese mother and a Lithuanian-Jewish father, Frank often infuses elements of her heritage in her music, particularly with pieces like Karnivalingo and Three Latin American Dances, both of which were performed by the Houston Symphony this past fall.

Missy Mazzoli (b. 1980) is a New York-based composer and pianist who has famously been regarded as “Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart” by Time Out New York. An active pianist, she also founded her own band called Victoire which has been praised by Pitchfork and WNYC Radio, and was once – in jest – called “post-rock, post-mimimalist or pseudo-post-pre-modernist indie-chamber-electronica” by NPR. Da Camera of Houston recently put on the Houston premiere of her chamber opera based on the life of explorer Isabelle Eberhardt, Song from the Uproar.

Thumbnail image: Conductor JoAnn Falletta. Photo by David Adam Beloff. Courtesy artist’s website.

If you enjoyed our Women’s History Month Facebook posts, check out our daily poetry posts in honor of National Poetry Month during April.