Women in Music Festival


The story of Eastman’s Women in Music Festival began with an Arts Leadership class on Women in Music taught by Sylvie Beaudette in the fall of 2004. The class members thought that a week-long festival highlighting female composers and performers was the ideal follow-up. The choice of March – Women’s History Month – was obvious; less so was the idea to  create a performer-based festival. Performers – students, faculty members and guest artists –would choose and “own” the material they performed. Enlisting the enthusiastic help of Robert Thompson (MM ’86, ’87; DMA ’92), then general director of Universal Edition, who provided financial support and musical scores of works by women composers in the UE list, Women in Music was well on its way.

If the Festival had an unspoken motto, it might be Susan B. Anthony’s famous phrase describing the determination of leaders of the women’s rights movement: “With women such as these, failure is impossible!”  The first Women in Music Festival was organized in less than five months by Beaudette and master’s student Sophia Ahmad.  It was a modest undertaking:  five midday concerts (from March 21-25, 2005) in the School’s Main Hall, the programs including all kinds of keyboard, chamber, and vocal music (including jazz) by women composers from the medieval period to the present. Relatively familiar names such as Amy Beach, Billie Holiday, and Sofiya Gubaydulina rubbed shoulders with younger composers (including the featured composer, England’s Roxanna Panufnik) and Eastman student composers. Women in Music was enthusiastically received and widely promoted.

The 2006 Festival – a collaboration with the Susan B. Anthony House, the University’s Anthony Institute for Gender and Women’s Studies, and Anthony Center for Women’s Leadership — celebrated the 100th anniversary of the death of the great women’s rights advocate (and Rochester resident) Susan B. Anthony with music composed by local women composers during her lifetime, including suffragette songs.

2007 was Women in Music’s “pivotal year”, in Beaudette’s phrase. The Festival took a great leap forward, receiving grants from the New York State Music Fund and the Humanities Project that enabled the Festival to invite Tania León as a composer-in-residence, and poet Margaret Atwood for a week highlighted by performance by a new song cycle by León set to Atwood poems.  According to Beaudette, it was also the first year the Festival had to have a performers’ waiting list – “too much music!”

In 2008 Women in Music welcomed composer and Eastman alumna Nancy Van de Vate, for the premiere of her piece for viola and string quintet A Long Road Traveled and a performance of scenes from Van de Vate’s All Quiet on the Western Front by Eastman Opera Theatre.

2009 brought Judith Lang Zaimont for a residency, funded in part by a Meet the Composer grant, and a concert including the premiere of her choral work Housewife.  Eastman alumna Emma Lou Diemer visited her alma mater in 2010, writing the Quartet on Themes by Howard Hanson thanks to a grant from the Hanson Fund for American Music.  In 2011, the Welsh-born American composer Hilary Tann was composer-in-residence, hearing the premiere of her choral work Exultet Terra. For 2012, the Festival has invited its first jazz artist, the Canadian pianist and composer Lorraine Desmarais. In 2013 and 2014, two Pulitzer-Prize winning composers had their residency during the festival:  Melinda Wagner and Jennifer Higdon, whose visit generated great enthusiasm among the Eastman and Rochester community.

These distinguished composers provide not only fine music, but knowledge and expertise displayed in master classes, lectures, radio interviews, and visits to Rochester city schools.

“Each year is different because of what people bring to the festival,” says Beaudette, and the Women in Music Festival has involved other arts since 2006, adding poetry reading by local celebrities, readings by local women poets of their own work, and visual arts and video.

“We want to focus on the accomplishments of women in music, rather than the problems facing women in the world of music,” says Beaudette. “We wanted to create such a positive and inspiring event that people would want to join in.”  The festival fields an average of 150 enthusiastic performers per year, and presents music by an average of 35 composers, including Eastman students.

In its ten years of existence, Eastman’s Women in Music Festival has allowed dozens of women to be heard as composers and performers. In all cases, the exposure to women operating at a high professional level as musicians has been valuable in ways that will reverberate far into the future. To quote Sylvie Beaudette: “Eastman graduates are everywhere in the world; they will perform and teach music by women as a matter of course, because the music is good, and because this was part of their Eastman experience. I recently fell upon a quote by the famous primatologist Jane Goodall: We have a choice to use the gift of our life to make the world a better place – or not to bother. Looking back at the last ten years, I am glad I chose to bother.”