UChicago Composer Reigns as Matriarch Among Creative Women on Chicago's Music Scene

UChicago Composer Reigns as Matriarch Among Creative Women on Chicago's Music Scene

Augusta Read Thomas by Anthony Barlich

The following was published in the Chicago Tribune on January 24, 2020.

By Xenia Hanusiak

If winning a Grammy is a sign of creative achievement then Chicago could well be described as the contemporary classical music epicenter of the world. Year after year for the past two decades, a Grammy ceremony doesn’t pass without the name of a Chicago musician, producer, or ensemble etched on one of its gilded trophies.

There are a few explanations for this sustained record of achievement, but there is one common denominator: women. Together, the names of Julia Nicols-Corry, Deirdre Harrison, Reba Cafarelli, and Alyssa Martinez form a super pack of women who direct the operations behind the creative virtuosity of Cedille, Eighth Blackbird, Third Coast Percussion and the Spektral Quartet. On Sunday, Third Coast hopes to repeat its 2017 victory as the best chamber music/small ensemble, and Nathalie Joachim – former flautist of the four-time Grammy winning Eighth Blackbird – celebrates her first nomination with her debut album “Fanm d’Ayiti” – a collaboration with the thrice nominated

The unique story of women at the helm on Chicago’s art music scene is a lineage that begins with Grammy award winning composer and Augusta Read Thomas, and passes to Lisa Kaplan, the pianist, founding member and Executive Director of Eighth Blackbird.

Thomas reigns as the matriarch. As the Chicago Tribune’s 2016 Chicagoan of Year, Thomas accolades and accomplishments easily fills four resumes. The indefatigable pioneer spearheaded the Ear Taxi Festival in 2016, branding Chicago as a new-music town. In 2017 – through her position as Professor at the University of Chicago – Thomas instituted the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition. She describes her success as a “lifetime of work, a whole gestalt of being active.” When I ask her about the influence of Ear Taxi on the local contemporary scene, she simply replies, “My three years of action speak louder than any words I can say to you.” The marathon two-day festival brought together 350 musicians, performing 54 world premieres. Her altruism appears endless: “My role is to deepen the path,” she says.

Thomas roll-up-your-sleeves attitude is emblematic of the women she mentors. There is true grit at play as Chicago women defy the odds in an industry known for its gendered division of labor. The record for women’s participation in classical music is bleak. Musicologist and sociologist Hyacinthe Ravet, the Vice-Dean of Equality at Paris-Sorbonne University noted in a 2016 study that “women make up approximately ten per cent of composers of contemporary music and a quarter of musicians while about one third of actors are women.” In 2019, women composed three per cent of the music performed by orchestras across the globe, according to Deborah Borda, president of the New York Philharmonic in a recent interview.

Despite the low probabilities, Nicols-Corry, Harrison, Cafarelli, and Martinez have carved out distinctive, multi-faceted careers. As the chief operating officer of Eighth Blackbird, Harrison leads the administration for the 23-year-old ensemble. With a double Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale University and actors’ training from London’s Royal Academy of Arts, Harrison detoured to administration in 2002 because, she says, of “economics and the U.S. Health system.” As co-artistic director of the band The Lucky Strikes, Harrison says her “storyteller training helps with her leadership functions.”

Cafarelli began her studies as a bassoonist at the Eastman School of Music, but her entrepreneurial flair led her to the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition and Ear Taxi Festival, before she landed in her present position as executive director of Third Coast Percussion. Martinez, development and production coordinator for Spektral Quartet, brings creativity as a poet and visual artist.

The contributions of these women create a cornerstone of the success of these ensembles, but their achievements cement it even further. These women are agents of empowerment for other women. Long before the celebrity influencers of Hollywood’s #metoo rallied for gender parity in their industry, Chicago’s trailblazers have been proving how women promoting women is one of the most powerful acts of solidarity.

When Brooklyn flautist Joachim moved to Chicago to join Eighth Blackbird five years ago, her solo projects were buoyed by the support of women’s networks across the arts and business communities. She says, “Women supporting women’s work is not (akin) to tokenism.” Her “Fanm d’Ayiti” (Women in Haiti) is the result. “This debut album is my very first step in claiming my identity in my music as a Haitian woman, as a black woman and as an American female composer.” Martinez agrees that “mentorship in the arts is essential, and when it can happen from woman to woman, even better. In Chicago, I see the same talented women popping up in different organizations, roles, and capacities over the years, on both the administrative and creative sides of projects. They make Chicago music great.”

The eighth blackbird sextet, from left: Nicholas Photinos, Michael J. Maccaferri, Lisa Kaplan, Nathalie Joachim, Matthew Duvall, and Yvonne Lam. (Saverio Truglia)
Harrison describes her fellow colleagues as “radically generous women.” “We often communicate by email or calls, share templates, contacts or idea," she says. "We want to nurture the process of supporting each other’s growth.”
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Presiding over globally recognized ensembles and their Grammy nominations requires this same collaborative, nurturing spirit. As director of operations at Cedille since 2015, Nichols-Corry participates in all aspects of the production process from the moment artists propose a recording project, to the recording sessions, to managing the release and marketing the finished product. Nichols-Corry says her fulfillment comes from “seeing first hand the impact how Cedille’s recordings have on an artist’s career.”

These recordings can elevate the city’s music scene. They also feed into the morale and creative energy of the next generation, and can lead to other accolades.

Harrison believes that a Grammy win has “real power in the chamber music world. It becomes part of a narrative and identity that can open doors.” For Chicago ensembles, the door-opening Grammys lead to expanded touring schedules, fascinating collaborations and new initiatives. Third Coast Percussion has performed across 33 U.S. states, in addition to engagements in Colombia, United Kingdom, Lithuania, Taiwan and Germany. The quartet has worked with architects at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and musicians from Zimbabwe’s Shona people. For Eighth Blackbird, the triumphs have attracted new resources to enable the Blackbird Creative Lab network to generate further commissions and ignite community engagement. In May, Cedille hosts its first recording competition for young Chicago classical musicians. And its inclusive policy has allowed far ranging independent recording projects such Chicago Sinfonietta’s African Heritage Series to succeed.

Chicago’s ensembles are built on indefatigable work ethic and outside the box thinking. These qualities can flourish in Chicago because the city allows a work-life balance, and an affordable lifestyle that the more saturated musical capitals of the world can’t offer. When there is space to breathe and access to community, ideas and innovations prosper.

“There is a wider margin for risk and you need that room if you are trying to push the envelope artistically” says Cafarelli. “I worked with Augusta Read Thomas for many years and she always said something to the effect that the history of the world is written in art. This has really stuck with me. Long after we are all gone, the music of our time will remain. Future generations interpret the world and learn from us through what we create now and leave behind for them.”

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January 24, 2020