Is the tide finally turning for women composers at the symphony? : Deceptive Cadence As the new concert season gets underway, composers and orchestra administrators say they are feeling a shift in whose music gets heard.

Our biggest orchestras are finally playing more music by women. What took so long?

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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

As recently as 2018, many of the top U.S. orchestras were playing little, if any, music by women composers. What a difference four years can make.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF JESSIE MONTGOMERY'S "STARBURST")

PFEIFFER: That's a piece by Jessie Montgomery, one of many women composers whose music is turning up on more and more concert programs. NPR's Tom Huizenga explores how the sounds of our symphony halls are slowly growing more diverse.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Four years ago, the numbers for women composers at the symphony orchestra didn't look so good.

JEREMY ROTHMAN: Obviously, zero is a very damning number.

HUIZENGA: That zero was the number of women composers the Philadelphia Orchestra played in its 2018-19 season. Chief Programming Officer Jeremy Rothman was contrite back then, but this season, he says the orchestra has numbers to be proud of.

ROTHMAN: Every program that we look at is an authentic representation of our community and of our world. And that includes gender, sexual orientation, geography, cultures, religions, backgrounds.

HUIZENGA: And the numbers in Philly this season? More than 1 in 4 composers are women. There are three world premieres by living women and more music by a new favorite, the early 20th century Black composer Florence Price. The orchestra's recording of her once forgotten symphonies earned Philly a Grammy in April.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF FLORENCE PRICE'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3 IN C MINOR: I. ANDANTE")

HUIZENGA: Why the sudden shift of more women composers? Anne Midgette, former classical critic for The Washington Post, says it pretty much had to happen.

ANNE MIDGETTE: The changes that everybody in the orchestra business said, well, this will take years, all of a sudden - accelerated by the pandemic, but also by the general social discussion and the tenor of the times - it became clear that you couldn't not do this.

SIMON WOODS: The other aspect of it is just a sheer business reality.

HUIZENGA: Simon Woods is the CEO of the League of American Orchestras, a membership organization supporting symphony orchestras across the country.

WOODS: All the classical artforms are going to have to think about how to come out and meet changing demographics and meet changing society in new ways. If you don't think that, then you're not paying attention.

HUIZENGA: And many orchestras seem to have gotten the memo. Even composers like Jessie Montgomery say they are feeling a shift.

JESSIE MONTGOMERY: It does seem to be changing that orchestras and chamber groups and opera companies are embracing composers that they wouldn't have traditionally embraced.

HUIZENGA: Like Montgomery herself, who is the composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She's writing three major pieces for Chicago. The first one, "Hymn For Everyone," premiered in April.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF JESSIE MONTGOMERY'S "HYMN FOR EVERYONE")

WOODS: You know, there's prejudice and discrimination in many areas of life. And so we shouldn't be surprised that it shows up in the classical music field. And I think we're grappling with that now.

HUIZENGA: But grappling in a positive way, Woods says. A new report by the Institute for Composer Diversity shows a 600% increase in music composed by women over the past six years. And women composers of color, starting at next to nothing, is up a whopping 1,400%.

WOODS: The exciting thing is that it's really a general trend happening at everything from the smallest regional orchestras to the very largest orchestras in this country.

HUIZENGA: And mid-level orchestras, like the Nashville Symphony, which last month played the world premiere of Julia Wolfe's "Her Story," a kind of oratorio inspired by the long struggle for women's rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF NASHVILLE ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF JULIA WOLFE'S "HER STORY")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing, inaudible).

HUIZENGA: Julia Wolfe's music is being performed by the big orchestras in Boston, Chicago and New York this season. She has battled sexism, she says, but nothing compared to her predecessors.

JULIA WOLFE: I could complain about it, you know? But it's so much easier for me than, say, like, the generation before me. So I think of people like Joan Tower and Tania Leon and Meredith Monk. They really had to get the machete out and carve a path. You know, nobody was really truly recognizing women composers in that generation.

HUIZENGA: And it's not the fault of the music, critic Anne Midgette says. It's the organizations that present it.

MIDGETTE: I think the institution of the orchestra needs a big overhaul. I've been drawing the restaurant parallel, and it really is as if we were eating in a bunch of 1970s-era restaurants that hadn't been refurbished.

HUIZENGA: One of those restaurants, Midgette says, is the Cleveland Orchestra. Their numbers of women composers are up, but out of the 42 different composers they're presenting this season, only three are women, including the suddenly popular 19th century French composer Louise Farrenc.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSULA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF LOUISE FARRENC'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3, FINALE")

HUIZENGA: So the big question remains - will this trend of more works by women at the symphony last?

MIDGETTE: I feel like once you've opened that door you can't close it. Even if for some orchestras it's tokenism, there's a fundamental sort of shift happening. And I hope the future looks much more like the Philadelphia Orchestra season this year and much less like what we've come out of.

HUIZENGA: Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSULA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF LOUISE FARRENC'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3, FINALE")

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