Arts & Culture

New NACO season brings more female soloists to the stage

On March 6, the National Arts Centre Orchestra and NAC Dance both unwrapped their 2017-18 seasons. But behind all the famous names and beautiful works, the real story is the bigger spotlight on women artists.

NACO’s 2016-17 season got poor marks for gender diversity. Just two out of 20 non-vocal soloists were women — a shameful 10 percent. For 2017-18, the numbers are much improved: roughly one-third of guest instrumentalists will be women. There will also be two women on the podium: young American star Karina Canellakis and China-born Zhang Xian, Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC’s National Orchestra of Wales. NACO will also perform works by four women composers, including Canadian Alexina Louie and Brit Anne Dudley, whose The Man with the Violin, written for Joshua Bell, was co-commissioned last year by NACO and Washington D.C.’s National Symphony.

Xian Zhang
Xian Zhang is the principal guest conductor of the BBC’s National Orchestra of Wales. Photo by B. Ealovega

Dance generally does better on inclusivity, especially in contemporary repertoire. Out of 21 choreographers featured at the NAC next season (not counting the Canada Dance Festival), nine will be women. Last year, it was seven out of 20.

Compared to the big US orchestras, NACO’s season is relatively modest in terms of numbers of concerts, so the upward movement is encouraging and proportionally significant.

Award-winning conductor Karina Canellakis will make her NAC debut in January 2018. Photo by Hiroyuki Ito
Award-winning conductor Karina Canellakis will make her NAC debut in January 2018. Photo by Hiroyuki Ito

Brian Lauritzen, who hosts the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s broadcasts, has been tallying the number of women conductors and composers announced this month by American orchestras (you can follow his Twitter feed, @BrianKUSC). Lauritzen calculates that the L.A. Phil is in the lead so far, with four women conductors and music by nine women.

According to Lauritzen, there’s no reason, other than laziness and lack of will, for orchestras to not achieve a 1:1 male-female ratio when programming living composers. Personally, I’d be overjoyed to see 50/50 for soloists. Given the sheer numbers of brilliant women pianists and violinists — the two popular instruments that dominate concert programs — this goal seems perfectly achievable.

In Ottawa, we’re a long way from parity, but at least there’s progress.