Unmasking classical music bias: Symphony to highlight rarely performed works by women and minority composers

click to enlarge Danh Pham directs the Washington Idaho Symphony Orchestra recently. Courtesy of Washington Idaho Symphony - COURTESY WASHINGTON IDAHO SYMPHO
Courtesy Washington Idaho Sympho
Danh Pham directs the Washington Idaho Symphony Orchestra recently. Courtesy of Washington Idaho Symphony

For Inland 360

Throughout the history of western civilization, white men have dominated the narratives of art, science, politics and beyond.The Washington-Idaho Symphony wants to start a conversation about the people marginalized in one of the most discriminatory areas of the arts: classical music.

This weekend, the orchestra will present the concert “Explorations!,” dedicated solely to highlighting music by women and minority composers. Considering that nearly all classical composers described in textbooks or whose works are widely performed in standard concert repertoire are white males, it’s likely music most people have never heard before.

Danh Pham, music director and conductor of the symphony, says it’s a venture he has been excited about for quite some time.

“These are composers who have contributed so much, as far as music history is concerned. It’s important to be able to do our role in paying it forward and do what we’ve done for Mozart and Beethoven and all the traditional composers. We’re just 100 years behind, basically. We have a lot of catching up to do,” said Pham, of Pullman.

Composers being highlighted are black English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (born in 1939), who in 1983 became the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in composition; and Florence Price (1887-1953), the first African-American woman to have a symphonic composition performed by a major American symphony orchestra.

Getting out of one’s comfort zone is key to growth and understanding, Pham said.

“It’s not only a metaphoric statement of what we are doing, it’s a pragmatic one. We are doing this so it’s a part of our everyday psyche and muscle memory of music that we should learn. Hopefully, sometime in the very near future, this will just be part of the lexicon of what we do as artistic organizations. That’s not going to happen until you do more of it and you talk about it more and you perform it more.”

As orchestra members educates themselves with new music from the past, they are excited to see if area audiences are interested in what they have to offer.

“The narrative has been, for a long time, that if you play the classics they will always be coming,” said Pham. “But it’s the presentation and experience that you give an audience member; that is what they come for. This music is beautiful and important. We are hoping this is something that they want.”

Ultimately, Pham is excited about moving forward as an artistic organization and performing this music live for the first time.

“It’s been a collaborative effort. I know I have my colleagues' backs and they have mine, and we are in this together.”


WHAT: Washington-Idaho Symphony concert “Explorations!”


Saturday, Feb. 8 — 7:30 p.m. at Pullman High School.

Sunday, Feb. 9 — 3 p.m. at Clarkston High School.

COST: $25 general admission, $15 students (a limited number of free tickets are available for WSU, UI and LCSC students with ID), $10 youth ages 12-18, free for children 12 and younger with paying adult.

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