Why I've programmed an all-female classical music festival
Director Shiry Rashkovsky on why she feels it's important to present an all-female line-up of performers at her Up Close and Musical festival in June
A secret about me: I became a promoter during Covid. There, I said it. I got greedy: it wasn’t enough being a violist (hold the viola jokes, please); I just had to start my own festival. And schedule the first concert to coincide with a global pandemic.
It was really the timing of Up Close and Musical that did it. I was sat at home with a disproportionate amount of time on my hands (and an infant on my lap, but more on that later), and I started to listen to music, really listen, in a way that hadn’t been possible rushing from Henry Wood to Southbank and back home for a nap (aka a night’s sleep) before starting all over again. I became very aware of the composers I was choosing (male), the narratives their music celebrated (patriarchal) and the frequency of their pre-pandemic programming (nearly 100%). The same could be said of my performing life: even when I had agency over the repertoire I played, aside from the fantastic Sonata by Rebecca Clarke which I frequently programme, where was gender equity in my choices?
At the same time, I was calmly considering - who am I kidding, nervously catastrophising - the return to live performance, and what changes it would bring for me as a (new) promoter. I was watching the shifts in online programming like a hawk, but what did it mean for live performance? What would draw audiences back to concerts, and what were they expecting after the shifts in attitude towards gender equity brought about by the pandemic? Perhaps my biggest realisation since starting Up Close and Musical is that audiences are, in concrete terms, consumers; and just as I, as a consumer, expect businesses to act ethically, be it by committing to sustainability or diversity, my potential audiences should expect me to do the same, and rightfully so.
It was also a case of recognising my privilege. At 32, I had accumulated the resources, connections and experience to launch an entire festival - surely I would want to use my platform to effect change in the industry. Integral to Up Close and Musical are candid interviews, led by me, which are embedded in each performance. By inviting an all-female roster this year, I can (literally) amplify the voices of female musicians; and let’s not ignore the fact that I’m a woman interviewing them, creating a balanced and safe space for their thoughts to be heard. And in the intimate Fidelio Café, our venue since the festival’s inception, I hope audiences will feel safe to join in the conversation, too.
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Most touchingly, I found the artists were entirely on the same page. Beyond the brief to keep it ‘female-focused’, I gave all the artists carte blanche to curate their own programmes, and their response revealed varied approaches which I found really exciting: Matilda Lloyd proposed an all-female programme spanning from Hildegard von Bingen (very dead) to Deborah Pritchard (very alive); while Trio Klein’s tongue-in-cheek ‘80s Night’ programme pairs Sophia Gubaidulina’s Trio (1988) with a new arrangement of Duran Duran’s Rio. What this shows is that artists have already expanded their repertoire; soon promoters won’t even have to ask for pieces by female composers.
Remember the infant on my lap? She’s not so little any more, and she’s watching me like a hawk too. I hope I’m setting a good example.
Up Close and Musical 2022 takes place on 24 and 25 June at London's Fidelio Cafe, including performances from pianist Clare Hammond, Trio Klein, trumpeter Matilda Lloyd, the Eusebius Quartet and Fenella Humphreys.
Photo: Trio Klein