Female composers and the Berliner Philharmoniker

The European premiere of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Metacosmos”

Anna Thorvaldsdottir
(Photo: Saga Sigurdardottir)

According to Anna Thorvaldsdottir, her music is made of the stuff her dreams are made of: her lucid, atmospheric, and shimmering sonic webs captivate the listener. For Alan Gilbert, who conducts the European premiere of her orchestral work Metacosmos with the Berliner Philharmoniker, she is “one of the most unique and expressive voices in the composition scene today”.

Inspired by nature

Born in Reykjavik in 1977, she grew up in a family of musicians and studied at the local college of music and at the University of California, San Diego. She has earned international renown in recent years with her fragile yet expressive sound sculptures. Her main source of inspiration is nature, which she feels attuned to, and whose language she transforms into her music. The spiritual connection with the divine cosmos also shapes the work of Sofia Gubaidulina, one of the great composers of our time. As Gubaidulina revealed in an interview for the Digital Concert Hall, the intervals and chords of her works reflect the rhythmic pulsations that are present throughout the world and nature.

An ever-expanding circle

Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Sofia Gubaidulina belong to the still small but growing group of female composers whose works have found their way into the repertoire of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Since 1990, pieces by Sofia Gubaidulina have appeared regularly on the programmes of the orchestra. Highlights included the performance of her concerto for percussion ensemble Glorious Percussion conducted by Gustavo Dudamel (2009), her first Violin Concerto with Vadim Repin as the soloist (2010) and the piece In Tempus Praesens, which was conducted by Christian Thielemann in 2016. Kaija Saariaho from Finland and Unsuk Chin from South Korea but who lives in Berlin and is a student of György Ligeti, also enrich the orchestra’s concert programmes. Most recently, in November 2017, the Philharmoniker performed the world premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Chorós Chordón, commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation. The composer and her piece accompanied the Philharmoniker on their great Asian tour in 2017, which was also Sir Simon Rattle’s farewell tour as chief conductor of the orchestra.

No role models

A year earlier, the Philharmoniker premiered a piece by Betsy Jolas, also commissioned by them: Little Summer Suite. The Franco-American composer is the oldest of the Philharmoniker’s composers at the age of 93. In an interview for the Digital Concert Hall she, the daughter of artist parents, looks back at the time of her career choice. She reveals that her parents would have been quite disappointed had she become a banker or businesswoman. An artist’s job had to be beautiful, and Betsy Jolas initially thought more of being a painter, dancer or writer. “A composer was a little to much,” she admitted. “There were no role models, no women that I cared for. That was a big problem.” In this regard, the younger generation of female composers has an easier time today.

Mutual appreciation

Elena Kats-Chernin and Isidora Žebeljan are two further composers who have received commissions from the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation for education projects and chamber music performances. Not to forget Iris ter Schiphorst, whose music for the Gruffalo was performed by the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin. Like their male colleagues, the composers regard a performance by the Berliner Philharmoniker as a privilege, especially if it is a premiere. “For me the first rehearsal is the worst moment of the compositional process,” Unsuk Chin reveals in the Digital Concert Hall. “But I know that if I work with an orchestra like the Berliner Philharmoniker, it’ll turn out great.” Sofia Gubaidulina is also pleased with the high regard she enjoys with the orchestra. Full of gratitude, she admits “it provides first-class opportunities for the performance of my music”.

Sofia Gubaidulina
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
Kaija Saariaho
(Photo: Maarit Kytóharju/FIMIC)
Unsuk Chin
(Photo: Eric Richmond)
Betsy Jolas
(Photo: privat)