Southeast Iowa Symphony Orchestra to shine a light on female composers through the ages

Union photo by Ashley Duong

Katya Moeller, a 15-year-old violinist, will be performing with the Southeast Iowa Symphony Orchestra in their season opening performances which is called “Gaelic Lands.”
Union photo by Ashley Duong Katya Moeller, a 15-year-old violinist, will be performing with the Southeast Iowa Symphony Orchestra in their season opening performances which is called “Gaelic Lands.”

The Southeast Iowa Symphony Orchestra is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment with its upcoming season by performing pieces created by female composers.

Eighty-five percent of the pieces the symphony will be playing this season are by female composers. In its October performances, the symphony has also invited 15-year-old female soloist, Katya Moeller, to perform.

Robert McConnell, the conductor of the symphony, said the idea to select pieces by female composers came as he was attempting to come up with a theme for the season. Someone brought to his attention it was the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which instigated McConnell’s decision to search out pieces by women. The 19th amendment gave women the right to vote.

When researching female composers and pieces, McConnell stumbled upon the Institute for Composer Diversity, which tracks the diversity of musical pieces performed by notable orchestras across the United States and Canada. In the 2019-20 season, of the orchestras listed by the institute, the two orchestras playing the most pieces by female composers were the River Oaks Chamber (10 of 33 pieces) and the Albany Orchestra (9 of 28 pieces). About a third of both of the groups’ pieces are by female composers. Of the 120 listed, 25 orchestras are not performing any works by female composers in the upcoming season.

“Women are notoriously underrepresented as composers in classical music … When thinking about this theme and how to tie into the women’s vote, we decided that the best way to celebrate the passage of that amendment was to feature the music of women composers, both those living and those of the past that are not performed enough, even though they were equally great to men of their era,” McConnell said.

“It was really a difficult project. I didn’t know how ignorant I was of good female composers that I was unaware of,” the conductor added.

McConnell explained that it’s often difficult for any composer to get their music played by an orchestra. Symphonies generally gravitate to well-known works, most of which are by a select number of mostly male composers.

“There are only so many orchestras in the world and some musicians only want to play what we would call the ‘master works.’ There’s familiarity, they’ve been performed many times and people like it. So even women’s’ work from 150 years ago are new to people,” McConnell added.

To McConnell the disparity between classical music played by men as compared to women is just another example of how women were “treated as second class citizens.”

“When I grew up, I never really thought about the fact that 95 percent of the music I performed was by men. Turns out [women] were writing music, and many were well-respected in their lives. It’s pretty clear that because they were women, their music didn’t flourish and go on,” McConnell said.

For 15-year-old soloist and Iowa City native Katya Moeller, the theme of female composers and performing pieces by women is about representation. Moeller began playing the violin at the age of four and has just recently started online schooling to dedicate her time to her music. Most recently, she toured and performed with her mother through Brazil and has another tour in Asia planned for January.

Moeller will be performing Alexander Glazunov’s Violin Concerto in A Minor with the symphony and is incredibly excited to be included in a season that features so many female composers, even though she is not performing one herself. The Glazunov piece was chosen by Katya’s teacher and gives the soloist an opportunity to exhibit her musical abilities. The violinist has been working on the piece for several months in preparation for upcoming performances.

“It’s representation. It’s empowering … when you think about composers you think old, white men, the big passionate Russians, so it’s inspiring to see other women that made their career through music and it’s just fun to represent that through music,” Moeller said.

Moeller says one of her favorite female composers is Lera Auerbach, a contemporary composer. Moeller and her mother performed some of Auerbach’s pieces in their tour through Brazil. The violinist hopes to become a professional performer and hope to compose her own pieces in the future as well.

In addition to the soloist, the prospect of playing pieces my female composers is exciting to many of the orchestra members as well.

Mia King, who played violin for the Toronto Symphony before retiring in Iowa and joining the Southeast Iowa Symphony Orchestra said she hasn’t had many opportunities to play pieces by female composers because “there aren’t that many.”

“There are substantially [fewer] female composers and it’s great finally playing them. I think it’s a really good theme for the season … A lot of them are really good. It’s just like life, it’s male domination … they used to have orchestras that only had males in them, no females at all. And now the orchestras are predominantly or at least half female. Same with composers. It’s just hard to find venues that will play them,” King said.

The 65-year-old violinist noted that the way to shed light on more female composers is through finding and performing lesser-known pieces and commissioning pieces from women composers. To celebrate and commemorate the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, women in the orchestra also will be wearing black and white (the colors of the suffragette movement) along with a special purple, white and yellow accessory.

In addition to the Glazunov violin concerto, the Southeast Iowa Symphony Orchestra will be performing Amy Beach’s Symphony in Eminor, op. 32 “Gaelic” and Linda Robbins Coleman’s “For a Beautiful Land” this upcoming weekend.

The orchestra will perform the evening of Oct. 19 in Burlington at the Capitol Theater and will be in Ottumwa on Oct. 20 2 p.m. in the Bridge View Center. The orchestra also will perform in Mt. Pleasant at Iowa Wesleyan’s University Chapel on Oct. 20 at 6:30 p.m. To purchase tickets, visit