A formidable sisterhood: a review of the 2019 Musforum Conference Northfield, Minnesota, June 13–14

September 29, 2019

Susan Powell, composer, conductor, and organist, is passionate about making artistically robust music accessible to amateur and developing musicians through engaging performances, community ensembles, and new compositions. She is currently pursuing graduate studies at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, where she lives with her husband Mike (a fellow organist), and their three children, Jacob, Meredith, and Joshua.

Held on St. Olaf College’s beautiful hilltop campus in Northfield, Minnesota, June 13–14, the 2019 Musforum conference was “for, about, and by women.” Participants from around the country ranged from those at the peak of their careers to young artists still studying at collegiate and graduate institutions.

I had the privilege of being one of three performers in a recital showcasing young women. I thought it only fitting to program a piece by Libby Larsen, who I first encountered during my studies at St. Olaf College. Returning to my alma mater to work and network was a heady experience. As I have reflected on the conference this summer, I have grown increasingly grateful for the opportunity for friendships old and new and for the lasting impression of the depth and talent of women in my field, past and present. The music I encountered has taken root in my sense of my own emerging career and inspired me to intentionally honor the work of women, whether in selecting choral anthems by Cecilia McDowall and Judith Weir, programming recital repertoire by Judith Bingham and Jeanne Demessieux, or studying the compositions of Melissa Dunphy and Odile Pierre as I hone my own craft.

The days of the conference were jam-packed from morning to night with lectures, recitals, and lecture-recitals, breaking only for meals together and a few opportunities for conversation. WindWorks, an all-female quintet of local music professors, and See Change Chamber Choir, a new women’s choral ensemble from the Minneapolis area, provided a delightful opportunity for us to hear collaborative music. While we organists can be uniquely solitary creatures, we are almost invariably tasked with the nurturing of communal song through work with congregations and choirs. Presentations on these aspects of our profession were a highlight of the conference for me. During Therees Hibbard’s interactive lecture, “Creating Community through Singing,” we sang selections from the new Justice Choir Songbook with their composer, Abbie Betinis. The following afternoon, I had the opportunity to converse with hymn-poet Susan Cherwien after her overview of women hymn writers. I felt lucky to get to meet a writer whose texts I have long wanted to set.

Lecture-recitals were the main component of the event. Marie Rubis Bauer, who commissioned Dan Locklair’s Windows of Comfort, presented an ambitious program, shaped around the way women have inspired and participated in organ culture over half a millennium. Earlier that morning, immediately following Karen Black’s polished and virtuosic lecture-recital on the music of Pamela Decker, Kathrine Handford presented us with an impressive list of women who have contributed to the corpus of organ literature in twentieth-century France alone. I was struck not only with how formidable all these figures were—from Nadia Boulanger to Cecilia McDowall—but how formidable my own contemporary colleagues are. Rubis Bauer, Black, and Handford are cultivating careers at the top of our field, and their performances were brilliant. Handford inspired me with passing descriptions of her own practices as a teacher and performer. For example, she demands that her majors bring a self-taught piece of serious repertoire appropriate for use as a church voluntary to every weekly lesson, resulting in an acquisition by the end of four years of an anthology of learned music large enough to supply them with voluntaries for an entire year of services. I have since begun to develop my own repertoire in a similar way.

Lyn Loewi’s keynote lecture, “From the Exiled Edges: Women Composers and the Episcopal Church,” presented us with the results of her yearlong experiment as interim director of music at Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver, Colorado, during which she programmed compositions by female composers on average once per week. We came away with an extensive resource list and a more accurate picture of the immense scope of the work of composers like Elizabeth Poston, a prolific composer known widely for only a single anthem, Jesus Christ the Apple Tree. (If you would like access to this list or other resources from the conference, you will find them available on Musforum’s website, www.musforum.org.)

One of the first moments of the conference was Nancy Ypma’s account during her lecture-recital of Fanny Mendelssohn’s wedding march. Fanny wrote it on the very eve of her wedding, since her brother Felix accidentally left behind the score to the march he had written when he traveled home to attend the ceremony. Known to us as Prelude in F Major, it is every bit as compelling as the works of her brother. Fanny was a world-class musician during an epoch when women were not even given consideration as professionals.

That epoch has given way to a new one, and there is important work to be done even as we celebrate the progress that has afforded increasing recognition and opportunity to women in our field. There is still a significant gender disparity in our churches and academies, and Musforum hopes to be a rallying point and a clarion voice. Our third biennial conference closed with a gala recital featuring three performers, bookended and filled with outstanding music by women. Catherine Rodland opened the evening with new compositions by Mary Beth Bennett and Augusta Read Thomas; Shelly Moorman-Stahlman shared her passion for South America through a tango by Francisca Gonzaga; and Nicole Keller’s stunning performance of Florence B. Price’s Suite No. 1 for Organ concluded the entire conference. Our intention as members of Musforum is to promote each other and to serve each other, encouraging our colleagues while enriching the world with an increasing awareness of the work of this formidable sisterhood.

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