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Joy-Leilani Garbutt & Laura Colgate Credit: Geoff Sheil

Even if you don’t consider yourself well versed in the world of classical music, you can probably name at least one composer: Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart are household names. But can you name a woman composer?

It’s a question that Dr. Laura Colgate and Joy-Leilani Garbutt—two highly trained and regarded classical musicians in D.C.—recently posed to a room full of fellow classical musicians. No one could name a single woman composer.

That ignorance, and the frustration that comes with it, is what inspired the duo to launch the Boulanger Initiative—an initiative to promote gender diversity in the classical musical community throughout the D.C. area and beyond.

The Boulanger Initiative already hosts weekly events in the D.C. area, but on March 8—International Women’s Day—Colgate and Garbutt will take their project to the next level, with the launch of the inaugural WoCo Fest. The two-day festival will take place around the D.C. area, at Blind Whino in Southwest and AMP By Strathmore in North Bethesda and feature performances from a slew of women musicians, with pianist Missy Mazzoli and violinist Jennifer Koh, The Aizuri Quartet, and Clarice Assad and Washington Women in Jazz & Friends, as the festival’s headliners.

The idea for the Boulanger Initiative sprouted at the University of Maryland, where Colgate’s doctoral dissertation was entitled Half of Humanity Has Something to Say, Also: Works for Violin by Women Composers. It focused on the work of women composers, something she found was wholly missing from much of the classical music curricula.

“I ended up doing so much research, and finding so much amazing repertoire written by women, [and] music students generally don’t play and are [not] taught music by women,” Colgate tells City Paper. The names of these women had been buried, hidden by history for so long that even professionals are unaware of their contributions to the craft.

The Boulanger Initiative approaches its mission through three distinct avenues: commissions, education, and performance. It was named for sisters Lili and Nadia Boulanger. Lili was a French composer who, before her death at age 25 in 1918, was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome composition prize. Her older sister, Nadia, is widely viewed as one of the most influential teachers of composition in the history of classical music. She served as the first woman conductor of the Boston, New York Philharmonic, and Philadelphia orchestras, in addition to being the first woman to conduct an entire program of the Royal Philharmonic in London. Nadia Boulanger died in 1979 at age 92.

Education is important to Colgate. She believes that the lack of gender diversity in composition is attributed to its absence in education. “Specifically with composition,” she explains, “we are so behind… You walk into any music room and you see posters of a bunch of old dead white guys,” she says. [Becoming a composer] is not something young women conceive of as a possibility.”

Through the Boulanger Initiative, Colgate says they’re pushing to have more education of women composers in schools and other educational music programs, to inspire young women who have an interest in classical music. They’re also commissioning new compositions by women composers, giving them a platform to share their music. Since their launch, they’ve collaborated with a number of organizations all over the country who call for scores, and encourage them to prioritize including more non-men in their lineups.

“Typically, when orgs call for scores from composers they’ll get roughly 12 percent of their submissions from women,” Colgate explains. The hope is that partnering with these organizations will lead to an increased number of score submissions from women, thereby giving them more to choose from and increasing the likelihood the work of women will be included. “Further, we’re looking for more festivals to pledge to have 30 percent women, then 40 percent by the year after, and so on.”

Word of the WoCo launch festival is spreading quickly. After the Boulanger Initiative released a call for artists, Colgate says they received an overwhelming amount of submissions.  

“We expected maybe 30 submissions from people in the area. We ended up getting around 80,” she says.

The event is not restricted to live music, either: any idea for a one-hour presentation—performance, panel discussion, or workshops, was encouraged. Submissions included “…everything from literature to education to non-binary issues. There were proposals from all over the country and nine or ten international proposals,” Colgate says.

For tickets and more information on the inaugural WoCo Fest, click here