WoCoFest 2023
Saturday headliner Room Full of Teeth at WoCoFest 2023; courtesy of the Boulanger Initiative

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Laura Colgate has heard all sorts of excuses for why people don’t highlight women composers.

Frequently, people will tell her classical music written by women is not being played because it’s not worth wasting time on and that it’s not “as good” as the traditional canon. “But it’s just not true,” Colgate, the executive and artistic director of the Boulanger Initiative, tells City Paper. “There’s so much good music.”

When it comes to composers, a handful of big names come to mind—Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin—but that’s often where general knowledge ends. 

This lack of a musical awareness was the inspiration for the Boulanger Initiative. In 2018, Colgate and Joy-Leilani Garbutt, both locally trained and acclaimed classical musicians, created the organization—named for French composer Lili Boulanger—to provide resources and representation for women, nonbinary, and transgender composers. Throughout the year, Boulanger is involved with research and educational programming via organizing residencies and workshops with schools in the D.C. area. In March, they launched a database with access to thousands of works by composers who don’t identify as cisgender men, to serve as a hub of information and education for the general public. But Boulanger’s premiere event is their fifth annual multiday concert, the Women Composer’s Festival. This year’s event, dubbed WoCo Fest 2023: Awaken, takes place May 5 and 6 at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda and is meant to be both a celebration of gender-marginalized composers and an educational opportunity.

For the artists taking part in this year’s festival, the hope is that these performances will spark curiosity so that people will want to learn more about women and nonbinary composers and start larger conversations about the composition of classical music. 

“My idea was to highlight a lot of different styles so people would walk away and think ‘Wow, I had no idea Black women had been contributing to classical music for such a long time’ and [to know] that Black women are still contributing today,” pianist Dr. Leah Claiborne, who will be part of Saturday’s lineup at this year’s WoCo Fest, says. “I hope that people will walk away and be blown away with how much women have impacted our industry and classical music in terms of how much music is out there and the different styles.”

The festival kicks off with an opening concert featuring sets from chamber jazz ensemble Arco Belo, bassoonist Bryan Young, accordionist Simone Baron, among others. On Saturday, people will get a chance to enjoy more performances (including headliner Room Full of Teeth), peruse educational booths, and even get free headshots. There will also be a panel discussion exploring resources and tools to learn more about the lives of those who’ve been historically excluded from concert halls and classrooms. Panelists will address how curious listeners can find marginalized music and how archival research can help performers build programs with meaning and impact?

One of the groups performing Saturday is Sound Impact, a Virginia-based nonprofit uniting a collective of musicians working to improve music education in schools and juvenile detention centers in the DMV, New York, California, Costa Rica, and beyond. Sound Impact’s goal is to show how music can be a point of connection and how it can “ignite positive social change when employed as a tool for community engagement,” according to their website. Tiffany Richardson, a violist and co-founder of Sound Impact, emphasizes how WoCoFest aligns with the nonprofit’s values.

Percussionist Britton-René Collins performs Saturday; courtesy of the Boulanger Initiative

“Sound Impact is really big on elevating voices that have been traditionally marginalized and historically left out of the narrative,” Richardson explains. “Being able to be a part of a festival that is fully dedicated to changing that for the future is really important to us.”

Britton-René Collins, who will perform a piece combining percussion and spoken-word poetry on Saturday, also notes how excited she is to be included in this year’s festival. As a Black women percussionist, she strives to program works by composers who are not cisgender men in order to feature the diversity in the field, which is not often explored in traditional programming. Like Richardson, Collins sees WoCo Fest as an extension of her work to spotlight women, trans, and nonbinary composers. 

“This initiative is really empowering people from all different backgrounds to write music and to not only express themselves through composition, but connect with audiences and listeners all around the world through their music,” she tells City Paper

Colgate hopes audiences will walk away from the festival feeling inspired to learn more about the various composers, music, and musicians highlighted during the weekend. As she notes: There is so much to explore.

“I still get the question ‘How is there enough music from women composers to do an entire day of programming?’” she says. “But we could do this every day, every year. There’s so much out there.”

WoCo Fest 2023: Awaken runs May 5 through 6 at the Strathmore Music Center. strathmore.org. $10–$130.