Rhinegold Ruby anniversary: Lontano

Jessica Duchen

On a mission: Odaline de la Martinez

9:00, 4th November 2016

As the Lontano ensemble celebrates its 40th anniversary, artistic director Odaline de la Martinez talks to Jessica Duchen about keeping people on their toes, championing women composers, and why the UK is the right place for the sixth London Festival of American Music

Back in the 1970s, a group of students at the Royal Academy of Music banded together and begged the conductor John Carewe to teach them how to play Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. He agreed – and that was the beginning of Lontano, which celebrates its 40th birthday this year. Under the baton of the Cuban-American conductor and composer Odaline de la Martinez – who was the pianist in that Pierrot – the ensemble has long enjoyed an international reputation for pushing the boundaries in cutting-edge repertoire.

‘The idea of Lontano from the beginning was always to keep people on their toes,’ Martinez declares. ‘We were the first to do George Crumb and a lot of other composers who were completely unknown here. It was lucky that a BBC producer came to hear us and immediately put us on the radio. We’ve not looked back since.’

Martinez, who was born in Cuba and studied at Tulane University, New Orleans, before moving to Britain, is a great champion of female composers, American music and much more, besides being a composer herself. She seems a woman on a mission, and much of that mission’s statement is encapsulated in her biennial London Festival of American Music. The sixth is being held at the Warehouse in Waterloo from 6 November, offering a dazzling programme that includes eight world premieres and 11 UK premieres in five days.

It looks like a fascinating, ear-opening musical bonanza – and the UK, Martinez declares, is just the place to do it: ‘There’s an eclecticism in this country that’s different from anywhere else,’ she says. ‘All styles are attractive here. Yes, some of the bigger names more accepted by the establishment are not tonal, or roam a little bit in tonality then go back to modernism. But everything is open, anything goes and audiences will give it a chance.’

No looking back: Odaline de la Martinez
No looking back: Odaline de la Martinez

Therefore the festival brings together composers past and present from all corners of the US: there is room for everything from Morton Feldman’s classic Rothko Chapel and song cycles by Amy Beach to a newly commissioned work from Elena Ruehr and filmed scenes from Martinez’s work-in-progress opera about slavery, Imoinda. Alongside performances by Lontano, performers include the Fidelio Trio, soprano Nadine Benjamin and pianist Susanna Stranders, and the New London Chamber Choir. Several ‘Meet the Composer’ pre-concert sessions include a discussion panel devoted to women composers (which I am chairing), including Hannah Lash, Julia Howell, Elena Ruehr, Barbara Jazwinski and Laura Kaminsky.

But it may surprise you to hear that even Martinez, in so many ways a figurehead for conductors and composers who are women, once had to face up to the fact that her concert programmes often contained music only by men. ‘It was only in the 1980s that I realised: here I was, a woman and a composer, and I wasn’t performing any women composers! It wasn’t on purpose. It was just because I wasn’t thinking about it.’ If she herself had to wake up to that imbalance, it is possibly a sign of how ingrained and somnolent the attitudes around her were.

As for the gender imbalance among conductors, she muses that though things have changed, the levels have varied. ‘When I started out, at a well-known orchestra I heard a cellist at the back say: “I’m not going to be told what to do by a woman”. Then I heard stories about what other women had endured. Often they didn’t want to talk about it publicly. They were afraid they would be blamed for it, that people would say it was their fault. Now there are a lot more women conducting, the issues are talked about more and in orchestras there are more women players, so the attitude is less harsh. But “It’s been a long way, baby!” ’

And glass ceilings galore remain intact, notably, music directorships of many A-grade international orchestras. Even opportunities for women to conduct them are in some cases non-existent. ‘It seems some US orchestras and opera companies are not willing to give women chances,’ says Martinez. She traces the problem to boards of directors, who in the US put considerable amounts of money into the organisations and consequently have influence. ‘What we need is more women in the boards who are enlightened and able to give women concerts.’

As for the programming of female composers, she says, ‘There’s always this fear: are women good enough? It goes all the way back. Clara Schumann wrote that she was told “Women can’t compose”.

‘Even now it’s often considered that woman can write smaller chamber music, but not often great big works. But then you find Jennifer Higdon writing wonderful operas!’ An aria from Higdon’s immensely successful opera Cold Mountain features in Nadine Benjamin’s recital.

Martinez insists, despite all, that she is not anti-establishment. ‘I’m not against the establishment,’ she says, ‘but I believe you should challenge it, and you do that with your programmes. In some, every piece contrasts. I like to make contrasts so that people can put works in context. And I like to look for composers who I think are really good, but either ignored or unknown here. Most composers in this festival have quite a reputation in America, but are not known in the UK.

‘I like to challenge not only the audience, but myself and Lontano and that’s the way we’ve always moved forward. When I was a young girl at university, someone said, “Either you’re going to be a missionary or a revolutionary,” and even though I’m not a revolutionary, I do believe that one has to challenge. That’s how you make people think. And that’s the way I am.’

The sixth London Festival of American Music, celebrating Lontano’s 40th birthday, The Warehouse, London SE1, 6-11 November.
Booking: http://tinyurl.com/j75t8z5

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