Virago Symphonic Orchestra presents ‘Antwerp Women in Concert’: “It is nonsense that female composers do not attract people” (Merksem)

During the first rehearsal last year, Eline was still ‘in her room’ with a corona infection, something she found very difficult as an organizer. “I live two hundred meters from the Academy of Merksem, where we rehearse. When I see musicians stumbling past I think: I want that too”, she then told Facetime with a smile and a sniffle. And although the virus completely messed up the original schedule, the female musicians finally joined forces again at the end of September.

Eline, who has been known all her life as “the little girl with the double bass”, plays along herself during Antwerp Women in Concert. This time not with a group of 91 women, but in the form of a chamber orchestra. “We have opted for an occupation of 22 musicians. Fifteen strings and five winds, including an alto saxophone. That instrument is an odd one out, but the three composers saw it as a challenge. Our conductor Pascale Van Os closes the list as 22nd musician.”

Antwerp is central

The official start-up of the women’s orchestra was also completely different due to the corona crisis. “Our big premiere in the Elisabeth Hall took place four days before the first lockdown. It was a big success. So I walked out with a lot of ambitious ideas. Four days later I was immediately allowed to throw it in the trash. That was hard. You are a new figure in the music world and you need to put your own stamp on it. The pandemic has seriously prevented that.”

But Eline also learned a lot from an organizational point of view. “There are not many pieces of music available for the line-up we are working with. I went looking for female composers who wanted to write for us and came across Marlies Hollevoet, Vigdis Elst, Lara Denies and Ellen Jacobs.” The theme for the concert came almost naturally. “The musicians and composers all have a connection with Antwerp. They were born here, work or study here. Everyone was enthusiastic about working around our city.”

Founder Eline Cote together with the ninety female musicians of the Virago Symphonic Orchestra. — © Wim Kempenaers

There’s work to be done

Classical music is not equally accessible to everyone and the women’s orchestra realizes this all too well. Because although music speaks for itself, some background information can narrow the step to be able to enjoy a classical performance. “That is why we have appointed two presenters. It is important that the public can thus establish a deeper connection with the composers and their music.”

Now that Eline and her orchestra have been fighting sexism in the music world for some time now, the question remains whether things are going in the right direction. “Is it getting better? Yes. Is there still a lot of work to be done? Absolute. Recently I heard the story of an American flautist who was rejected by the Boston Symphony Orchestra because she is a woman. Something like that is hallucinatory”, says Eline. “I am happy to see progress among female musicians, but the situation is still heartbreaking for female composers. Worldwide, only 8% of the repertoire of top orchestras consists of the work of female composers.”

“As a music student I even thought for a long time that female composers simply didn’t exist. If each orchestra included one piece of music by a composer in its program, the percentage would skyrocket. How many pearls of music pieces are gathering dust, that is simply distressing. It is nonsense that female composers would not attract people. We gave a concert that attracted more than a thousand people.”

She wants to remind us that it is not a women’s struggle, but a humanitarian one. “Our orchestra is there to show that gender does not determine talent. Girls in the audience also deserve a role model on stage.”

Eline and her great love: the double bass. — © Wim Kempenaers

‘Antwerp Women in Concert’

The four Antwerp composers each work around a different phenomenon. Of diffraction composer Ellen Jacobs experiments with the physical phenomenon of sound distortion, when it does not penetrate to an object.

Marlies Hollevoet sees energy as a common thread in the four-part piece Associations. Lara Denies wrote for an ensemble of five strings, four winds and a vibraphone Beside The Frozen Lake I Stand and Vigdis Elst goes in I Want to Break Free in turn set to work with the desire for liberation.

“There are a lot of techniques involved in these pieces that you don’t get to deal with in standard classical music,” says Eline. “I’m glad we can let the composers shine. Our top priority is to change the music world in this way. By coming to see our concert, you contribute to that.”

Antwerp Women in Concert, September 30 in Schouwburg Noord Merksem. Doors at 7:45 pm. Tickets via

The article is in Dutch

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