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ALMA Trio; Featuring Female Composers is the Mission

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Alma Ensemble

When it comes to classical music, women’s voices are rarely heard.  A 2018 study found that 95 percent of concerts worldwide, perform works composed by men only. 

But that may be changing.  In Virginia, a new ensemble is making female composers its focus. The trio, Alma, will be traveling around the state to play live chamber music with a twist.

You could go through a whole concert series in most cities in this country and never hear the work of a female composer. But here in Erica Sipes' living room, in Cave Spring, three women are practicing for their upcoming concert. It's a work by renowned composer, Valerie Coleman called Parisian Cabaret, based on the poetry of Langston Hughes.

That’s Sipes on piano, Michelle Smith Johnson on clarinet and Sarah Wartell Jones playing the flute. 

They began playing together a couple of years ago just for fun. And they found out that, well,  it's really fun to play what you want, and make all the decisions about what's in the program. So, they formed a trio called Alma

"We just did a performance in Blacksburg that was all dance music." says Sipes. "It ran the gamut. It had, strictly classical, some Copeland, Shostakovich, but we also did an arrangement of a tune from a Broadway musical." They also played e barn dances by Libby Larsen" and other work written by women, that if you were to just ask an audience to come and hear something like that, they might be a little bit apprehensive or like, 'well, that's not what I like to listen to,' but when you can offer it in the of a variety of genres, no one sits there and computes what they're listening to or that they might not have ever listened to it before."

They named their trio after Alma Schindler, whose composing career was preempted, first by her husband, the composer Gustaf Mahler, and later by the strictures of early 20th century society. Even subsequent marriages and affairs and a high society profile never gave her the freedom to fulfill her  talent for melody and composition. 

Sipes says,  "We want to create an atmosphere that she did not have, and a support network. So, we're enjoying getting to know a lot of these women that wrote the pieces that we are performing, because what we've learned, is that they crave feedback and they crave communication with the musicians that are performing their works. "

She says, to this day, female composers still often feel like they have to give their music away for free in order to get it performed, "but that's where we really felt strongly that we wanted them to get paid and to get the recognition. "

This week they got some help in that regard. The trio found out it's been selected to be on the touring artists roster for the Virginia Commission for the Arts. "So, that's been exciting for us, to see them passing on the word. "Oh, Alma in Roanoke is performing my work!," and that's a composer in Australia. So how thrilling is that, to just make the world a smaller place? "

And they like to make the concert hall a smaller place, chatting back and forth with their audiences between pieces and :also sharing food and wine after is one of our favorite things too! " says Michelle Smith Johnson.  We "talk about the music, about how emotions, anything that it reminded you of, with just these incredible stories." One woman talked about a piece they play that made her "think of my husband who's no longer with us," and just making those connections. It's really wonderful."

Alma is giving a community concert next Thursday in Roanoke that will include the group Sound Impact and the Roanoke youth Symphony Chamber Ensemble. All the music on the program is written by women.

Check the Alma Ensemble website for the concert schedule.