Gail Archer Promotes Women’s Music in Free Organ Concert May 11

Concert organist Gail Archer performs a free concert at Columbus' broad Street Presbyterian Church, Sunday, May 11, at 4 p.m.(Photo: Buck Ennis)
Concert organist Gail Archer performs a free concert at Columbus' broad Street Presbyterian Church, Sunday, May 11, at 4 p.m.(Photo: Buck Ennis)

Concert organist Gail Archer is passionate about organ music and music by women composers. And she says she’s on a mission to make both more widely known.

“There is a lot of organ music by women composers, it’s just not played enough,” Archer said in a recent phone interview. “And that’s my mission, to get out and play music that has not been heard or draw attention to women whose really wonderful creative work doesn’t have a chance to be heard.”

To that end, Archer released earlier this year The Muse’s Voice: A Celebration of Women Composers, a recording of twentieth-century organ music by women, including Nadia Boulanger and Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon, performed on the Gabe M. Wiener organ at New York City’s Central Synagogue. Her CD release concert tour brings Archer to Columbus, where she’ll perform a free concert featuring works from her recording alongside traditional organ repertory by Johann Sebastian Bach and Nicolaus Bruhns, 4 p.m. Sunday, May 11, at Broad Street Presbyterian Church.

A Women’s Network

Archer says she has adopted her role as champion of women composers, and also women organists and choral conductors, because of imbalances and inequities she sees in the political structures governing the world of liturgical music. The results of a survey Archer sent to women professional organists in North America last year bear out this assessment.

“East of the Mississippi River, there are virtually no women (organists) in leadership positions, meaning cathedrals, conservatories, major universities,” Archer said. “But when you challenge the system and want to have a major cathedral position in a major city, that’s where the women find the barriers, because so few of the searches are genuine. So many organ positions are simply filled by the recommendation of a given mentor.”

Archer says the same holds true in the areas of choral conducting and composing, complementary fields in which the most professionally viable organists must also demonstrate excellence. And since the glass ceiling hasn’t yet been shattered in the world of liturgical music, Archer says she’s taking a different tack in an effort to help women liturgical musicians develop their potential and their careers.

“At a certain point, it doesn’t make sense to fight something so well established head-on, because you only get frustrated by it. So I think you just have to … go off and do something totally radical and different, in a positive spirit and just not criticize anything at all, but simply create something new and something dynamic and something joyful and affirmative,” Archer said.

“An Overwhelming Response”

Last year, that “something new” for Archer came in the form of dozens of new organ works by women composers. Archer had posted on composers’ electronic bulletin boards around the world a call for new organ works written by women. She could not have predicted the response she received.

“(I) got an overwhelming response,” Archer said, “either published scores or PDFs of unpublished things that people sent to me. I was not expecting to get the kind of response that I did get. But I played women’s music from China, from Europe, from Japan, from South America, Mexico, United States, Canada. The only places I didn’t have music from large continental spaces was India and Africa. I was just overwhelmed by the response that I got from my colleagues. There is marvelous contemporary music by women composers.”

The response was so great that Archer is considering expanding her single Muse’s Voice recording into a series of recordings of women’s organ music under that title. Archer has also established a listserv for women organists, conductors and composers which she runs through her position as chair of the music department at Columbia University’s Barnard College. And she is planning a conference for women church musicians and composers of church music to take place in New York in 2015.

“We hope to get women playing and conducting and premiering new works and draw the press’ attention to the splendid work of my colleagues,” Archer said. “Beautiful work should be rewarded, supported, treated kindly. That’s so important.”

Gail Archer performs Sunday, May 11, at 4 p.m. at Broad Street Presbyterian Church. For more information, call 614. 221.6552 or visit www.bspc.org.

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