Equal Time: Student-run concert series shines spotlight on underrepresented artists

Senior Sarah Clements sings—accompanied by sophomore Calendula Cheng at the keyboards— during the dress rehearsal for January’s concert A Humming Under My Feet. Photo by Joe Howell
Senior Sarah Clements sings—accompanied by sophomore Calendula Cheng at the keyboards—during the dress rehearsal for January’s concert A Humming Under My Feet. Photo by Joe Howell

Many women encounter glass ceilings during their careers. For women composers, those ceilings are seemingly laminated and bulletproof. That’s especially true for women who aspire to write for the world’s great symphonies.

No women composers had their music performed last season by the Chicago Symphony, one of the country’s so-called Big Five orchestras. The same is true for the Philadelphia Orchestra.

A few students at the Vanderbilt Blair School of Music have decided it’s time to tear down the gender-based barriers in classical music. Two years ago, they launched a student-run concert series called A Humming Under My Feet. Their goal is to showcase the music of women, nonbinary composers and others whose music is typically underrepresented in the concert hall.

“Programming underperformed music of the highest quality brings something different to the concert experience,” says Lila Meretzky, a senior composition major who was one of the concert series’ co-founders. “It brings a different perspective, which appeals to many people who might otherwise never attend a live performance.”

A Humming Under My Feet has been attracting new audiences to live music since October 2017, when the program staged its first eclectic program in the lobby of the Martha Rivers Ingram Center for the Performing Arts. The group’s name was borrowed from author Barbara Deming’s book, which chronicled her coming to terms with her sexuality.

“I love the name, because it implies there is a change coming,” says Matthew Leo, a series board member and senior percussionist. “Classical music is a field that desperately needs change.”

One obvious difference between the old-school classical performance and a Humming Under My Feet concert is the presentation, says Jessica Abbattista, a junior trumpet player and series board member. “We’re trying to make the concert experience more casual and inviting,” she says. “We look for unusual venues and seek out cross-genre collaborations.”

The series did this with its first concert, incorporating such nontraditional elements as a mobile stage, audience participation and animated projections created specifically for the occasion. At its most recent performance, held in January at the Wond’ry at the Innovation Pavilion, the series presented an interdisciplinary program, alternating music by such composers as Aftab Darvishi with poetry from the student-run Vandy Spoken Word.

Classical music needs to do more than just update its concerts to make itself relevant to the contemporary world, A Humming Under My Feet organizers say. It also needs to engage in a positive way with the community. The concert at the Wond’ry, therefore, benefited the W.O. Smith Music School, which provides affordable music lessons to underserved youth and families.

“A lot of Blair students already volunteer at W.O. Smith,” says Meretzky. “It’s a cause we strongly believe in.”

John Pitcher