In many great classical orchestras, the majority of players are men. But, in the United States, the number of women playing in orchestras is steadily growing. Four years ago, the Washington Chamber Symphony started a program designed to prepare more women for that kind of career.
Stephen Simon, the conductor of the Washington Chamber Symphony, and Bonnie Simon, its executive director, created the program called Viva Vivaldi. It was originally open to American girls only. This year, for the first time girls from around the world are invited to participate.
"Over the years," Maestro Simon said, "I was very interested in developing new younger audiences for classical music in the United States. And I have always wanted to re-create Vivaldi's all girl orchestra. And the more I talked about it, the more excited people [orchestra members] became."
Eighteenth century Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi spent many years teaching music at a girls' orphanage in Venice, called "Ospedale della Pieta." He also wrote music for them. The girls played in groups of up to forty. But to showcase their individual talents, Vivaldi wrote concerti for a variety of instruments - violin, viola, cello, horn and lute. Judging by the difficulty of the music, these girls, all of them under twenty, were very accomplished. Mr. Simon said, "The idea of it is that we will invite girls from across the country to audition. You have to be 18 or younger - and there will be a Vivaldi concert at the Kennedy Center."
Bonnie Simon says it took some time to persuade her husband Stephen Simon to conduct a Vivaldi orchestra, because he prefers to work with at least 80 musicians. But he was entirely convinced, when he saw the first responses. "We had 600 applicants," she said, "all of whom sent tapes, all of which needed to be listened to. And as I began listening to the tapes, one was better than the next and it became a very exciting project [with applicants] from all across the country."
The Simons say most students who learn to play an instrument are used to practicing and playing solo parts. However, if they're chosen to participate in the Viva Vivaldi concert, they have to perform with others and there is not much time to rehearse.
Bonnie Simon continued, "One of the issues always is, 'will they be able to read music well enough to play the orchestral parts?' So while they may be able to play a solo work extremely well, that's always the caution and that has to be taken into consideration."
So far, many of the young musicians have had experience in playing orchestral parts. Music camps and youth orchestras thrive across the nation and young players have plenty of opportunity to perform, often in groups.
But in the Vivaldi tradition, Stephen and Bonnie Simon also want to give the best players a chance to show off in solo parts. "I guess," said Bonnie Simon, "one of our problems or the issues when one was creating this concert, was how to put together a really first rate program for the audience. So we said some of it will be concertos for girls, some of it will be orchestral repertoire."
When they arrive in Washington, usually on a Friday in late April or early May, the girls audition for a seat in the orchestra and, if they wish, for a solo part. The concert takes place the following Sunday afternoon.
Viva Vivaldi concerts take place every two years. Stephen and Bonnie Simon say the first two were very successful. During the weekend in Washington, the girls also attend fund-raising and social events, which give them opportunities to make connections in the music world.
The selection process starts in the Fall. Applications for the third Viva Vivaldi concert next spring are being accepted until November 1. Mr. Simon said, "And as can be expected, we have lots and lots of violinists, we have fewer violas - violists, if you are listening out there. We usually have a pretty good collection of cellists. And actually, I've been noticing over the years that the cellists have been getting better and better, so that's great fun. And we could use some double bass applicants. Young ladies, if you have any interest."
If you are diligently practicing your instrument, there is still time to apply for next year's Viva Vivaldi concert. Details and application forms can be found on the Washington Chamber Symphony's web site, www.WCSymphony.org.