06 Mar 2020

10 Contemporary Female Composers That We Love

by Kathleen Sykes and Carol Anderson

It’s no secret that at Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, we love contemporary composers. The world of classical music is so much more than Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart (although we love them too)! Without new, and sometimes controversial, music that pushed boundaries in their day, we wouldn’t have many of the iconic works we enjoy today.

Another great thing about contemporary classical music is that we live in a day and age where voices that would have been suppressed 300 years ago, have more of an opportunity than ever to have their musical voices heard. For this reason, we wanted to share some of our favorite living female composers. We probably could have made this list 2-3 times longer, but this is a good place to start.

In honor of International Women’s Day, here are some of the female voices shaping classical music today:


Kaija Saariaho

Kaija Saariaho is the most influential Finnish composer living today. Born in Helsinki, she is a founding member of the Ears Open society, a Finnish society formed in 1977 to advocate for contemporary music. Fellow founder Esa-Pekka Salonen is the current music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Saariaho relocated to Paris in 1982 to study at IRCAM, the French institute for the study of sound, music and electro-acoustical technology. Much of her work includes an electronic component, such as this work for solo cello and electronics.  Her acoustic works also play with color and texture, sometimes manipulating dense clouds of sound. Saariaho has a form of synesthesia, a condition in which the stimulation of one sense produces involuntary responses in another. She describes her perceptions as “the visual and the musical world are one to me… Different senses, shades of color, or textures and tones of light, even fragrances and sounds blend in my mind.” These settings of four poems by the nationalist Finnish poet Eino Leino show how Saariaho builds sound in the orchestra, as well as her soaring melodic lines for the coloratura soprano voice.


Dai Wei

This is an up-and-coming composer you should definitely have on your radar. Her work is incredibly creative and dynamic and incorporates elements from electronic to pop to experimental vocals in her orchestral works. Drawing on her own Chinese heritage, her works explore the spaces that exist between eastern and western music.

We got the chance to play a full orchestra piece of hers called The Dancing Moonlight at our 2019 fifth grade concerts, and this playful work was a big hit with the students. Here’s a recording with our associate conductor Conner Gray Covington leading a performance at Curtis Institute of Music.


Jennifer Higdon

Jennifer Higdon’s orchestral work Blue Cathedral has been performed over 600 times since its composition in 2000, making her one of the most-performed living composers at symphony concerts. For her first foray into the world of opera, Charles Frazier’s masterpiece Cold Mountain was a perfect choice as she grew up near Knoxville, Tennessee, less than 100 miles from the real Cold Mountain in North Carolina. Performed to sold-out houses in its premiere run at The Santa Fe Opera, this setting of a Civil War story based on Homer’s Odyssey is a modern operatic classic. One of the most stunning moments in the opera is this moving chorus from Act 2. (In the theatre this was a moment for video projections that don’t show in the video, so don’t adjust your screen!)


Arlene Sierra

One of the great perks of being an orchestra in the 21st century is that we get face-time with a lot of great, living composers. For the 2020-21 season we have the opportunity to work with UK-based, American composer and Latin Grammy Award-nominee Arlene Sierra. Recently we played her haunting work Moler (a personal favorite of Kathleen, one of the authors of this article).  In the 2020-21 season we’ll be performing Aquilo and Nature Symphony AND we’ll premiere her work Bird Symphony—we can hardly contain our excitement!

She has a pretty prolific body of work, so it’s hard to pick just one example, but this trio written for Nicola Benedetti, Leonard Elschenbroich, and Alexei Grynyuk is pretty stunning. Sierra’s work frequently deals with the natural world, and you can almost see the butterflies this piece, Butterflies Remember a Mountain:


Joan Tower

Spanning more than a half-century, Joan Tower’s career as composer, conductor, performer, and educator has left a lasting impression on the American music scene. Recently dubbed Musical America’s “Composer of the Year” for 2020, Tower has been a long-time advocate for living composers and women, in particular. Her Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman were composed in six parts between 1987 and 2016, with each fanfare dedicated to an inspiring woman working in the classical music field. Fanfare with No. 1, honoring conductor Marin Alsop, is directly related to Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, quoting from the original and using the identical instrumentation. And obviously the title is a tongue-in-cheek tweaking of Copland’s original label!


Rachel Portman

Primarily known for her compositions for film, television, and theatre, English composer Rachel Portman broke down barriers, becoming the first female composer to win an Academy Award, for her film score to the 1996 adaptation of Emma. I’m sure you’ll recognize the “Pure Michigan” music, which actually comes from the film The Cider House Rules. Portman’s most beloved classical work is the magical opera The Little Prince, which has enjoyed immense popularity since its premiere in 2003. This charming work has been performed across the globe since its premiere, including at our very own Utah Opera, in January of 2019.


Vivian Fung

Vivian Fung’s work is full of energy, texture, and artistry and is undeniably exciting to listen to. And she has the accolades to prove it too—her work has been performed by giants in the classical music world like Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and Midori. In the 2018-19 season the Utah Symphony performed her work Dust Devils—a swirling, ominous work that almost tells its own story.

Another work of hers we like is this somber duo for guitar and violin:


Dawn Avery

Native American cellist and composer Dawn Avery has created a sound language that merges native and world music elements with classical tradition. In her early days as a performer, Avery played with New York City Opera, New Jersey Symphony and for Broadway musicals, but has expanded her style to include jazz, blues and world music. Most recently she has committed to exploring the relationship between music and spirituality. Dr. Avery is of Mohawk descent, and founded the North American Indian Cello Project, which commissions works by Native American composers, such as this cello suite by Juantio Becenti of the Navajo (Diné).

Her composition Hahonkweta’ka:ionse for string quartet and native flutes (performed by R. Carlos Nakai of Ute/Navajo heritage) moves from lyrical and meditative interplay between instruments to an actively rhythmic conclusion.


TJ Cole

Story time: A few seasons ago, the Utah Symphony was preparing for a concert at St. Mary’s Church, our venue for the chamber orchestra concerts at the Deer Valley® Music Festival. I was walking just outside of the rehearsal hall where they were practicing, and suddenly I heard the most beautiful, lush sound coming from the room—this was TJ Cole’s Death of the Poet.  I couldn’t help but stop what I was doing to listen’For a young, up-and-coming composer, she already has a fair number of commissions under her belt with orchestras like Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Listen to Death of the Poet here:


Ellen Reid

Innovator, composer, and self-described sound artist Ellen Reid is one of the new generation of classical composers under 40. Along with composer Missy Mazzoli, Reid is a co-founder of the Luna Composition Lab, a mentorship program for composers who are female-identifying, non-binary or gender non-conforming. She was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in music for her opera p r i s m, a hauntingly beautiful chamber opera that explores the interior world of a survivor of sexual trauma. You can get a sense of her vocal writing that perfectly expresses this journey in this trailer for the original production created by Beth Morrison Projects.