This Saturday, a group called Extensity will kick off the second iteration of their annual festival celebrating classical composers. Founded by a pair of New York pianists, the local organization plans on only featuring works composed and performed by women, tackling what they say is a gender equity issue that has plagued classical music for generations.

Extensity will be putting on a performance each Saturday in March and the program concludes with a final show that features something they’ve commissioned themselves. The concerts will all take place at the Box Factory in Ridgewood. 

Called “WOMEN NOW,” the idea is the invention of Francesca Khalifa and Chelsea Randall, piano players who see the promotion of accessibility as intertwined with their own musical ambitions. While Khalifa comes from the more traditional vein of international classical performance – she had been the winner of an award handed out by the late Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda in 2014  – the two connected when they recognized that there was a larger accessibility issue troubling the kind of platforms offered by some of classical music’s leading institutions.

Extensity Cofounders Chelsea Randall (left) and Francesca Khalifa (right). Photo by Samuel Gray

“We had found a common interest in the idea of organizing and making music happen in places where it was most needed, with an attention to representation,” Khalifa said.

The first series they launched – “Analogs” – was held over the summer of 2021 and had the mission of “exploring the intersections between Western classical music and underrepresented, overlooked and new voices across time periods and traditions,” according to Extensity’s website. This year, the focus is on women.

“Extensity was born in part out of the seismic social and racial changes of the past couple of years,” said Randall. “We want to be a part of this slowly shifting narrative in a very, very specific way, in the way that we curate our concerts and the way we present and educate the public about them.”

According to a recent study published by DONNE, a UK-based nonprofit focused on fighting against gender inequality with the music industry, only five percent of pieces played by the world’s top 100 orchestras in the 2020-2021 season were composed by women. Of those, only 1.1 percent were composed by Black and Asian women.

“There is a huge gap in representation here,” said Khalifa. According to Khalifa, organizing concerts is a solution to this sizable equity gap left by programmers of the world’s large orchestral institutions. “We as an organization, as an artist-run organization, have an understanding of what the issues are that is slightly different from what an administrator has.”

“As performers and as women from mixed-race backgrounds, we personally witnessed inequity in the way that classical music was presented, in the lack of opportunity that was presented to performers and to presenters,” said Randall. “I really think it’s up to smaller grassroots organizations to amplify women’s voices and actively look for the gaps in the dialogue that exists.”

The first performance takes place this Saturday and features up-and-coming soprano Yvette Keong and pianist Nicole Cloutier. On March 19th, Sarah Cahill – who the New York Times described as “an intrepid illuminator of the classical avant-garde” – will give on a lecture and put on a recital on the works of composers like Regina Harris Baiocchi, Tania León and Mary Watkins.

Extensity has also commissioned a piece by acclaimed Spanish composer Andrea Casarrubios, whose recent piece honoring essential workers during the pandemic was featured at Carnegie Hall in October of last year.

“It was such an incredibly moving and stirring piece that we just knew at that moment that we had to commission her to write something for our second season, specifically for WOMEN NOW,” said Randall, after hearing Casarrubios’ work at Carnegie Hall.

The new piece Casarrubio made for Extensity is titled “Armadura” and will draw on the works of artist Frida Kahlo for inspiration and make its world premiere on March 26th, the last night of the WOMEN NOW festival. A cellist named Christine Lamprea will perform the piece.

The festival also includes interviews with composers and performers as well as a panel discussion featuring speakers from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Sphinx Organization, and the American Composers Forum centered around gender equity. This will take place March 8th, coinciding with International Women’s Day. It will also be available to stream on Extensity’s Instagram and Facebook accounts for free. The organization is also still taking donations and will be, according to Khalifa, until March 12th. The link to their crowdfunding effort can be found here.

All images taken by Samuel Gray.

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