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Janna Sailor withstands resistance to her all-women orchestra

Robert Rowat

"I initially had no intention of starting an orchestra at this point in my career, but fate seemed to have other ideas," says Janna Sailor, founding director of Allegra Chamber Orchestra (ACO), Vancouver's first all-women orchestra that gave its first concert in June. It was a fundraiser for Music Heals, an organization that supports music therapy programs in B.C.

"Originally I planned a small benefit with some of my close friends; we were going to play some Piazzolla, have chocolate and wine and raise money for a great cause," Sailor explained via email. "However, the response from players of all instruments wanting to take part was so positive that I thought, why not do Beethoven instead? Within a day of putting out the call for more players, I had a full orchestra of ladies willing to donate their time and talent for the inaugural concert, and Allegra was born."

Sailor, who holds a master's degree in violin performance from the University of British Columbia, honed her craft working with the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, l'Orchestre de la Francophonie and the National Academy Orchestra of Canada.

Janna Sailor conducts the National Academy Orchestra of Canada on June 18, 2015, at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre.

The ACO gave its second concert in August and has further concerts planned for October and November. Its website is barely able to keep up, a sign that the organization is, for the moment, a victim of its own success. While overwhelmed, Sailor isn't exactly suprised by the enthusiasm for the creation of an all-woman orchestra.

"There is truly something to be said for providing a safe space for women (or men, or any group) to work together creatively as one entity," she states. "The creation of this orchestra was not meant to be an exclusion of men, but a uniting of women on behalf of other women, while acknowledging and facing together the challenges unique to our gender in our industry."

Not everybody agrees, though.

"There have been factions that find the existence of an all-female orchestra offensive, and there are challenging comments and messages that I and the other staff members field on a daily basis. Unfortunately, [the existence of an all-women orchestra] seems to be taken as a discriminatory slight towards men, rather than women united to create music and social change," says Sailor, regretfully.

The comments generated by a June 2016 blog post on Slipped Disc, "Birth of an All-Woman Orchestra," illustrate the kind of resistance, ignorance and hostility Sailor faces. "So it will always be 'that day of the month' during rehearsals? Tough!," wrote commenter James; Christopher Rosevear commented, "Misandrist just as bad as misogynist;" and Erwin added, "Are males (and those who identify as male) allowed in the audience?"

Violin Channel ran an article with the headline "All New Girls-Only Orchestra Launched in Canada."

"In addition to these articles being being factually incorrect, they are rather demeaning in tone, referring to 'girls only' rather than accomplished women and highly trained artists," reflects Sailor, adding, "I do find it interesting that this topic has stimulated so much talk about gender issues in the music industry, and I think it can be a healthy thing if we are respectful of one another and truly allow ourselves to see what is and what has existed in the past. Perhaps this initial resistance is to be expected as the ACO is one of the only all-female classical orchestras in the world, and we are in relatively uncharted territory with both our personal and social mandate."

A bigger purpose

That social mandate is articulated by the ACO's motto, "empowering women through music." Sailor explains: "From a musical standpoint, our vision is to ... improve music performance, conducting and composition opportunities for talented women musicians in general, most notably female First Nations, minority, gender spectrum and disabled musicians, and to foster greater participation of young and emerging women in chamber orchestral performance through mentorships in orchestral playing, conducting and composition."

This orientation explains the ACO's partnership with Music Heals. Its inaugural concert back in June raised enough money to establish a program at the WISH Drop-in Centre, a program for women on the street in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. "This was an incredibly rewarding project to work on," notes Sailor, "as music therapy was an initiative that the staff at WISH had been wanting to incorporate into their therapeutic offerings for some time, but hadn’t been possible due to lack of funding."

Each concert or event the ACO presents has a social-action mandate; upcoming events will support Compassion Globally, the Vancouver General Hospital, LGTBQ and First Nations communities, and efforts to help those suffering from mental health and HIV/AIDS.

With such an ambitious social mandate, one wonders whether striving for musical excellence is a priority for Sailor and the ACO, or if it's more about the process.

"We strive to create performances of the highest artistic merit, however not necessarily imitating the traditional classical orchestral model," she explains. "To be clear, we are not trying to emulate other major orchestras in our season output, rather to create versatile and meaningful programming of musical excellence that serves a bigger social action purpose, while creating diverse programmatic offerings of both modern-day and more traditional composers, world-class artists and rarely heard works."

The Allegra Chamber Orchestra performs at Strike a Chord, a benefit for Music Heals, on Thursday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m. at Vancouver's Imperial performance space.

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