Lorelt at 30
by Odaline de la Martínez
27 Oct 2022
Lorelt Records was 30 years ahead of the curve when it started to record music by overlooked composers, many of whom are now finally receiving due recognition. It came out of a feeling that something wasn’t really fair, that something needed correcting. Back then, no one could understand why we would want to record women composers – there weren’t many of them, were there? The few they could point to were dismissed. Now 30 years on, the world is finally catching up and embracing women composers and all kinds of diverse composers from Latin America and the African diaspora past and present and it is completely reshaping programmes everywhere.
Of course, when I was growing up women weren’t conductors, nor composers. Yet from an early age I knew I wanted to be a conductor regardless. I didn’t care what I should do or shouldn’t do – it never worried me. I take inspiration from the suffragette composer Ethel Smyth who knew what she needed to do, even if the world wasn’t ready for her. I always knew I wanted to make a difference.
I grew up in Cuba until the age of 11. My childhood was filled with the sound of drumming from the Santería rites next door, where the Santera (priestess) who had assimilated the Catholic saints into the African Gods, kept the music flowing through the night. I woke up early in the morning when the drumming stopped. Conventional private piano lessons and music theory sat alongside salsa, dancing all the time and Afro-Cuban songs full of joy even if they were sad songs. After the Bay of Pigs Invasion, my parents sent my sister and I to live with our uncle and aunt in Arizona to shield us – we left for a few months and never returned. We spoke English in a month. 7 years later my parents followed, and we moved to New Orleans, the closest thing culturally to Cuba. I entered Tulane University on a Maths scholarship, but I very quickly realised the calling of music and swapped degrees. This led to nine years of scholarships - a Marshall Scholarship with three years at the Royal Academy; one year travelling in Norway, Italy and other European countries working in Computer music; and then finally studying composition at the University of Surrey under Reginald Smith Brindle.
Ingrid Culliford and I set up Lontano while we were at the Academy and I had joined as a pianist under conductor John Carewe who also mentored Simon Rattle. He instilled in us the importance of understanding style and a love of contemporary music – Radio 3 even invited us to perform on the radio after they heard us at the Academy. John realised I wanted to conduct and he stepped aside.
Contemporary music in the 80s was thrilling – the Arts Council supported many small grass roots ensembles. Lontano worked for the British Council touring Canada, US, Mexico, Latin America, Western Europe and Eastern Europe – many times presenting programmes equally balanced of female and male composers. We did our first Prom in 1984 when I was 32 – I was the first woman conductor at the Festival. The Arts Council was progressive supporting the avant-garde movement and we fiercely began to promote music of Judith Weir, Nicola Lefanu, and Elizabeth Maconchy, who all featured on the first discs on Lorelt supported by a grant from the Arts Council.
This was 1992 and it also coincided with an offer to make another recording where I was offered a pittance as my conducting fee. I stood my ground and refused to accept the rate offered. The record company complained to the board financing that I was being difficult, but the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust stood up for me, seeing that I had been offered half the rate of a male conductor, and they decided to back me. The record company capitulated. It provided the turning point to launch Lorelt.
The first three albums set the course of Lorelt for the next 30 years – Volumes 1 & 2 British Women Composers and another on Villa-Lobos. LNT 101 was music by Elizabeth Maconchy, Nicola Lefanu, Lindsay Cooper and Errolyn Wallen, LNT103 was music by Judith Weir, Eleanor Alberga, Melinda Maxwell, Hilary Tann and my own music. No one was recording these women composers and the advent of the CD allowed us to print small amounts of CDs, instead of the minimum 30,000 copies to make an LP. So, with a modest income and modest grants we were able to sustain the label and support these overlooked voices from diverse backgrounds – many have thanked us since for supporting them at the start of their careers and giving them the first step up. We were also the first independent label to offer digital downloads, when digital downloads became available.
We thought it was just as important to recognise the women composers forgotten by history too, so we produced LNT 109 Fleurs Jetées, songs by French female composers Pauline Viardot Garcia, Nadia Boulanger and Cécile Chaminade. Ethel Smyth appears alongside Amy Beach.
Latin American composers also feature strongly throughout the catalogue – Alberto Ginastera, Villa Lobos, Ernesto and Ernestina Lecuona, and Ernesto Nazareth.
Now more recently we have been recording the piano music of Florence Price with Samantha Ege, followed by Black Renaissance Woman about the sorority of black women composers in Chicago. Samantha’s new disc with Castle of our Skins celebrates composers of the African diaspora – this is LNT 147.
This takes us up to our first 50 CDs in 30 years – LNT 148 will be piano music by Fanny Mendelssohn, with some works never recorded before; LNT 149 Chamber Music of Charles Shadle who is part Choctaw and whose music is influenced by Native American Culture. Our 50th disc will be the complete piano works of Doreen Carwithen which Lontano, Samantha Ege and I will record in June 2023 for release in October 2023.
I am eternally grateful to all the women who came before me and who provided me with the inspiration for my own career, all those who dared to speak their mind: Nadia Boulanger, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Germaine Greer. I am proud of Lorelt’s 30th anniversary milestone but I know that our work is not complete - there are so many other good composers who still need to be heard.