A Conversation with Phlox Ensemble Conductor Sophia Bass

January 30, 2020
Hannah Schoepe ’20
A sepia image of woman with long hairand white blouse facing forward.
Sophia Bass, Phlox ensemble student conductor. Photo credit: Courtesy of Sophia Bass

The Phlox ensemble, an orchestra and choir promoting women and trans individuals in classical music, is an intensive winter term project that provides a space for students of traditionally underrepresented gender identities and those with a commitment to gender inclusion to engage with classical music, and celebrate repertoire by composers of these identities.

The Phlox ensembles will present two events during the final week of winter term, featuring a program of primarily women composers, ranging from Fanny Mendelssohn to Oberlin TIMARA student, Rachel Gibson.

We sat down with student conductor and senior Sophia Bass to find out more about her thoughts on this project.

Sophia, how did you become involved in the Phlox ensemble? 

It happened in a roundabout way. After I completed my sophomore year at Oberlin, I decided to take a year's leave of absence to pursue my own independent study in music. During my time away, I scored a thesis film entitled ‘‘Thicker than Water’’ in association with Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. This is where I started to find my own voice as a female composer of color. In fall 2018, I began conducting studies with Visiting Assistant Professor of Conducting Tiffany Chang ’09. Working with her is what inspired me to take the ‘‘Thicker than Water’’ composition further. One day, when I was sitting at home in my PJs, I had this crazy idea to record the 22-minute film soundtrack with a live orchestra. Even though I had only had a semester and a half of conducting at the time, I challenged myself to do it . I assembled a 45-piece orchestra, from musicians in the conservatory and in the Arts and Sciences Orchestra , and in April 2019, we recorded a live session of the composition where I led as the conductor. Because of that project, I was approached by Anne Pinkerton, an oboist who participated in the recording, about the Winter Term Phlox Orchestra. When she explained their mission to promote gender inclusivity in classical music, and asked if I would be open to participating in their spring concert as student conductor, I was happy to come on board!

Why is this project, and projects supporting women and trans people in the classical music scene, meaningful to society and for you personally? 

We are living in a time in which there is greater awareness of the lack of diverse gender representation in the classical music scene, and strides are being made to amend that. For example, this past fall I participated in a research project that made large-scale efforts to unearth the hidden legacy of African American composer and Oberlin alumna, Shirley Graham Du Bois. My research was part of a StudiOC cluster class that was spearheaded by professors Fredara Hadley and Tamika Nunley. Du Bois is the first known African American woman to have written a major opera, but her opera hasn’t been performed since 1932 and efforts are being made to stage it on campus in December. This project, along with the Winter Term Phlox Orchestra, are important because they help to further the wide efforts toward gender inclusion within classical music by providing greater awareness and access, both in the classroom and on the stage.

For me personally, it was not until I stepped  to the podium as a conductor that I had to learn my own confidence as an African American female conductor. The things I have learned from Shirley Graham Du Bois’ life as a black woman who had to navigate spaces in the classical music scene also inspired me to find my place on the podium.

What is it that you're most excited about in this coming year?  

I am in the process of writing my first symphony, which I hope to have completed and recorded before I graduate. I am also looking forward to continuing my conducting studies with my teacher, Professor of Conducting Raphael Jiménez

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