Come this Spring, the Sarasota Orchestra will be in a league of its own. Well, technically, it’s a part of the League of the American Orchestras but the sentiment remains the same. On March 31st, the Sarasota Orchestra will partner with composer Sarah Gibson for the World Premiere performance of her new work, “to make this mountain taller”. The performance, which is part of the Orchestra’s final Masterworks program A Hero’s Life, is made possible through the League of American Orchestra’s Virginia B. Toulmin Commissions Program. 

By taking part in this initiative, the Sarasota Orchestra is one of 30 U.S. orchestras in a national consortium dedicated to performing contemporary work from six distinguished female composers throughout the 2024-25 season. With the World Premiere of Gibson’s work this spring, the Orchestra is one of the six lead orchestra-composer pairings—each composer will see their work performed throughout the country with four other orchestras, for a total of five performances of each commission. The program, which aims to not just introduce new orchestral works but also build a network of mentorship and career development for its composers, has evolved since its inception in 2014. 

“We used to commission works from three composers a year, each resulting in a world premiere with a different orchestra,” says David Styers, Director of Learning and Leadership Programs at the League of American Orchestras and overseer of the program. “We realized after several years that it was great exposure for the composer but then what–for every composer throughout history, it’s the second, third, fourth, the ongoing performances of a work that matter more for them.”

After the League had chosen their six composers, the decision to delegate Sarasota Orchestra as one of the lead orchestras came easily. “With Virginia having lived in Sarasota, it made natural sense for the Sarasota Orchestra to be one of the six lead orchestras. We were thrilled with their interest in the program and from the group of composers, they selected Sarah for their world premiere this March.” 

For the Sarasota Orchestra, the commission is as much about extending Virginia’s legacy as it is about performing a world premiere. Toulmin, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 84, served on the Orchestra’s board and was the board chair in 2008 when the organization rebranded from The Florida West Coast Symphony to the Sarasota Orchestra. 

“I had the pleasure of working alongside Virginia for several years. One of the things that’s so incredible about this commission is Virginia’s own personal story,” says Joseph McKenna,  President and CEO of the Sarasota Orchestra. “In 1965 she became the CEO of a pharmaceutical company as the result of the premature passing of her husband and I just think of what it would’ve been like to be a female CEO in the midwest in 1965, of the fortitude and leadership that would’ve taken. Throughout her life if there was an opportunity to make something better for another person, she took it. This commision is just an incredible extension of her spirit, knowing that the funding making it possible for Sarah Gibson to provide us with new music comes from her foundation. It’s an example of her philanthropy still changing lives.”

With the commission not yet having been written, however, Sarasota Orchestra’s pairing with Gibson was somewhat of a leap of faith. “Our artistic planning staff was excited to work with Sarah, who has such a distinguished record and is a really accomplished composer and vibrant creator. We felt very comfortable to be matched with her and have confidence in what she was going to do,” says McKenna. “Part of the journey is placing trust in the hands of the composer and giving her the space to create something new and bold and exciting for us.”

For he Los Angeles-based composer and pianist Sarah Gibson, who has held various honors including the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s Sound Investment composer and received commissions from organizations such as the Seattle Symphony and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, her involvement in the League’s Virginia B. Toulmin Commissions Program grants her the opportunity to take the exciting next step in her career. With her latest work “to make this mountain taller”, Gibson, who is also the co-founder of the piano duo HOCKET, has the chance to not only build her portfolio but to write on a topic she feels passionate about. “In my work, I’m often inspired by visual art and will visit museums prior to writing a piece. I visited the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena and saw this sculpture called The Mountain by Aristide Maillol of a nude woman that was quite large and striking and managed to be both feminine and very strong at the same time,” says Gibson. “It happened to be on the day that Roe v. Wade was overturned and it made me think a lot about women’s rights, the mountains women have to climb and the basic human rights that women and non-binary people have to fight for. Later, I came across the poem “Legacy” by Rupi Kaur which includes the line “to make this mountain taller” and focuses on building up women. Using that line as the title for the work felt very apropos considering the emphasis of the commission and how they’re ushering women’s voices forward.”