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Odaline de la Martinez, First Woman to conduct the BBC Proms

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Odaline de la Martinez in front of her photo from 100 First Women Portraits by Anita Corbin

It’s a special combination when a pioneering woman in her own right does a talk about another trailblazing woman. Yesterday’s Bitesize talk at Brighton Museum saw Shoreham-by-Sea based Odaline de la Martinez, the first woman to conduct a BBC Prom, explore the life and music of composer and Suffragette Dame Ethel Smyth.

Odaline (b.1949) is part of the current exhibition, 100 First Women Portraits, by photographer Anita Corbin. Composer, conductor and a graduate in maths and music, Odaline was the first woman, in 1984, to conduct a Prom in 89 seasons of the BBC Promenade Concerts, since it’s inception in 1895. This world famous music festival is now watched and listened to by an estimated 15 million viewers in the UK. She has since appeared at the Proms regularly and did a special performance in 1994 of Dame Ethel Smyth’s opera, The Wreckers.

Odaline is Cuban-American. She studied at Tulane University, New Orleans and the Royal Academy of Music where she studied composition and piano. In 1976 she founded the Ensemble Lontano. Since then Odaline has received numerous awards, including 2015 Winner Opera America Award for Female Composers, the Villa-Lobos medal given by the Brazilian government in recognition promoting and conducting his music. In April 2015 Martinez received an award from Opera America, toward the production of a video based on her second opera Imoinda. In September 2016 Odaline received a Women Make Music grant from the PRS for Music Foundation toward the writing of her opera Plantation.

She has also dedicated much of her career to enabling other artists to gain opportunities. In 1992 she founded the record label, Lorelt, which concentrates on music neglected by many recording companies, contemporary composers, women composers and those from Latin America.

In 2006 together with Lontano she founded the London Festival of American Music to bring a broader spectrum of the best American and US-based contemporary composers to UK audiences. This festival is now celebrated biennially. Several major works have received their UK premieres there, including works by John Harbison, Marjorie Merryman, Daniel Asia, Peter Child, Chen Yi and Roberto Sierra.

Odaline is also trustee of The Mornington Trust, who has been responsible for community and educational work in Waltham Forest and other London boroughs since 2000.

black and white photo of Dame Ethel Smyth. It is a head and shoulders shot with Dame Ethel sitting sideways to camera and looking past the camera. She is wearing a tweed blazer, a white shirt and a tie. Her Hair is up in a bun.

Dame Ethel Smyth in 1922

Odaline says that one of the highlights of her career so far was conducting Dame Ethel Smyth’s opera, The Wreckers. She describes Dame Ethel as one of the most significant composers of the 20th Century. She composed a series of operas and from 1911 to 1913 was closely involved with the Suffragette movement. One of her compositions, The March of Women was adopted as the anthem to the Women’s Social and Political Union. In 1922 she was appointed D.B.E for Services to Music and in 1926 became the first female recipient of an honorary doctorate in Music from Oxford University.

Anita Corbin took Odaline’s portrait photograph in St Andrew’s Church, Hove in 2014. It is the only portrait that shows movement, with Odaline moving her arms as if conducting. It’s a vivacious and lively photograph which perfectly captures Odaline’s passion and love for music and sharing it with others.

colour photo of Anita Corbin and Odaline de la Martinez. THey are standing in front of Anita's framed photograph of Odaline. Odaline is on the left of the photo and is wearing a black blazer and leggings. She is smiling, is wearing glasses and has a blonde streak across the front of her dark short hair. Anita is standing on the right of the photo and is wearing a blue and multicoloured shirt. She has one hand on her hip. Both are smiling directly at the camera.

Odaline de la Martinez and photographer Anita Corbin at the 100 First Women Portraits exhibition at Brighton Museum

colour photo portrait of Odaline de la Martinez. She is wearing a black jacket buttoned at the front with brocade braiding across the chest. She is moving her hands as if conducting, with a baton in her right hand. There is movement in the photo by the hands so it looks a little blurry by the hands. The background is of an altar in St Andrew's Church, Hove. It is lit so there is soft orange light behind Odaline.

From the series 100 First Women Portraits by Anita Corbin