Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Landmark Weeklong Celebration of Brilliant Women Composers at Juiliard

If you follow this page, you’re familiar with the ugly truth that as recently as 2015, this country’s major symphony orchestras were performing music written by women less than two percent of the time. For a lot of those orchestras, that’s about once a year. That 25% of the New York Philharmonic s programming this year will be writtten by women – as part of the orchestra’s Project 19 initiative – is enough to bump that dial significantly. It’s about time.

And just as significantly, Juilliard devoted the entirety of their Focus 2020 series, which wound up last week, to women composers. Just think: some of the rising-star talent there may take some of those pieces with them when they graduate. This blog was not present for the full seven days, but did devote an entire work week to discovering some of the most riveting rare repertoire played in this city this year.

You can’t find most of this material on youtube, or anywhere on the web, either. The amount of work that Juilliard’s Joel Sachs and his crew put into casting a net for more than a century’s worth of scores is mind-blowing. But a global network answered his SOS, and the result was not only a consistently strong mix of mostly undiscovered treasures, but also some very smartly conceived programming. As closing night last Friday at Alice Tully Hall proved, it was possible to pull together a whole night of percussion-driven, noir-tinged symphonic material, all written by women. That these works aren’t already famous testifies to the barriers their creators had to overcome.

Tragically, some of them didn’t. One of the festival’s most eye-opening and darkest works was the solo piano suite Pages From the Diary, a more brief but equally carnivalesque counterpart to Pictures at an Exhibition written in 1949 by Israeli composer Verdina Shlonsky. We don’t know if it was ever performed in her lifetime; she died in obscurity in 1990. It was part of the Monday night program, played with dynamic verve by Isabella Ma. One has to wonder how many thousands of other Verdina Shlonskys there may have been.

Was the highlight of the Tuesday night program Vivian Fine’s Emily’s Images, a vividly jeweled suite of miniatures for piano and flute, or the saturnine blend of gospel gravitas and Gershwinesque flair in Florence Price’s Piano Sonata, played with steely confidence by Qilin Sun? It was hard to choose: it also could have been Young-Ja Lee’s dynamically bristling, subtly Asian-tinged, intriguingly voiced piano trio Pilgrimage of the Soul. The night ended with a couple of early Mary Lou Williams piano pieces, reminding that before she reinvented herself as a composer of gospel-inspired jazz and classical music, she was a big draw on the jazz and blues circuit, a formidable counterpart to James P. Johnson.

Without question, the high point of the Wednesday program was the Ruth Crawford Seeger String Quartet, violinists Courtenay Cleary and Abigail Hong, violist Aria Cherogosha and cellist Geirthrudur Gudmundsdottir working its meticulous hive of activity with barely repressed joy. Its subtly staggered mechanics have the complexity but also the translucence of Bartok; it may also be the most clever musical palindrome ever written.

Otherwise, pianist Keru Zhang voiced the Balkan-tinged edge of Viteslava Kapralova’s 1937 mini-suite April Preludes. Harpist Abigail Kent won a competition of sorts among Juilliard harpists to play Germaine Tailleferre’s jaunty, Debussyesque sonata. And the night’s great discovery was Australian composer Margaret Sutherland’s alternately angst-ridden and ebullient suite of neoromantic art-songs, sung with acerbic power by Maggie Valdman over Brian Wong’s elegant piano.

It was also hard to choose a favorite from Thursday night’s bill. The easy picks would have been Amy Beach’s Piano Trio in A Minor, a richly dynamic nocturne, or organist Phoon Yu’s lights-out savagery throughout Ruth Zechlin’s Fall of the Berlin Wall-era protest piece Against the Sleep of Reason. But pianist TianYi Lee‘s incisive, intense interpretation of Louise Talma’s often ominously biting Alleluia in the Form of a Toccata made a powerful coda before the intermission.

Also on the bill were Tiffany Wong’s graceful performance of Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ solo Sonata for Harp, a picturesquely late Romantic trio of Lili Boulanger miniatures played by flutist Helena Macheral and pianist Ying Lee, and the rather sardonic, contrapuntally clever, carefully cached but no less vivid chamber work Des-Cantec, written by Romanian composer Myriam Marbe in 1986.

The big Friday night blowout was everything it could have been: stormy, explosive, often harrowing. What a thrill it was to witness the Juilliard Orchestra reveling in the wide-eyed, spooky percussion and foreboding Bernard Herrmann-esque swells of Betsy Jolas’ 2015 A Litlle Summer Suite. They echoed that with more distant Cold War-era horror in Grazina Bacewicz’ 1963 Cello Sonata No. 2, soloist Samuel DeCaprio drawing roars of applause for tackling its daunting glissandos and wildfire staccato.

The lush, epic Ethel Smyth seascape On the Cliffs of Cornwall made a good launching pad for wave after harrowing wave of Thea Musgrave‘s 1990 Rainbow.

Ironically, throughout the history of folk music, women have always played an integral role, from Appalachian balladry, to the Bulgarian choral tradition and the Moroccan lila ceremony. If Project 19 and Juilliard’s herculean efforts are successful in jumpstarting a nationwide movement, it will merely mean that we’ve come full circle.

Concerts and solo recitals at Julliard continue throughout the end of the academic year. The next installment of the Philharmonic’s Project 19 series is tonight, Feb 6 at 7:30 PM with a Nina C. Young world premiere alongside Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and Mozart’s “Great” Mass. You can get in for $35, or if you’re feeling adventurous (no guarantees, good luck), you can try scoring rush tickets a little before curtain time.

February 6, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Neave Trio Play Transcendent Works by Women Composers at Subculture

Earlier today, was the Neave Trio’s most sublime moment when violinist Anna Williams broke out an aching vibrato during a plaintive solo over a single raptly resonant Eri Nakamura piano chord? Or was it when Nakamura played a savagely sarcastic “charge” motif in the lefthand while whirling through evilly glittering circles with her right?

All that and a lot more happened during their performance of Rebecca Clarke’s 1921 Piano Trio. It’s a shatttering work, as good as anything Bartok or Shostakovich ever wrote at their most translucent. How rewarding it was to discover it on the group’s new album Her Voice, a collection of pieces by women composers. How much more of a thrill it was to see the group play it live at Subculture as part of the ongoing weekly GatherNYC series.

Built around a haunting minor-key chromatic riff, it was the one piece on the bill that gave cellist Mikhail Veselov the most time in the spotlight, particularly when he wove a battlefield haze of harmonies with Williams as Nakamura receded. An unexpectedly puckish coda to the second movement drew spontaneous applause; the danse macabre reprised at the end was even more chillingly vivid.

Likewise, disquiet remained at the forefront throughout most of another work from the new album, Amy Beach’s lushly cantabile Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 150, from 1938. Nakamura’s glimmering phrasing seemed both more crepuscular and muscular than on the album, up to a striking coda to wind up the first movement. The quasi-nostalgic waltz of the second and the echoes of Debussy and boogie-woogie woven into this shapeshifting nocturne at the end also had a welcome vigor.

As an encore, the trio rushed through a burst of Piazzolla, a momentary deviation from the album concept. Before the performance, Williams related how the trio were originally going to title the record 1.8, reflecting the percentage of women composers’ work being programmed by major orchestras  according to a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra survey. Things may have improved since then, but not enough.

There was also storytelling, a jarring interruption that brought to mind a song by a brilliant female composer who wasn’t on the bill, Americana tunesmith Karen Dahlstrom. The protagonist in the first number on her new album finds herself in a New Orleans bar, sitting across from a guy who unbuttons his shift to show her his jailhouse tattoos. She doesn’t say anything, but thinks to herself, “I’ve weathered storms worse than these.”

The Neave Trio’s next performance is Nov 16 at 7:30 PM at the Chandler Center for the Arts, 71 N Main St. in Randolph, Vermont, including these works along with music by Cécile Chaminade and Jennifer Higdon. Cover is $25.

Next week’s installment of the GatherNYC series at Subculture (downstairs from the Culture Project Theatre at the corner of Bleecker and Lafayette) is at 11 AM on Nov 17 with chamber brass ensemble the Westerlies. Seemingly modeled on Lincoln Center’s hourlong Sunday morning “coffee concerts” at the Walter Reade Theatre, there’s java and breakfast snacks (before the show rather than after)…and possibly storytelling as well. Cover is $20.

November 10, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Neave Trio Rescue Obscure Treasures by Women Composers

The Neave Trio – violinist Anna Williams, cellist Mikhail Veselov and pianist Eri Nakamura – go looking more deeply for obscure treasures than most classical ensembles. Their previous album comprised the only known piano trios by Debussy, Fauré, and Roussel. Their new album Her Voice – streaming at Spotify  – is a rare recording of three pieces by pioneering women composers Louise Farrenc, Amy Beach and Rebecca Clarke. The ensemble are bringing those rarely performed works to life at Subculture on Nov 10 at 11 AM. Cover is $20; breakfast snacks (and presumably coffee) are included.

The first work on the album is Farrenc’s Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 33. The first woman to teach at the Paris Conservatory, she was highly regarded as both a pianist and composer throughout the mid-19th century. Don’t let the relentless cheer of the opening movement fool you into thinking that this is just faux-Schubert: proto-Jeff Lynne is more like it. The devious playfulness of the piano and cello underneath Williams’ emotive phrasing is hard to resist.

The second movement has the same translucent appeal, more sedately at first; the Bach-like counterpoint midway through is a neat trick. Movement three shifts abruptly from a generic minuet to a nocturnal theme, rising from steady and muted to a bracing variation on the triumphant opening theme, Nakamura’s icepick precision contrasting with Williams’ phantasmagorical broken chords. The trio vigorously synopsize this confidently mainstream piece of mid-1800s classicism with Farrenc’s dynamically shifting final movement

Beach’s Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 150, written in 1938, is her last major work. Nakamura’s eerily starlit phrasing sails over the similarly uneasy strings, fueling a stern, striking crescendo in the first movement. The three musicians waltz with a ghostly calm through the opening of the second movement. It’s nostalgia in disguise, followed by lively, early Debussy-esque quasi-ragtime. They wind it up with propulsive allusions to boogie-woogie juxtaposed with unsettled nocturnal gleam.

As an early 20th century orchestral violist, Clarke broke the gender barrier in more than one ensemble. Her only piano trio, from 1921, is a stunningly powerful piece of music, a major work that deserves to be part of the standard repertoire. It begins with the same restless, rippling intensity as Beach’s trio, only more so, quickly receding to a brooding, Ravel-esque theme anchored by a belltone pulse. Veselov gets to play a more acerbic, prominent role here more than in the two previous works. Maybe because Clarke was a violist, Williams is similarly enabled to air out her incisive midrange for maximum impact.

The second movement has a gorgeous menace, coldly jeweled piano against stark string harmonies, along with an unlikely, Dvorak-like homesick quality. The marionettish dance and wounded longing in the final movement are as impactful as anything Stravinsky ever wrote. What a treat it is to discover this via such an impassioned performance.

November 6, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment