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

Student Orchestras Rule!

Among the ever-shrinking, rarefied elites who sometimes actually get paid to go to concerts and then share their experiences, there’s a feeling that student orchestras often do a better job than the pros. There are many logical reasons for this. Conservatory kids get more rehearsals, more guidance (which could cut both ways), they’re playing for a grade, and they’re not yet jaded to the point where they feel like phoning it in.

Yesterday’s Juilliard performance of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony at Alice Tully Hall validated all of those arguments. There was no backing off: everybody dug in, and went as deeply as possible into the composer’s stubborn dedication to being counterintuitive. This is a mighty tough piece to play, with its constantly shifting web of counterpoint, sudden blustery exchanges of short riffs between instruments, and tantalizing fragments of melody that, just when you start to hum along, disappear into thin air.

It was a friendly and animated guided tour of eerie close harmonies, petulant defiance of any genuine resolution, and Schoenberg’s sometimes outrageous sense of humor. There’s a point about two thirds of the way through where he basically stops the music to make sure that the cello and bass are both in tune – and then makes a theme and variations out of it. The group nailed it with deadpan aplomb: it was shocking that the audience, at least the string players in the crowd, weren’t completely cracking up.

And has anybody noticed what a great string section the Columbia University Orchestra has this year? It’s Boston Symphony quality: lush, rich, epic and tight as a drum. Dynamics weren’t at the top of the list, it would seem, at their mighty performance of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite at Symphony Space last month, but their forceful presence gave the music a stunning freshness. This piece is proto heavy metal, and that’s exactly how the ensemble played it, going in hard for every bit of clever humor and grand guignol that the composer weaves for the strings.

They did the same thing with Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Anybody who’s gone to any of the classical halls over the past few years has probably been exposed to more New World than they probably could ever want. Yet, having heard maybe a half dozen different versions live since the New York Philharmonic made it their theme for a season, this ranked with the best of them. The rest of the orchestra wasn’t up to the level of the strings, but the rest of those other orchestras weren’t up to that level, either. What an undeniable, emphatic attack! It validated any bellicose interpretation of the symphony, and was every bit as fresh and new as the Grieg.

The Columbia University Orchestra’s next performance is a program TBA on April 6 at 8 PM at Lerner Hall on the Columbia Campus. And next month at Juilliard is the Focus Festival, featuring several public concerts of music originally commissioned for radio airplay, many of which are free. The first one is on Feb 1 at 7:30 PM at Alice Tully Hall, with orchestral works by Ligeti, Betty Olivero and Michael Tippett; tix are available at the hall’s box office.

January 23, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment