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

Transcendence and Revelations from Women Composers at Juilliard

Dovetailing with the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19 celebration of women composers and women achieving the right to vote in this country, the Juilliard School’s current Focus 2020 series features unprecedented, all-female programming this week. The big basement theatre there was about three-quarters full last night. If brilliant, obscure repertoire is your thing, or if you just like free classical concerts, you ought to be able to get in if you show up by about 7:15. Or you can pick up tickets at the box office during the day. The show tonight, Jan 28 starts at 7:30 PM with mostly piano-centric music by Vivian Fine, Florence Price, Young-ja Lee, Priaulx Rainier and Mary Lou Williams.

Last night’s performance was a revelation. It’s shameful that such sublime and powerful material has been largely ignored for so long, and it was clear from the program notes that a lot of sleuthing was required simply to track down the scores for much of it. Few of these women were fortunate enough to land a composer-in-residence gig, as Liu Zhuang maintained for two decades in her native China. Yet her own publisher was unable to provide the sheet music for her 1999 trio Wind Through Pines. A friend of Juilliard’s Joel Sachs had to be enlisted to supply a copy from his local library.

Rebecca Clarke broke the gender barrier as a hardworking symphony violist, yet was reduced to working as a nanny at one point. And Verdina Shlonsky, an early Israeli composer, had very few performances during her lifetime, dying broke and forgotten in 1990.

The concert was a rollercoaster ride, beginning and ending very darkly. Clarke’s 1941 Dumka, played with inspired, animated counterpoint by violinist Yaegy Park, violist Serena Hsu and pianist Jiahao Han, was a bitterly anthemic, Balkan-tinged theme and variations punctuated by jagged pointillisms and a forlornly lyrical viola solo.

Irish-English composer Elizabeth Maconchy’s 1938 String Quartet No. 3 was a broodingly and often grimly apt choice of concluding number. Cellist Erica Ogihara‘s deep pitchblende drive contrasted with the elegant exchanges between violinists Jeongah Choi and Haokun Liang and violist Leah Glick. Its uninterrupted variations foreshaded what Shostakovich would be doing twenty years later, all the way through to a macabre, slow gallop and flicker of a coda.

The night’s most breaktaking display of interpretive skill was pianist Isabella Ma’s vastly dynamic, sometimes muted and tender, sometimes explosive take of Shlonsky’s 1949 suite Pages From the Diary. The obvious precursor is Pictures at an Exhibition, coyly and fleetingly referenced toward the end. Icy belltones gave way to a marionettish strut that eventually resurfaced as fullscale phantasmagoria, only to flutter away gracefully at the conclusion.

Ruth Schonthal’s 1979 duo Love Letters, played by clarinetist Ashbur Jin and cellist Elisabeth Chang, was a matter-of-fact exchange that began somewhat warily and warmed to a casual stroll, more of a display of camaraderie than red-hot passion. Violist Sergio Munoz Leiva gamely tackled the knotty demands for extended technique throughout the short, sharp phrasing of Barbara Pentland’s solo Variations for Viola. And the trio of pianist Qu Xi, cellist Raphael Boden and flutist Audrey Emata emulated the alternately airy and otherworldly plucked, Asian-tinged pastoral phrasing of the Zhuang piece.

This week’s programming concludes with a big blowout at Alice Tully Hall this Friday, Jan 31 at 7:30 PM featuring works by Betsy Jolas, Grażyna Bacewicz, Ethel Smyth, Thea Musgrave and Sofia Gubaidulina with Raphael Vogl at the organ along with the Juilliard ensemble. Free tickets are currently available at the box office there.

January 28, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment