Close Encounters’ Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman: Footnotes to Forces

Women Composers HS6-8-176:00 pm • Saturday, June 10th 2017
Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center • Great Barrington, MA

Anonymous may have been a woman composer. Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Maria Theresia von Paradis, Ethel Smyth, Lili Boulanger, Amy Beach, Marianna Martinez, and Augusta Holmes (a precursor to Edith Piaf with 120-some songs!) move from footnotes to forces in the annals of classical music as women gain the vote and their artistic voices.” 

This is the opening sentence in the promotional material for the upcoming concert being presented by Close Encounters With Music this Saturday at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. As the issue of “women composers” has been gnawing at me for a bit, it caught my eye.

What caught my ear on this was a woman’s reaction to last Saturday evening’s performance of Reena Esmail’s Clarinet Concerto by Shankar Tucker and the Albany Symphony Orchestra in the ASO’s American Music Festival’s culminating concert. It was the last selection on the first half of the concert. As the piece ended, the audience applauded with enthusiasm indicating a favorable reception of Esmail’s work and its performance. As the lights came up for the intermission, I became aware of a woman in the row right behind me. She was clearly overcome with what she had just heard and was fighting tears … of what I was not sure, until she said, choking her emotions back:

It’s written by “HER.” Not “him!”

This resonated with me immediately as there is a seemingly increased buzz about “women composers” lately. As many of the major orchestras rolled out their announcements of their coming 2017-18 season, they were being taken to task for under-representing the female composer. Articles on women composers have begun to surface again via the Internet, and new ones are being written.

When not writing for Hudson Sounds, I work with two ensembles which are all-female duos. One is a harp duo. The other is a piano and marimba duo. Neither are common instrumental configu- rations, so there is little original repertoire (by men or women). Thus, quite a bit of arranging of previously written works is being done, and in their programming both ensembles talk about and actively commission new works. Across the board, these players are recognizing an importance in being sure women composers have opportunity. This is a given and part of almost every conversation around programming.

I’ve wanted to write about all of this. Although I know I have something to say, I haven’t figured what exactly I want to say… yet. It’s a complex issue. There are clearly active female composers, historically and living today, who are not being given performance opportunity. And like many social issues of this nature, there are no easy answers to pluck out of the air.

In preparation for writing about the Albany Symphony’s American Music Festival that took place last week, I had a long phone conversation with Indian-American composer Reena Esmail about being a woman composer. We talked about the fact that Reena is brown and female. Something that tends to be a double whammy in the world of the white male dominated classical music world. We talked about a variety of experiences that have had roots in either sexism and/or racism. We talked about how to change perceptions. We talked about the positives and negatives about women composers festivals and flipping it by “framing” the presentation with a  “men composers festivals.” Hmmm…. At the end of the day, I was not able to clarify enough in my own mind what I’d like to say about all of this. In fact, Reena gave me more to think about.

However, I am able to share the reaction of this woman to Reena Esmail’s Clarinet Concerto world premiere performance last Saturday. With all the “stuff” in my head about women composers, I was forward enough to speak with this audience member at the end of the concert about her audible and visible reaction. It turns out this Albany Symphony concert provided this woman her first experience of a performance by a woman composer. Surprising to me as David Alan Miller is actually pretty good about representing women in his Albany Symphony programming when one looks at the overall picture. There are women composers such as Mary Jane Leach, Hilary Tann, Joan Tower, and Rain Worthington who live in the Greater Capital/Hudson Valley region whose works have been performed “locally.” But I forget that I’m down the rabbit hole in my daily life. So, I asked this woman what brought her to this ASO concert.

It turns out her daughter, a high school student, is very interested in music and pursuing a career in music and composition. (Unfortunately her daughter was unable to attend the concert as she had a school function in which she was playing an important part.) As this woman—mother—explained to me Reena’s piece finally offered her the first-hand opportunity to experience a real living example of what her daughter could be doing. It was up close and very personal. As she exclaimed, she got to hear an orchestra perform a substantial piece of music that was written “by HER. Not by “him!” An important moment for this woman and her daughter’s future.

I relate all of this as a long backdrop to this Saturday’s concert presented by Close Encounters With Music (CEWM) curated by its artistic director and cellist Yeuda Hanani. Choosing to springboard off the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage, Hanani brings attention to the creative achievements of female composers in a program that blends the young, established and historic together.

The centerpiece of the concert is a newly commissioned “quilt,” stitching miniatures by Thea Musgrave, Tamar Muskal, and Judith Lang Zaimont, musical portraits of suffragettes and other ladies of valor—Ethel Smyth, Emma Lazarus, and Sojourner Truth—who advanced the causes of women and everyone else with their steadfastness, ingenuity and idealism:

Binding these works is Joan Towers Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 6 (for piano) and “Remember the Ladies” from Patricia Leonard’s opera My Dearest Friend, based on the correspondence between Abigail Adams and President John Adams.

The program has Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn making cameo appearances, but brings into focus the genius of women composers who are before our time:

  • Marianna Martinez (1744-1812) — Sonata in A Major
  • Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824) — Sicilienne
  • Clara Schumann (1819-1896) — Two Romances for Piano and Violin
  • Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) — Schöner und schöner schmückt  (Italienne)
  • Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) — On the Wings of Song
  • Robert Schumann (1810-1856) — Widmung
  • Augusta Holmès (1847-1903) — La Chatte Blanche
  • Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) — Romance for Violin and Piano Op. 23 and Sketches, Op. 15 “Fireflies” for Piano
  • Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) — D’un matin de printemps for Violin and Piano
  • Robert Schumann —  Bilder aus dem Osten, Op. 66: No. 1 “Lebhaft”
    Am Springbrunnen Op. 85 No. 9
  • Clara Schumann — March in E-flat Major

The performers for this Close Encounters With Music program are:

  • Danielle Talamantes, soprano
  • Peter Zazofsky, violin
  • Yehuda Hanani, ‘cello
  • Renana Gutman and Ieva Jokubaviciute, piano

Whether it’s before or after attending this concert, I encourage you to take a listen to WMHT’s Rob Brown’s chat with composer Judith Lang Zaimont about her involvement in this CEWM “Quilt,” her work, and being a female composer. (Just click the image below to listen via SoundCloud). And, if you aren’t able to attend, take a listen anyway. It’s engaging, enlightening, and interesting. Happy musicking this weekend!

 For tickets to Saturday’s concert, contact the Mahaiwe PAC Box Office

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