Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

Kaija Saariaho: A Primer

by SMBrown - March 31, 2014

Though now hailed as one of the greatest Finnish composers of her generation, Kaija Saariaho readily recalls a time at the Sibelius Academy when male teachers balked at teaching a “pretty girl,” claiming it was a waste of their time.

But Saariaho, who as a child would ask her mother to “turn off” the music she perpetually heard in her head so she could sleep at night, stubbornly persevered as the only woman in composition classes.  Flash forward some 25 years to the dawn of a new century.   The New York Times dubbed her opera’s newest rock star after the triumphant 2000 Salzburg Festival premiere of her first opera L’Amour de Loin, directed by Peter Sellars and starring Dawn Upshaw.


Saariaho took a somewhat unlikely path to that point, as much of her pre-millennial catalogue was comprised of timbre-rich chamber orchestrations that combined live music by and electronics.  Influenced early in her studies by post-serialism, she ultimately found it too restrictive and turned to the French spectralists for inspiration for her dreamy sonic imagings.

As The Guardian‘s Tom Service wrote, “To journey into Saariaho’s music is to be confronted with the darkest and most dazzling dimensions of your subconscious, and glimpses of the existential journeys she has made to find these pieces.”  Nymphéa (1987), commissioned by Lincoln Center and premiered by the Kronos Quartet and Petals (1988), for cello and electronics, are prime examples of this spectral period.  The latter can be downloaded for free here.

Boosted by a spate of commissions, Saariaho’s work began to appear more frequently in concert halls and with some regularity on recordings in the early 1990s.  She began working with major artists and groups, such as Gidon Kremer (Graal Théâtre), the Finnish National Ballet (The Earth) and the aforementioned Upshaw (Château de L’âme).

By the late 1990s Saariaho expanded beyond electronics, often writing solely for acoustic instruments, and focusing increasingly on melody. And she returned to an earlier calling, the visual arts, with her renewed focus on staged, theatrical events, saying “I always imagined music through light.  My music is all about color and light, and this is what led me to the stage.”  The Opera National de Paris commissioned a second opera, Adriana Mater (2006) and a third opera, Émilie, based on the life and writings of mathematician and physicist Émilie du Châtelet premiered in France in 2010.

In November of 2013 Saariaho delivered a speech at McGill University about what she perceived as a halt in the progress women had made since her fraught early professional years, lamenting that “today, 30 years after my own battles, young women still have to experience much the same everyday discrimination I went through.”

Below is an excerpt from L’Amour de Loin, featuring soprano Upshaw, that propelled Saariaho’s ‘overnight’ success.


Tania León

by sarah - March 31, 2014

Tania León (b. 1943) is a Cuban born composer and conductor.  She began studying piano at the age of four and went on to complete a Bachelor’s Degree at the Alfredo Peyrellade Conservatory and a Master’s Degree from National Conservatory.  She settled in New York in 1967 and continued her studies at New York University.

She was a founding member and the first musical director of Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem, instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series, and served as the Latin America Music Advisor to the American Composers Orchestra.

León’s careers as composer and conductor have gone hand in hand, performing and being commissioned internationally.  Her works are generally large scale, including several works  for dance and an opera, as well as many pieces for chamber orchestra.


Here is In Motion

Women and Music Festival: Eastman Community Music School

by Liane Curtis - March 30, 2014

The first of three Festival concerts on Saturday, March 29, was performed by students of the Eastman Community Music School.  Boys and girls performed works composed by women, and four girls performed really lovely pieces that they had written themselves.  The Lowry Hall was the setting, and the young performers did an excellent job at not being distracted by the people passing through, some of whom stopped to listen to the very engaging program.

Chair of the Piano Department, Howard Spindler, the very genial host, observed that this was the first time that there were composers among the students.  Since the Community Music School has hosted a concert for their students as part of the festival for most its 10 years, it may well be that the festival itself is having an influence in generating young composers.

My favorites were: Rondo-Allegro from the Harp Sonata Op. 2, by Sophia Dussek (1775-1847), performed by Joanna Jin.  Sophia Dussek is name I’ve seen in history books so it was a real treat to hear her music brought to life.  The youngest composer, Madison Sutherland, age 10, played a set of three piano pieces that were captivating and imaginative. These pieces would be great additions to the repertoire for young piano students. And Annie Jacobs-Perkins (a high school senior) played a searching, introspective solo on the cello. While slow in tempo, it was technically demanding, going up into a very high register and employing a lot of double stops. This piece too I could imagine becoming a valuable addition to the cello repertoire (although I do think it needs a title more descriptive than “Sonata”).

This was a fascinating concert, and it emphasized that the festival’s reach is broad and diverse.  Festival organizer Sylvie Beaudette is to be applauded for bringing it all together.

Dana Suesse: Musician, Composer, and Lyricist

by sarah - March 29, 2014

Dana Suesse (1909-1987), born in Kansas City, Montana, was a child vaudeville star who eventually left the circuit and moved to New York with her mother when she was just seventeen.  There she began to compose larger works and made a name for herself.  Among her more famous compositions are “My Silent Love” and “You Ought To Be in Pictures.”

She studied piano and composition formally, including with Nadia Boulanger.  She was heavily commissioned, published, and performed in her time.  Throughout her career she was recognized widely for her talent and achievements, and was even invited to the White House by FDR.  Suesse composed until her death, and her works are still be remembered today.  Today exactly, in fact, as her Concerto in Three Rhythms (1933) was performed at the Women in Music Festival in Rochester.

Here is a great archival recording of Suesse performing Jazz Nocture (which later became “My Silent Love”):

And here is a taste of the piece heard in Rochester today:


Women in Music Festival: All-Higdon Concert, March 28

by Liane Curtis - March 29, 2014

Sorry to have gotten behind in the blogging!  Here is last night’s concert, March 28.

I love Jennifer Higdon’s music.  BUT I did have some trepidation that a whole concert of her music might be a bit much. My concern was needless.  The evening was completely engaging, filled with emotions spanning joyful to transcendent. In fact I’m eager to hear more Higdon tomorrow, which I will do!

The details about the performers can be seen in the full program.  Once I get caught up I will go back and insert them in the blog….

Splendid Wood, a work for three marimbas and six players, began the program.  Hatch Recital Hall was a striking setting for this since the hall itself displays beautiful wood in its walls, stage and seating.  But Higdon’s wood was that of the marimbas themselves.  There was definitely visual drama in having three marimbas played by six musicians, and also a conductor.  Adding to the drama was the spatial effect of the sound moving around the room and watching the cascades of gestures flow through the twelve arms of the six musicians.

The beginning was energetic, a moto perpetuo, invigorated with rushing ascending figures.  The middle section was gentler, with smoother patterns and tremolos, and some interjections.  The final section returned to an even more energetic level with frantic exchanges of 16th-note melodic fragments, building to a crashing forte fortissimo, followed by a sudden hush and then building up again. Some shifts of the total center ratcheted up the level of the drama; as in the case of so many of Higdon’s works the ending was breathtaking.  These very impressive musicians were the Eastman Chamber Percussion Ensemble.

Next was String Poetic, a set of five movements for violin and piano.  Higdon’s own brief program notes (a few lines for each movement) are in themselves compressed poetry.  After all,

rise above, in jagged climb …
climb, arise, in jagged run …

is iambic heptameter, isn’t it?  (Higdon’s full program notes, and audio clips for many of her pieces are available here on her web site.)  This is a beautiful idea although I do think only  the composer can get away with writing program notes in the form of poetry—if someone else did it might be using one art form to distract from another. “Jagged Climb” (1) begins with percussive use of the piano (dampening the strings with one hand while the other hand plays); together with the resonance, the effect was ghostly, and the violin did indeed climb jaggedly, in swirling ascending gestures.  (2) “Nocturne,” begins with a simple repeated note in the violin that builds intensity and then expands into a poignant melody, warmed by the chordal harmony of the piano which eventually also adds a countermelody; it is lyrical and heartfelt.

The third movement, “Blue Hills,” begins with eerie muffled notes on the piano (again muted by one hand). The melody meanders in an arc but then fills out, building to a high point, and supported by luscious chordal parallelisms, and expansive gestures built on fourths. The percussive notes return, this time doubled by the violin in pizzicato.  The result is haunting and atmospheric.  “Maze” begins with a triple meter pattern with pulsing off beats; it coursed along exhilaratingly.  While the musicians were excellent overall, I thought this movement might have been a bit more lighthearted, perhaps even frisky. The “Climb Jagged” is a varied return of (1), leaving us gasping.  Where ever we were, it was quite a journey.

The Piano Trio of 2003 is inspired by two colors, and is in two movements. Can music convey colors? Higdon certainly convinced us of this.  “Pale Yellow” was evocative and peaceful, triadic cords enriched with extra tones. “Fiery Red” was filled with racing motives chasing each other in the strings, and syncopations of pizzicato chords and ostinati.  This was an impressive piece that reminded me at times of Shostakovich.

Following a short intermission a woodwind quintet performed Autumn Music (1995). This piece was inspired by Samuel Barbers iconic Summer Music.  It begins with smooth sliding chords with interjections followed by overlapping ascending figures that gradually slow and lose momentum. The full-throated sound of the bass clarinet evokes a poignant melancholy. Using repeating melodic phrases, the texture thickens as lines are built on top of each other.  Although it’s a woodwind quintet there actually seven instruments since the clarinetist doubles on bass clarinet and the oboe player is also asked to play English horn. Thus Higdon gets a very wide range of sound from the musicians she uses.

“Reel Time,” a movement from Higdon’s string quartet Southern Harmony was next, and it was a “reel” delight.  Comparisons to Copland’s “Hoedown” are unavoidable, but surely that’ not a bad thing.  There was lots of fun fiddling and double-stops using open strings, slides, vigorous unison chords and other folk gestures combined, performed with great gusto, for an energizing and upbeat effect.  I wanted to hear the rest of this piece!

Secret and Glass Gardens, for solo piano, expands a simple melodic idea into lush chordal parallelisms.  With the sensuality of impressionist textures, and rich arpegiation, it builds with emotional power.  This was a revelatory work, played with great conviction.

Finally was the saxophone quartet, Short Stories.  We heard four of the original six movements, performed superbly by the graceful musicians.  “Lullaby” had smooth running figures; although the baritone sax is not the instrument one expects to be featured in a lullaby, I’m sure that incongruity (or irony) was intended.   The aptly titled “Splash” has swirling gestures and ascending runs, and bold splashes by all 4 players.  The dark “Coyote Nights” began with a somber ostinato, with faster poignant gestures emerging over it.  Then all four instruments moved together, in a kind of vigorous chorale.  “Stomp and Dance” began with stray fragments of rhythms that gradually coalesced into an infectious 4/4 beat, followed by a section of percussive slap tonguing and key clicking, which served as an underpinning of melody, again, emerging  first in fragments.  Higdon delights in building remarkable constructions and in letting us also see how they come together—revealing to us the ingredients and how they fit.  We as listeners are invited into the process, and it always delights.


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