Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

Amy Beach at Toronto Summer Music

by sarah - July 31st, 2015

There will be a great treat tonight for classical music lovers attending the Toronto Summer Music Festival – a performance of Amy Beach’s Piano Quintet in F-Sharp Minor, op. 67. Tickets and more information about the concert this evening is available here.

This rarely heard work is a gem from Beach’s oeuvre. Musicologist Jane Troy Johnson says this about the work:

Beach premiered her only Piano Quintet in 1909. Critics found it “truly modern” and “distinctly rhapsodic … in the fashion of our time.” They also politely suggested that the piano sometimes overwhelmed the strings. (She was, after all, showcasing herself!) The equality of the parts indeed is undermined by so much unison string playing against the piano’s Liszt-like figurations and powerful octaves and tremolos, as heard, for example, in the opening and closing of the work. But throughout, thematic material is distributed, rather soloistically, to all players. In the first movement, after the slow introduction, the first violin presents the first, Brahms-tinted theme and the piano the second in sonata form with development and recapitulation. The strings in the second movement, in ternary form, have more independence, both in introducing and sharing the melodic material. After a lengthy, if fast, introduction, the last movement’s first theme is presented by the violin and the second theme, more slowly, by the viola. There is even a brief fugal treatment of the first theme before the return of the Adagio introduction of the first movement. Typical of Beach’s style, all movements have distinct sections and frequent changes in meter, tempos, and keys. The mercurially chromatic harmonies suggest another Lisztian influence.

A scanned copy of the original manuscript is available in the public domain – a treat to see and study! If you aren’t able to attend the performance tonight, why not follow along as you enjoy this recording of this great piece:

Tansey Davies Interview

by sarah - July 30th, 2015

photo credit Rikard Österlund

British composer Tansey Davies, who will have a new work performed at the BBC Proms this year, was interviewed by Sinfini Music.

Davies work is an eclectic mix of traditional and contemporary approaches to music, and has received much well-deserved attention in recent years.  In addition to the work being heard at the Proms in August, Davies opera, Between Worlds, was recently premiered by the English National Opera.

The interview discusses her beginnings, inspiration, and how she works – and does not discuss the “woman composer” question!  Read her full responses to Sinfini Music’s 10 Questions here.

For people new to her work, Davies recommends starting with neon:



Featured Guest Blogger: Amy Zigler reviews “The Wreckers”

by Liane Curtis - July 29th, 2015

    Dr. Amy Zigler is Visiting AssistAmy Ziglerant Professor of Music at Salem College in Winston-Salem, NC.  She specializes in music of the 19th and 20th centuries, with a focus on the cultural study of chamber music, the social history of music in Germany and Great Britain, and the study of gender and sexuality in music. She holds a doctorate in Musicology from the University of Florida; her dissertation explored the chamber works of Dame Ethel Smyth. Dr. Zigler is an active member of American Musicological Society, College Music Society, and North American British Music Studies Association.  As a pianist, Dr. Zigler performs as a soloist and collaborative artist, and has performed in Germany, Puerto Rico and across the United States. 


On Sunday July 26 I had the pleasure of attending Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers, presented by Bard College’s SummerScape series. Under the direction of Maestro Leon Botstein, soloists and chorus joined the American Symphony in reviving this neglected work. Not only were the title roles sung with conviction, profundity, and insight, but the chorus was powerfully and expertly performed. Their performances were lifted by the exceptional playing of the American Symphony, whose performance brought the opera to life.

The Wreckers is British composer Ethel Smyth’s third opera, composed between 1902 and 1904 and first performed in Leipzig in 1906, followed by a London performance in 1909. The work is a collaboration between Smyth and French-American philosopher Henry Brewster (1850-1908). Inspired by trips to Cornwall’s jagged coast, Smyth created the opera by sending scene and plot ideas to Brewster and receiving dramatic text in return. Unfortunately, Brewster wrote the original libretto in French, which Smyth had translated to German for the premiere and then superimposed English text over the German manuscripts for the London premiere. Consequently, the biggest fault of the work is that, at times, the melody and text seem ill-suited for each other. Luckily, these moments are rare and do not detract from the overall composition or performance.

Unlike many historical operas performed today, The Wreckers is a thought-provoking tale with moral lessons for our own time. As Maestro Botstein astutely pointed out in his program notes, it is a story that questions the laws and morality of a society that believed itself justified in its actions because it represented the will of God. The ‘betrayers’ to the community turn out to be the only ones who believe murder is wrong and are willing to die (not kill) for their beliefs.

The Wreckers is set in 18th century England on the cliffs of Cornwall, a jagged seashore with treacherous waterways. An isolated religious community is led by Pascoe (played by baritone Louis Otey), their minister and moral authority. The story implies that for many generations, this community has put out the beacons on the shore, thus causing ships to crash. The community members – men, women, and children – then proceed to pillage and plunder the wreckage in order to survive. They justify their actions because they are God’s Chosen Ones and their deeds are done in His name. While most of the community does not question Pascoe or their livelihood, a few do. Pascoe’s young wife Thirza (played by mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner) refuses to participate in either “wrecking” or worshipping and says from the beginning that she disagrees with their actions. Mark (played by tenor Neal Cooper) is a fisherman in the village who pretends to go along with the community, but he has been secretly lighting beacons and having an affair with Thirza. The true catalyst for this love triangle and the broader plot, however, is Avis (played by soprano Sky Ingram), a young woman and the jilted former lover of Mark. She single-handedly raises suspicion about a traitor in the community, exposes Mark and Thirza’s affair, and reveals them to be the true betrayers to the community. Bucking traditional operatic convention, Smyth has switched the expected moral roles of the soprano and mezzo-soprano; Avis, the soprano, is a morally corrupt and conniving character, while Thirza, the mezzo-soprano, is the morally true heroine who dies for her love and her beliefs.

The chorus in this performance is deserving of its own praise. Smyth structured the opera in such a way that the chorus as community plays a prominent role in the narrative of the story as well as the anchor for most of the recitatives and arias. The first and third acts are dominated by the chorus, and the energy, ferocity, and musical talent of this group of individuals established the chorus as a main character. Whether singing their call to arms, “Wreckers, awake!” or any number of hymn-like numbers and sea chanties, the chorus brought out the gusto in Smyth’s music and performed it with sincerity. (the Chorus Master is James Bagwell).

Like her contemporaries Debussy, Strauss, and Puccini, Smyth emphasizes the through-composed nature of the opera, with songs woven into the ongoing action and leitmotivs returning to serve as clues to the audience and providing further commentary on the story.  This avoidance of literal strophic repetition propels the narrative forward in a way that is exciting even for modern audiences. Musically, she does draw upon her predecessors and contemporaries, but as Botstein noted in the pre-concert talk, Smyth “revels in that eclecticism and makes it her own.” The work contains expert English choral writing, imaginative orchestrations, and at times highly chromatic harmonies, yet it succeeds in presenting a cohesive musical work that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Performances of the work continue through August 2nd at Bard College’s Fisher Performing Arts Center. I highly encourage all readers to see this monumental work. Maestro Botstein and the American Symphony have done much to bring attention to Smyth’s music, but like all musical works it must be heard (and in this case seen) to be appreciated.


Monday Link Roundup: July 27, 2015

by sarah - July 27th, 2015

Start your week right by getting caught up on the news:

WPA President Liane Curtis was able to attend a performance of Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers at Bard Summerscape.  Read her review here.

And, in case you missed it, listen to the story about The Wreckers broadcast on NPR’s All Things Considered.

Conductor Susanna Mälkki, who will soon be taking over the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, and is appear at The Proms this week, was profiled by The Guardian.

Last week we shared the listing of all of the works by women being performed during the 2015 Proms in London.  Be sure to catch the recording of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group performing works by Joanna Lee, Betsy Jolas, and Shiori Usui and before it expires – listen here.




The Wreckers: An Opera for our Time

by Liane Curtis - July 23rd, 2015

Ethel Smyth’s “The Wreckers” (1906) will receive its’ first staged US performance Friday night (July 24) at Bard Summerscape (total of 5 performances).  NPR’s All Things Considered aired a feature (available here)  about this historic performance (Musicologist Elizabeth Wood and Music Director Leon Botstein were interviewed).

The first sentence of Music Director Leon Bottstein’s program note is certainly one to invite debate:  “It is hard to imagine an opera whose argument is more pertinent to our times than Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers.”   Botstein continues

 “…The human predicaments that evolve on stage transcend the personal, and the music turns the spectacle of opera into an experience of ethical and political recognition that contests the confines of narrow aesthetic criteria.”

The plot concerns villagers whose belief in themselves as appointed by God to do his work, leads them to sanctify their own habitual practice of murder and theft  (and of course there is love interest as well, intersecting triangles…).  BTW, at the bottom of the page with the program note is a link for the entire libretto.

Botstein (in the note) makes a strong case for “The Wreckers” as  both a work of political and philosophical significance and also as an artistic triumph, using a wide palette of musical approaches to convey the layers of meaning in powerful and convincing ways. Let’s hope the performance supports that assertion! I am inclined to think it will — musically it is a compelling piece (the 1994 performance at London’s Proms was released as a commercial recording; I have been told the Bard performance will also be made available on MP3 format).  The Summerscape webpage includes three short videos about the production, including this insightful one with the Producer Thaddeus Strassberger and Bottstein, and this exciting one with scenes from rehearsals.

Botstein’s commitment to Smyth’s opera (“The Wreckers” is her most monumental of her six works in that genre) is impressive: he conducted a concert performance of the work in New York City in 2007.   Here’s wishing this exciting premiere great success!

And here is the evocative Prelude to Act II, “On the Cliffs of Cornwall”

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