Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

A Great Start to the New Year

by sarah - January 11th, 2017

We are excited to spread the word on great concerts featuring women composers in the coming days from winners of WPA Performance Grants!  We are especially excited that these two ensembles are giving voice to historic composers who are no longer able to advocate for their own works.

The Chamber Orchestra of the Springs, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is including Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Overture in C in a concert entitled, “Unfinished Romantic” that will be heard on January 14 & 15.  Tickets and more information, including excellent program notes by Mark Arnest about the extraordinary opportunities and challenges that Hensel faced during her composing career, can be found here.  Those lucky enough to attend will also be treated to a pre-concert lecture with Dr. Tania Z. Cronin of Colorado College.  Get a preview of this excellent work as performed by The Women’s Philharmonic below:

 

 

Also this weekend (January 14 & 15) the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra of Boulder, Colorado, will be performing the rarely heard Concerto for Horn and Violin by Dame Ethel Smyth.  The concert program is titled “Brahms and His World”.  The inclusion of Smyth’s work is especially appropriate considering the influence of Brahms, and other German composers, is very apparent throughout Smyth’s compositional style.  There is also an opportunity to meet the soloists, Jennifer Frautschi and Eric Ruske, at an event on January 13 – what a fabulous opportunity to learn more about the musician’s connection to the work!  Find out more information and order tickets here.  Get a taste for this excellent work below:

 

Congratulations to these two winners – and kudos to your excellent programming!

 

Monday Link Round Up: December 5, 2016

by sarah - December 5th, 2016

News to start your week!

On December 1 the Met Opera performed  L’Amour de Loin by Kaija Saariaho.  This historic Met premiere marked only the second time a work by a woman composer has been heard at the institution – the last being over a century ago.  Many great stories and conversations have already come out of this event, and I’m sure there are more to come!  Here are some highlights.

David Patrick Stearns has a review on WQXR.

New Music Box has a profile of Saariaho’s career that led to having her work heard in one of the greatest opera venues in the world.

NPR had a conversation with Saariaho on Weekend Edition Saturday – read online, or listen below:

The news of the premiere has also created a spotlight on other women composers.  Even MentalFloss has a profile of Ethel Smyth – the first woman composer to have her work performed at the Met, in 1903.  And Alice Gregory of The New York Times has a woman-only history of classical music that is a good start (though rather abbreviated) history of the work of women in music.  But, we need to start somewhere, right?

For more on contemporary women’s voices, have a listen to BBC Radio 3’s Inspiring Women in Music series – and a conversation with composer Nicola LeFanu.

Finally, Gramophone Magazine notes the value of diverse music – but also the significant lack of recordings of works by women composers.  There are recordings out there – though not always still commercially available (and who shops used CD stores anymore?)  But this speaks to a wider problem of encouraging contemporary performers to record historic and contemporary works by women composers.

What did we miss?  What are you reading?  Leave a link and let us know!

Choral Work by Ethel Smyth in U.S. Premiere—May 14-1

by Liane Curtis - May 12th, 2016

UPDATE: Read a review of the “The Prison”s American debut.

While composer Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) has some name recognition, one of her most important works, the concert-length cantata “The Prison”, has never been performed in the U.S.. An amazing NYC- choir, Cantori, will perform the work May 14 & 15.  Please help to spread the word!!

Smyth is beginning to achieve her deserved  acclaim for her music, acclaim that was denied in her lifetime and the decades following.  High-profile performances of her monumental works has brought about this sea-change, including last summer’s U.S.  premiere staged performance of her great opera, “The Wreckers,” and the  New York premiere of Smyth’s Mass (in Carnegie Hall) in 2013.  We are thrilled that this long-overdue performance of “The Prison” will be offered by this outstanding choral ensemble, Cantori, directed by Mark Shapiro (who led the 2013 Mass performance).   Composed in 1930, and based on a text by Smyth’s dear friend and lover, Henry Brewster, the work is a dialogue between a prisoner and his soul, portrayed by soprano and baritone soloists.   Smyth chose this phrase as a motto for the work:  “I am striving to release that which is divine within us, and to merge it in the universally divine.”

Brewster had died in 1908, and one of Smyth’s goals in setting his words to music, was to bring his writing to the attention of a wider audience.  The text is drawn from his philosophical book “The Prison”  and the phrase quoted above is by the Greek philosopher Plotinus.  Smyth underscores this connection with ancient Greece by quoting two Greek melodic fragments which had only recently been deciphered.  Seeking to avoid the religious associations of the genres of cantata or oratorio,  Smyth labelled the work as a “Symphony.”  Yet some authors have compared it to the genre of opera, since it includes dramatic elements,  including the dialogue by the two soloists, the active role by the chorus, and vivid, atmospheric instrumental tone-poems, along the lines of the ones that she wrote for “The Wreckers.”  smyth

While other works by Smyth have been recorded, “The Prison” has escaped attention so far.  How is it that this crowning work by this well-known composer has not previously been performed in the U.S.?   Is it because audiences and ensembles prefer the more light-weight fare, or the repetition of familiar warhorses?  We hope that this performance will offer a thoughtful and significant alternative that will be recognized and taken up soon by more ensembles.

 

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.

 

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”