Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

Fanny Hensel at the Ballet

by Liane Curtis - October 22nd, 2016

“Fanny for ballet!!” read the text message. I blinked and did a double-take at the accompanying photo. Indeed, selections of Fanny Hensel’s “Das Jahr” — The Year — a cycle of piano pieces composed in 1841, were the music for a new ballet, “Her Notes,” chorographed by Jessica Lang and being premiered by the American Ballet Theatre in New York City.

img_7986 How exciting to think of Hensel’s powerful piano music being used as the basis of an expressive dance work.  In a video about the making of “Her Notes,” Lang explains “when I hear music, I see movement, and when I heard this piece “The Year” [Das Jahr] it inspired a very classical reaction in my mind … and I thought it would be great for ballet, and it would be the perfect piece for American Ballet Theatre.”

Fanny Hensel (1805-1847) is perhaps still best known as the sister of Felix Mendelssohn, but increasingly called by the name she preferred, her married name.  In creating “Das Jahr” she collaborated with her husband, Wilhelm Hensel, a painter and artist, in creating a multimedia work illustrating the months of a year: a special year of travel, discovery and reflection.  The surviving manuscript fair copy is a fascinating visual work of art, with each of the pieces copied onto different colors of paper, and illustrated with detailed drawings by her husband and framed with stanzas of poetry.  This completely original concept, and the overall power of the work, mark Fanny Hensel as a major figure of the 19th century.  Yet the piece was unknown and unpublished until 1989.  [illustration: January from Das Jahr.  The music was published by Furore in Germany, who also offer a facsimile of the manuscript version.]Das Jahr-January

Jessica Lang uses five of the movements of the cycle in the ballet “Her Notes,” the pensive January, the spritely February (as effervescent as Fanny’s brother’s “Midsummer-night’s Dream Overture), then June, a wistful heartfelt  song,– a “song without words,” the genre she and her brother pioneered. Finally December—a cascading flurry of activity before the introduction of the somber hymn, “Von Himmel hoch” ( From Heaven on High), which begins meditatively, but then becomes more emphatic and bold.   It is this hymn section we see being danced to in the video about the making of “Her Notes.”  And finally, with the Postlude, the return to inward, thoughtful reflection, and a sense of resolution.

An article in the Wall Street Journal notes ballet’s struggle “with a lack of diversity and a lack of female choreographers.”  Lang was attracted to the music of “Das Jahr,” but also the resonances of Fanny’s struggle, to overcome the opposition of first her father, and then her brother, to her taking her composing seriously, have particular meaning for any brilliant and hardworking female artist seeking to make inroads in a male-dominated profession.jessica-lang

To me as an observer of women composers who,  even in the case of a familiar name like Fanny (Mendelssohn) Hensel, still receive so much less recognition than they deserve, find this incorporation of her music into another major art-work as a great step forward, a real landmark of progress.  After all, there is the iconic Misty Copeland  dancing to Fanny’s music — that’s exposure and recognition of another level!  OK, I’ll admit that I don’t follow dance at all, but I know about Copeland from hearing her on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” — so that is really iconic!

So while we still hope to have more performances of Hensel’s music including orchestra — her Overture, her cantatas and oratorios — here is a real celebration of her music on another (and unexpected) great stage.

And here is Das Jahr in its entirety, performed by (pianist) Sarah Rothenburg.

Celebrating New Music and Marin Alsop at Cabrillo

by sarah - July 27th, 2016


The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music begins on July 31.  This annual event is always worth anticipating and hugely rewarding – but this year is particularly special as it is Marin Alsop’s last at the helm.  Alsop is stepping down after 25 years as artistic director and leading the festival to ever new and exciting heights.

The 2016 Festival includes the work of two well-recognized and highly admired contemporary women: Jennifer Higdon and Anna Clyne.

Higdon’s Violin Concerto will receive its West Cost premiere on August 12.  Justin Bruns will be soloist.  The concerto, which was written for Hilary Hahn, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music.  Read the program notes online, and get a sample of the work, performed by Hahn, below:

Anna Clyne’s  symphonic ballet, RIFT, will receive its World Premiere on the opening night of the Alsop’s final season.  The work, a commission by the Festival, also received a 2015 WPA Performance Grant.  The five movement piece was created in partnership with choreographer  Kitty McNamee  and will feature the Hysterica Dance Company.  Learn more below:


What amazing end to a Alsop’s tenure at Cabrillo!  Be sure to explore the Cabrillo website for more information about the talks, concerts, and workshops that will take place in the coming days!

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.


Music You Shouldn’t Miss

by sarah - April 15th, 2016

We are quickly approaching the end of the 2015-2016 concert season – but that hasn’t slowed down the pace of excellent concerts happening across the country.  This weekend two winners of WPA Performance Grants will present works by women.


WSOOn Saturday and Sunday the Williamsburg Symphonia will present Florence Price’s Symphony No. 3.  We are thrilled that this historic piece is being performed, and how appropriate that it will be heard just days after Price’s birthday!  This important work was recorded by The Women’s Philharmonic with Apo Hsu conducting and is available for sale in the WPA shop.

Learn more about the concert, the ensemble, and conductor Janna Hymes here, and be sure to learn more about this important works in the concert’s program notes which are available online.  And if you can’t make it to the concert, have a listen below:


429111_465872633477042_1450887789_n-300x300On Sunday, April 17, the Georgia Tech Symphony Orchestra will perform a the world premiere of Fluorescence of Moss by Hsin-Lei Chen, a rising Taiwanese composer.  This is one of several GTSO commissions that will receive premieres.  Learn more about the concert here.

Congratulations to both ensembles!



“Figaro Gets a Divorce” — new opera a triumph in Wales!

by Liane Curtis - April 6th, 2016

Composer Elena Langer has achieved a brilliant success as she “completes” the Figaro “trilogy” for Welsh National Opera.  Complementing Mozart’s “Marriage” and Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” Langer’s “Figaro Gets a Divorce” brings us the beloved characters down the road form the “Marriage”s happy ending, in this opera “which is part comedy, part political thriller.”

If you can get to Wales, the final performance is April 7!  Here is a small taste in  WNO’s official trailer. And here are some excerpts from the critical response, all of which make us hope that “Figaro Gets a Divorce” will be performed again soon!

From The Reviews Hub, by Barbara Michaels

A collaboration between the Russian-born composer Elena Langer and Welsh National Opera’s innovative and artistic (not to mention highly articulate) director David Pountney was always going to be exciting. ….  The time scale has moved on … to a period of revolution in the 1930s, with the looming presence of the secret police …  All good stuff dramatically. …

This is a fearless and innovative operatic piece…. Though described as a comedy and indeed the antics of the characters more than justify this description, this opera has dark undertones .  Langer’s music … represents the restlessness of the era….

From The Telegraph, by Rupert Christiansen — “a modern opera with emotional clout”

The angst of dislocation and dispossession becomes a uniting theme, charged with contemporary resonance, and this soon becomes that rare thing: a modern opera that exerts an immediate emotional impact.

An upcoming young Russian composer based in Britain … Elena Langer must of course take much of the credit: her music is lush and inventive. The vocal lines are gratifyingly expressive, the orchestration colourful  – sometimes excessively so, in its hectic urge to illustrate and emote. But that is a fault on the right side, because it radiates warmth and allows personality to shine through

… A score I want to hear again.

From The Independent, by Steph Power

The ending of Mozart’s near-flawless pre-French revolution opera buffa, The Marriage of Figaro, is classic happy ever after…. But what happens to Beaumarchais’ beloved characters once the honeymoon is over, through the upheavals of 1789 and beyond?

In the third installment of Welsh National Opera’s wonderfully adventurous ‘Figaro Forever’ season, Elena Langer’s Figaro Gets a Divorce   ….  Satirically-edged, dark but ultimately optimistic, Langer’s Divorce proves a brilliant follow-up to Mozart’s sparkling Marriage. 

Crucially, Langer’s opera stands alone and, … shows a rare, genuine affinity for drama and characterisation; the Figaro backstory adds poignancy but is not essential to the tale.

…Yet, like its ‘prequel’, the heart of Divorce is domestic, not political: how do members of a precarious family group cope with external dangers beyond their control? …[In a]  shadow-world reminiscent of Berg, Langer uses delicately intense scoring, lithe with cabaret rhythms and bristling accordion, to convey black humour, terror, ennui and heartache with touching humanity.