Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

Speaking Her Truth: A Discussion with Jessica Rudman and Kendra Preston Leonard

by sarah - April 18th, 2018

We are delighted to share this conversation between Jessica Rudman (JR) and Kendra Preston Leonard (KPL) as they discuss the upcoming Hartford Opera Theater and Hartford Independence Chamber Orchestra’s program “Speaking Her Truth,” which includes Rudman’s micro-opera Trigger, Rudman and Leonard’s song cycle Four Songs for Lady Macbeth, and their opera Marie Curie Learns to Swim.

Trigger is Rudman’s response to an incident in which an abused woman overheard the policemen involved in her case speculating about what she had done to “deserve” being hit. In Four Songs for Lady Macbeth, various figures address the real and fictional life of the famous character from Shakespeare. Marie Curie and her daughter Irene go on a vacation to the seashore in Marie Curie Learns to Swim, where Irene’s swimming lessons awaken Marie’s powerful memories of specific events in her life. 

Composer, Jessica Rudman




March 30, 2018

KPL: Tell me about Trigger: how you learned about the incident, how you decided to set your own text, and what you look for in a performance. 

Kendra Preston Leonard

JR: I was accepted to a program called Opera from Scratch, which is in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and one of the requirements was that when you write a new work for the program, it has to be on a topic relating to Nova Scotia, something of historical or cultural significance. Given time and budgetary restraints, I decided that I was going to write my own text, and I had a bunch of ideas, but some of them had been done before, and for some of them there was just not enough source information available. I was searching for stories of Nova Scotia, thinking I might find a folk tale or something like that, and I came upon this news story where this woman who had been struck by her partner, and she had filed a complaint with the police. Apparently the officer had left her a voicemail and hadn’t hung up, or had accidentally redialed her, and on her voicemail you can hear the officers talking about the case in negative terms, implying that maybe the woman had lied, and one of them asks if she deserved to get hit. 

At first I thought, that’s a horrible thing, and sort of put it aside, but it kept nagging at me and so I decided to use it as the basis for the opera. But I didn’t want to co-opt the victim’s experience, and I didn’t want to put words and feelings into her. So I chose to set the story so that it’s someone like me who encounters this story and has a very, very intense personal reaction. 

KPL: I would hope that everyone who hears it would have a very intense personal reaction to it. 

JR: I know that it’s a difficult piece to watch. It was a difficult piece to write. I wrote the text, and honestly, it probably took me two to three times longer to write the text than the music. When I was writing it, I actually had nightmares. I felt very uncomfortable for the singer and I felt very vulnerable about putting this out there. When I was writing the piece, I talked to the singer I was writing it for, to make sure she was okay with it. And for her, even knowing what she was getting into, the rehearsal process was difficult. It’s not a piece for everybody. 

KPL: I think it’s a really important piece right now, in the climate of #metoo.

JR: It is very socially relevant right now. It’s not intended to be beautiful and to make people want to sing along with it; it’s intended to be difficult and to make audiences listen and think.

KPL: Trigger seems to me to tie in really well with the Four Songs for Lady Macbeth in that both the fictional and real Lady Macbeth was a woman brought up in a culture of violence, where violence is not only expected but accepted, and she has to deal with her role as someone who has to support that. In Shakespeare’s play, she’s expected to do horrific things. 

When I wrote the poems that became the Four Songs, I was thinking a lot of the various film portrayals of Lady Macbeth, and how sometimes she’s powerful and yet at other times her vulnerability shows even before her mad scene. The way you’ve set the texts really brings out those different aspects of her character, even though she’s not speaking at all. I didn’t even realize or think about the fact that I’d written songs for Lady Macbeth but none of them are actually for her to sing until you set them: they’re all songs that someone or something else is singing for her, to her, about her. I had to ask myself, why do I not want to inhabit Lady Macbeth? And I think it’s because she’s already been inhabited by Shakespeare, and so well and so vividly; no one wants to compete with that.

JR: In considering the Four Songs and the other pieces on the program, I was thinking that the cycle was a bit of an outlier because she’s not speaking for herself, but I realized that Trigger is the same thing. It’s a woman thinking about another woman, asking, “Is she going through the same things I am?” and so they do match.

KPL: Especially, for me, the “Cradle Carol for Lady Macbeth,” where the narrator is mourning with her, all of the losses she’s endured. That song is based on the Lady Macbeth of the play: she’s had children who are clearly not present, she’s gone through terrible grief, and the narrator is mourning alongside her. In “Lady, Maid, Invocation,” the narrator is Lady Macbeth’s waiting woman, who is fed up with the sleep-waking and the hand-washing, and thinks, I’m not sure what she did, but somehow she got power, and I want that power too, and maybe I can handle it better than she has and not go mad as part of it. So again, it’s someone watching her—a woman watching another woman and internalizing what she thinks she sees. 

JR: And in Marie Curie Learns to Swim, Irene is an amalgamation of Curie’s two real-life daughters, right? 

KPL: Yes. In the anecdote I read that inspired the libretto, Curie and her daughters Eve and Irene went to the beach for a holiday, and she asked them to teach her to swim. For the purposes of the opera, I combined them into Irene, who, as a scientist herself—she worked alongside Marie for years—could pose some of the questions and problems about their research that I wanted to bring up, that their work with radium would eventually kill both of them. Marie never really believed that it could do that, but Irene knew. 

JR: From what I’ve read, the real Irene was more fully on board, in her belief in radium, than how we see her in the opera.

KPL: She was, but she also did call out her mother on the problems she was realizing were caused by exposure to radium. At first I thought I wanted to have both Eve and Irene both in the opera—more roles for women!—but they would have been small roles, and by combining them into Irene, I could create a larger role for a singer. At one time I wasn’t even sure I wanted to give Pierre a singing role—I had this idea that he could be a non-vocal actor, that he would just walk across the stage with his bicycle, very slowly, looking pale and sad, being a ghost or Marie’s memory. But he was too important in Marie’s life not to give him a big chunk of text. 

JR: One of the things I find interesting is Marie Curie’s affair with Paul Langevin. It struck me because it stands out as—and this is how I set it—this little moment of romanticism that was very different from almost everything else in the opera. I wonder what led to that affair. 

KPL: The way you set it is perfect, because it does stand out as very different from her relationship with Pierre. She loved Pierre, and he pursued her for a long time and they worked together very well and they were happy together, but sometimes I do wonder if that marriage would have lasted their whole lives. Pierre got interested in spiritualism and other metaphysical things, and Marie was not into any of that. Paul Langevin had worked with both Pierre and Marie for a long time, and he and Marie seem to have had a truly blissful relationship. But his wife was angry and jealous and went to the press and threatened to kill herself if he didn’t leave Marie, and eventually he went back to her.

JR: It seems to me that the difference between that relationship and the relationships between Marie and Pierre, and Marie and Irene, is that there was love with Pierre and Irene, but it was through the science—facilitated by the science, communicated through the science—this is what bound them all together. With Paul Langevin, it was less that the love was coming from their mission and their research and their dedication, but a fleeting moment of very personal love.

KPL: I can’t say for certain, but it does seem that that was how it was. Langevin was also a researcher and worked with Curie, but I think it was the kind of thing where they worked together for years and years and then one day realized that they loved each other. It was more than Pierre’s letters and constant work; it was a spark.

JR: And yet Marie was still dedicated to the idea of radium saving the world.

KPL: She was. She really believed that it would heal everyone and fix everything.   

The performance will be held at Christ Church Cathedral’s Parish House on Saturday, April 28 at 7:30 pm.  Tickets can be purchased at: https://hartford-opera-theater.ticketleap.com/speaking-her-truth/.  If you are unable to attend but would like to support this project, donations can be made to Hartford Opera Theater or the Hartford Independent Chamber Orchestra who will be providing the instrumentalists for the performance.





Dora Pejačević — another composer whose time has come?

by Liane Curtis - February 15th, 2018

With two upcoming performances of music by Dora Pejačević taking place in the next few weeks, we wonder if this remarkable but little-known composer, who was writing powerful orchestral works a century ago, is finally ready for rediscovery.  [Wondering how to pronounce Pejačević?] A recipient of our Performance Grant, the Willamette Falls Symphony, will be performing Pejačević’s brilliant Overture for Large Orchestra in d-minor, Op.49, this Sunday Feb. 18.   Performances in the US of Pejačević’s music are rare in the US, but Youtube offers the opportunity to hear the brash, colorful Overture, recorded in the composer’s homeland, Croatia, and also in Japan.

Dora Pejačević (1885-1923)

Pejačević was born in Hungary in 1885 into Croatian nobility (she is often called a Countess), and her upbringing and education were international and cosmopolitan. She studied music in Germany and Austria — all these countries were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, after all.   The Croatian Music Center has the best information on her; it is worth using Google translate to see the detailed information and also many audio links. Other works with orchestra include the Concert Fantasy (with piano), Piano Concerto, and the great Symphony in F-sharp minor, Op. 41, which she composed in the midst of World War I in 1916-17.  Pejačević  died at age 38 in 1923, from complications of childbirth.

This Symphony will be performed on March 11 and 12 by the Chicago Sinfonietta in a concert that may well be the U.S. premiere by a professional orchestra. The concert will also include music by Florence Price, and two new works, by Jennifer Higdon and Reena Esmail, commissioned by the Sinfonietta as part of ProjectW.

Pejačević’s Symphony was first recorded in 2011 on the adventurous CPO label; a review (here) describes the Symphony as “an effusively romantic affair — a rich tapestry spun from strands of long-breathed chromatically enhanced melody, luxuriant harmony, and opulent orchestration.”  The author references “the very complex cultural cross-pollination of Croatia’s history by Hungarian, Italian, and even Russian influences,” also mentioning Richard Strauss and even Sibelius.  Although composed in 1916-17, the symphony breaths the expansive air of the fin-de-siècle, and reminds us of the many composers who continued to write monumental works in the 20th century that built on the traditions of the 19th.

And considering how many recordings and performances we find of the music by her contemporaries (Mahler, Sibelius, Strauss, Rachmaninoff, etc.), we can agree with the reviewer who is incredulous that Pejačević has been so overlooked, and with still only a single recording of the Symphony, which is “urgently recommended.”

Maestro Mei-Ann Chen

So this is indeed ambitious and even visionary programming by the Chicago Sinfonietta, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and the seventh year with Music Director Mei-Ann Chen.  Back in 2013 we talked with Chen about the music of Florence Price, which she was busy conducting with four different orchestras — we are glad to see that she continues her inspired leadership!  We can hope that the Chicago Sinfonietta might record the Pejačević’s Symphony soon!




New Work by Libby Larsen performed by North State Symphony

by Liane Curtis - February 26th, 2017

Last night (Feb. 24) in Chico, CA, the North State Symphony gave an enthralling area premiere of a new work by composer Libby LarsenDancing Man Rhapsody was written for violinist Terri Baune (Concertmaster of the North State Symphony) and commissioned by the NSS together with several other California orchestras.  Baune was the Concertmaster of The Women’s Philharmonic and has known Larsen for many years.  Maestro Scott Seaton is in his second year as Music Director of the NSS, and is infusing a new energy into the orchestra with his innovative programming, and lively rapport with audiences and the musicians.  The program also featured another recent work, Schism, by David Biedenbender, as well as Rimsky-Korskaov’s Snow Maiden Suite and Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 (Spring).

Dancing Man Rhapsody  has five sections, with descriptive titles, played without a break.  The opening (“Dancing Man”) is playful, with its startling offbeat finger-snaps and a swinging line in the solo.  Then “A Sudden Conga” breaks out with a Latin percussion riff, and violin and brass in vigorous exchanges.  A jazzy plucked string bass gives a continuous pulse to the next section, while the strings soar in searing melodies. Here, the intense lyricism infuses the music with a rich, building, philosophical introspection.  The warmth of the string timbre, and the musicality of the entire orchestra in shaping the long lines gave depth and insight to this central passage.

Composer Libby Larsen

Some spontaneous cadenza-like solos transition to a faster repeated rhythm, and a section (“Backwards in High Heels”) rife with quotations – the repeated notes become the “Chopsticks” theme, and there are references to children’s songs, Mozart, Gershwin (and others). The solo violin interjects with jazzy riffs, and as if (paradoxically) the quotations have unleashed the music, it builds with a wild, exhilarating energy.  The last section (“Dancin’ with Kravitz,” a reference to Funk musician Lenny Kravitz) cavorts and spirals with a stomping, fervent drive until ending with one final explosive violin solo.  Terry Baune was incandescent as the soloist in this demanding work, incorporating jazz, classical and rock idioms, and Maestro Seaton led the orchestra with great flexibility and power.

Dancing Man Rhapsody is an engaging work I want to hear again, so I hope it will be dancing across the country soon!

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.


“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.