Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

CD Review: Ruth Lomon, Shadowing

by Liane Curtis - May 18th, 2017

While we rarely publish CD reviews on our blog, we decided it was important to give coverage to a recent CD by composer Ruth Lomon.  Ruth’s music ranges from expressive and lyrical to electrifyingly engaging.  But not only that, Ruth has always been seriously dedicated to promoting the work of other women composers, through projects such as pioneering work (in the 1970s and 80s) with American Women Composers, Inc. (which in 1995 became part of the IAWM) of researching repertoire and organizing concerts and conferences, to her more recent work of orchestrating the Viola Sonata by Rebecca Clarke (info here, recording here).  —  Liane Curtis

 

RUTH LOMON: SHADOWING   (2017, Navona Records)

by Chris A. Trotman

This recent 2017 CD, Shadowing, features four works by acclaimed composer Ruth Lomon (b. 1930, Montréal).  They include her Shadowing piano quartet and three solo piano works, one of which is a set of variations; the other two consist of multiple movements.

An accomplished pianist herself, Ruth Lomon employs many diverse styles and challenging piano techniques, such as repeated notes and dampened strings, in the theme and ten variations of her solo piano work, The Sunflower Variations (my favorite work on the album).  The lyrical theme (which is based on her song The Sunflower), the eclectic rhythmic patterns and the colorful harmonic sonorities are progressively varied within each consecutive variation, and each section naturally continues to the next with the theme returning at the close.  Also, the work is dedicated to the album’s pianist, Eileen Hutchins, and it is quite satisfying and appropriate to hear the intricate and passionate masterpiece expertly performed by its dedicatee! The same care and skill in terms of clarity, phrasing and rhythmical nuance by Hutchins is clearly evident in the other piano performances, both solo and chamber.

The three movements of Lomon’s Shadowing piano quartet are essentially programmatic, that is, intended to evoke images or convey the impression of events.  According to the liner notes, she was influenced by the “magical passages of movement and color” found in the book Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés.  “Shadowing” is explained as “having such a light touch as to move freely without being observed or manifesting only to become like smoke and then manifesting again.”  The second movement, with its seemingly random pizzicato notes, gives the impression of suspended time and space.  These impressions are vividly brought to life by Eileen Hutchins (piano), Katherine Winterstein (violin), Scott Woolweaver (viola) and Patrick Owen (cello).

Like the variations, Esquisses (Sketches) contains diverse motivic and rhythmic elements as well as exquisite tonal sonorities.  Also, like Shadowing and other works by Lomon, parts of the work contains programmatic elements, such as the tolling of bells in the opening movement Les Cloches (The Bells).

In Five Ceremonial Masks, Lomon stimulates the mind with images and events based on five Navaho masks used in the Yeibichai Night Chant ceremonies.  The album booklet includes a color photograph of the five buckskin masks.  Like The Sunflower Variations, Lomon uses advanced techniques within this work, such as having the performer dampen the strings and even performing glissandi directly on the strings with a timpani stick or leather mallet.  As a bonus, there is a second recording of this work by the composer!

These works are among Ruth Lomon’s finest solo and chamber works, and they wonderfully demonstrate her extensive palette of harmonic colors and her expressive rhythmic flexibility as well as reveal her sense of musical narrative and sound painting in depicting diverse images and events through program music.  Brava!

Audio clip here    Publisher’s page

–  Chris A. Trotman, M.M./M.L.I.S.
Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy
Director of Music Publications and
Editor-in-Chief of Amy Beach Project

 

 

Happy Birthday, Dame Ethel Smyth! Celebrating a New Recording

by Liane Curtis - April 23rd, 2017
Featured Guest Blogger: Dr. Amy Zigler

In celebration of Dame Ethel Smyth’s 159th birthday, we present a detailed review of the first ever recording of Smyth’s opera The Boatswain’s Mate, which was released last fall by Retrospect Opera.  Dr. Amy Zigler is a noted authority on Smyth (and Assistant Professor of Music at Salem College) and we are happy to have her return as a featured guest blogger. Her previous blog, a review of an exciting performance of Smyth’s The Wreckers is here.       

Retrospect Opera is dedicated to this essential project: to allow people to hear great British operas that they may only have read about, by recording them, to the highest standards possible.”  The Boatswain’s Mate is their first completed project, which you can learn more about here, and purchase here.   (BTW, I have no explanation for the accepted pronunciation of “Boatswain” as “Bosun.”  I guess we are used to silent w’s, but it’s just one of those weird ones).            

Retrospect Opera’s plans include a recording of Fête Galante, described as “the most mysterious and magical of [Smyth’s] operas.”  The work of Retrospect Opera is already having wide reverberations, as the BBC featured Smyth and the new recording in their “Record Review Podcast” for March,  and Opera5 in Toronto is staging a double bill of The Boatswain’s Mate and  Fête Galante, June 22-25.  More on that in this blog soon.  Meanwhile, we are happy to offer Zigler’s engaging review, which includes new insights into the influence of Smyth’s activism on her musical output. 

 Happy Birthday, Dame Ethel!

 

 

This past fall, Retrospect Opera collaborated with conductor Odaline de la Martinez and the Lontano Ensemble to produce the first ever full recording of Smyth’s light English opera, The Boatswain’s Mate (1916).  The double-CD project is sure to be a must-listen for Smyth enthusiasts as well as all comic opera connoisseurs. Not only does it include the full opera, but the set also includes recordings of extracts of the opera from 1916 that Smyth conducted, as well as Smyth’s conducting of The Wreckers overture in 1930.  Once again, de la Martinez, who has conducted Smyth’s works in the past, has brought a long-forgotten work out of the shadows.

Because of its chronological place in Smyth’s biography, The Boatswain’s Mate is often tied to her efforts in the Suffrage movement. In 1910, Smyth attended a rally and heard Emmeline Pankhurst speak; she was so moved that she took a two-year sabbatical from music to aid the cause. Between 1910 and 1912, Smyth became an ardent member of the militant wing of the Suffrage movement, participating in the activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union. She threw bricks at windows and lead the women in song in prison. As the activities of the Suffragettes grew more dire, and as Pankhurst engaged in increasing numbers of hunger strikes, Smyth distanced herself from Pankhurst and the movement, both figuratively and literally.

Between 1913 and 1914, Smyth lived in Helouan near Cairo (that’s Egypt, not Illinois). There she composed a work quite different from her earlier compositions, such as her violin sonata or The Wreckers. The Boatswain’s Mate is, in Smyth’s words, “a comic opera in one act (two parts),” following in the footsteps of Gilbert and Sullivan. However, while the first part is in the tradition of the comic ballad opera – with spoken dialogue and quoted popular songs – the second part is in the vein of a music drama that is sung throughout. The first part succeeds in introducing us to the characters and setting up the plot, but the second part is where the tension and conflict occur.  While mixing two sub-genres of opera might seem confusing, Smyth does so to further delineate the differences between the two parts.

The opera is based on three characters from a story by W.W. Jacobs.  Mrs. Waters (played by Nadine Benjamin) is a widow, approximately twenty-eight years old, who has sworn off love and men, and who single-handedly runs The Beehive Inn. One of her regular patrons is Mr. Benn (played by Edward Lee), who is not-so-secretly in love with her and determined to convince Mrs. Waters to marry him. Their détente is broken by the newcomer, a foreign traveler and ex-soldier named Ned Travers (played by Jeremy Huw Williams). While Mrs. Waters is away Mr. Benn befriends Travers and convinces him to engage in a plot to win over Mrs. Waters. Travers is supposed to break into her house that night, and when she runs frightened into the street, she will run straight into the arms of Mr. Benn, who will “rescue” her. However, Mrs. Waters is an independent and feisty inn owner, and when Travers breaks in, she pulls out a shotgun. As Travers is confessing the true nature of the plot, the two realize they might be attracted to each other (one of the stranger points of Smyth’s adaptation). They together decide to turn the tables on Mr. Benn and convince him she shot Travers! A policeman appears in the scene (played by Simon Wildung), a quartet ensues, and all ends with confusion and a bruised ego. Mrs. Waters even sings to Mr. Benn, “Now, Mr. Benn, when you sit in the bar talking nonsense by the hour, and calling for glass after glass, I’ve often enough warned you; and now it has come to this!” She dismisses the policeman who is asking for a corpse, and he and Mr. Benn are pushed out the door and off stage. In the final scene, Mrs. Waters and Travers are alone, and the audience is left wondering the fate of these two characters, and if Mrs. Waters will open her heart again?

The entire ensemble produced a superb work in this recording. The soprano Nadine Benjamin captures the nuances of Mrs. Waters’ character, giving her wisdom but also youthfulness. In her first aria, “What if I were young again,” Ms. Benjamin’s voice floats over arpeggiated cellos in the pastoral key of F major for the first two stanzas. On the third stanza, Smyth reharmonizes the passage with chromatic harmonies that underscore the text, “What if one were waiting there, waiting for me? … The desire of our young hearts calling…” Ms. Benjamin deftly conveys the quiet unfulfilled longing of the character in this moment. On the other hand, Edward Lee’s performance of Mr. Benn is so captivating that you can almost see his facial expressions and grand gestures, often needed to carry a comedic role. Finally, Jeremy Huw Williams, playing the role of Ned Travers, offers a more three-dimensional antidote to Mr. Benn’s often histrionic character.

Dame Ethel Smyth

Without going into a great deal of theoretical analysis, a few musical elements are significant and should be mentioned. Scholars and performers debate the labeling of this work as a “feminist opera”, but Smyth informs us in musical ways that this opera was at least in part inspired by her time with the Suffragettes. The most obvious example is the quotation in the overture of “The March of the Women”, Smyth’s choral anthem composed in 1910 for the Suffrage movement. In fact, Smyth highlights the melody by changing the orchestration from strings for the opening material to winds for the Suffrage theme, making it a central focus of the overture.

There is another clue that Smyth connected the work with the Suffrage movement. The opening material of the overture also incorporates a variation of the second theme from the fourth movement of the String Quartet in E minor, completed in 1912. In letters to Pankhurst Smyth had declared this movement a representation of the Suffrage movement. Thus Smyth’s incorporation of a melody from the “Suffrage” movement in this opera composed after her stint with the Suffragettes, surely was not an accident or a coincidence. As someone who spends quite a large amount of time with Smyth’s music, it was exciting to hear this hidden clue.

I am delighted that Retrospect Opera has released this recording. The producers, conductor, singers and orchestra members together have contributed significantly to Smyth’s legacy. It is my hope that this recording inspires other companies to produce the work, and that it will foster scholarship of her post-war period.

 

Monday Link Round Up: July 25, 2016

by sarah - July 25th, 2016

News to start your week!

ICYMI, Philip Clark shared his thoughts in The Guardian in a blog post titled “Where have the great composers gone?”  His thesis is, essentially, that contemporary music doesn’t compare to composers like Britten, Tippet, Davies, and Birswistle.  You can read the full piece here.  What’s most important about this piece is the other responses it has solicited.

Susanna Eastburn, the chief executive of Sound and Music, “the UK’s leading organization for new music”, shared her response as an op-ed in The Guardian.  

Joshua Mosman, of the San Francisco Chronicle also responded.

 

It is Marin Alsop’s 25th season with the Cabrillo Festival – and her final one.  Good Times, Santa Cruz County’s weekly newspaper, shares a profile about Alsop and the festival she helped shape over the past two and a half decades.

 

There are two new recordings of chamber works to be excited about – Andrew Clements reviews the Berlin Oboe Quartet in their new recording of contemporary works, including work by Helen Grime (calling the album a “thoroughly rewarding collection, superbly played and recorded).  There is also a new recording of Grażyna Bacewicz’s seven string quartets by The Silesian Quartet.  Erica Jeal has the review, and compares this new recording to the Lutoslawski Quartet’s recording of the same works that were released last year.

 

As always, what did we miss?  What are you reading?  Leave us a comment and let us know!

Featured Guest Blogger: Carol Cubberley on (RE)Discovering Amanda Maier

by Liane Curtis - February 11th, 2016

Carol Cubberley, a freelance violinist in Boston, MA, became interested in uncovering music by women while at BostonCarol-Cubberley Conservatory, and chose to play only music composed by women at her masters recital.  In 2013 Carol was the violinist for the Apple Hill Festival fellowship trio and was a teaching assistant at Apple Hill in the summer of 2015.  From 2012 to 2014 Carol participated in the nonprofit musiConnects as a member of the Sumner Quartet and as a violin teacher at the Chittick and Sumner elementary schools.   During a residency at Avaloch Farm Music Institute  in October 2015, Carol worked with composer Andy Costello on a piece he wrote for her and on Amanda Maier‘s Violin Sonata in b-minor.  In November she played with The Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra for their Women Composers Night concert. This spring Carol will teach an eight week class on Women Composers Through the Ages at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education.  In March she will perform at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, and at the Women Composers Festival of Hartford.

 

As a violin student I did not play a piece by a woman composer until about three years ago, while I was in graduate school.  Growing up, I had assumed that significant women composers were basically non-existent until the 20th century.  In my music history classes, the only women composers mentioned were Hildegard von Bingen and a few contemporary composers.  Finally, while studying for my master’s degree at Boston Conservatory I took a music history class with Prof. Rebecca Marchand, who made a point of including at least one significant woman composer from each era.  I then realized, it was not that they didn’t exist, but rather that they had simply not been included in the history books or passed down as standard repertoire.  I decided, since in the past I had only ever played pieces by male composers, that for my master’s recital I would only play pieces composed by women.  I had a wonderful time researching and beginning to discover some of the beautiful and varied violin repertoire written by women throughout history.

One of my favorite discoveries was Swedish composer Amanda Maier (1853-1894 — whose birthday is February 19!). Amanda-Maier-Violine Nearly forgotten until around 1994, Maier was a well known and popular composer in her prime.  She was born to a working-class family living in Landskrona, Sweden.  Her father was a baker but also an amateur musician and Maier’s first violin and piano teacher.  At age 16, she enrolled in the Stockholm Conservatory of Music with a course of study including violin, cello, piano, organ, composition, and harmony.  She was the first female to earn a degree from the school and she also won awards for her violin, cello, and organ playing, as well as for her compositions.

After graduating she moved to Leipzig, Germany where she studied violin with Engelbert Rontgen and composition with Carl Reinecke.  During this time she composed her Violin Sonata in B minor, a Piano Trio, and a Violin Concerto.  In 1877 the Musikaliska Konstföreningen (the Swedish Art Music Society) accepted Maier’s Violin Sonata for publication, but wanted to alter the slow movement.  In her response Maier shows her confidence as a composer: “I have become so much a part of it as it stands that I would quite certainly have difficulty in making any changes […]. So I would prefer if the Sonata could be left unaltered.”   Yielding to her wishes the Society published her sonata without any alterations.  Playing a Stradivarius that had been loaned to her, she premiered her Violin Concerto with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under the baton of her composition teacher, Carl Reinecke.  The concerto was received with great enthusiasm, and was performed over 37 times between 1876 and 1879, an impressive record.

Amanda with Julius Röntgen

Amanda with Julius Röntgen

Maier toured all over Europe and eventually was joined by her violin teacher’s son, Julius Röntgen, who was also a pianist and composer.  The pair performed standard repertoire alongside Maier’s compositions, most likely including her B-minor Violin Sonata.  Their collaboration grew to more than just a friendship, and in 1880, the same year Julius’s father passed away, they were married.

At this point Maier had written (in addition to the pieces mentioned earlier) 25 Preludes for piano, a piece for piano and cello, a few songs, six pieces for violin and piano, two string quartets, and a variety of other instrumental works.  Although Maier quit performing publicly after she and Röntgen were married, they did host regular musical salons in their home, welcoming such luminaries as Johannes Brahms, Arthur Rubinstein, and Edvard Grieg.  Brahms became an admirer of Maier’s work.  He sought her advice for his third Violin Sonata and chose to include her revisions in his final edition. Grieg, a fellow student of Maier’s in Leipzig, said that he had “always been an admirer of her talent.”  Maier was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1887, after the birth of her second son.  Her last composition was a Piano Quartet that she wrote in 1891 with the help of her husband because her eyesight was failing.  She was only 41 years old when she passed away in 1894.

In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in Maier’s compositions.  Gregory Maytan’s 2009 CD includes her Violin Sonata  and was chosen as “CD of the Month” by The Strad Magazine, which enthused “the real discovery here” is Maier’s  Violin Sonata, an “inexplicably neglected score.”  Maytan was introduced to Maier’s music when he was a young student in Northern Sweden; however, when Maytan performed Maier’s B minor Violin Sonata at the Royal University of Music in Stockholm, he was surprised to find that the work was virtually unknown there.   He has also recorded her Six Pieces for Violin and Piano and has just recorded her Violin Concerto.  Her concerto was recently made available for the first time in the US and in May was performed by Claudia Bonfiglioli with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.  This video is an amazing performance, and if her Concerto reminds you of Brahms’ concerto for Violin, keep in mind that hers was composed three years before his.amanda2_250

For more information about Amanda Maier I recommend reading this blog post from “Unjustly Neglected Composers.”  It is exciting that her music is being rediscovered, and as more people hear recordings and performances of her Violin Sonata and Violin Concerto I would not be surprised if these works and others by her soon find their way into the standard repertoire.

Monday Link Round Up: January 18, 2016

by sarah - January 18th, 2016

Some links to start your week!

ICYMI Swedish Radio broadcast Ellen Nisbeth performing Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata for Viola which was orchestrated by Ruth Lomon.  The program will be available to stream here for the next month.

 

Mari Valverde has an insightful piece at New Music Box on the musical hoops that composers often ask sopranos to jump through – and includes great reminders of the history of women performing music, and creating reasonable expectations for vocal health.

 

And Opera Philadelphia is getting ready for the East Coast Premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s new opera, Cold Mountain.  Read about it at Opera World, and watch the great preview below:

 

As always, let us know what we missed and what you’ve been reading in a comment below!