Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

Monday Link Round Up: April 24, 2017

by sarah - April 24th, 2017

News to start your week!

We celebrated Dame Ethel Smyth’s birthday this weekend!  Don’t miss the guest blog by Dr. Amy Ziegler and the new recording of Symth’s work.


The BBC.com Culture column recognized the life and work of composer, conductor, and music educator Nadia Boulanger.  Be sure to read the article, titled The Greatest Music Teacher Who Ever Lived.


Fran Hoepfner writes about Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel at The Awl in her Classical Music Hour with Fran.  The article is a great introduction to the life and work of the “other” Mendelssohn – including a fantastic playlist.  Read more here.


BMI interviews Grammy Award winning composer Laura Karpman about her experiences and music.  She discusses her work as well as her advice to young composers.  Read on here.


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

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.


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.