Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

Women and Music Festival: Eastman Community Music School

by Liane Curtis - March 30th, 2014

The first of three Festival concerts on Saturday, March 29, was performed by students of the Eastman Community Music School.  Boys and girls performed works composed by women, and four girls performed really lovely pieces that they had written themselves.  The Lowry Hall was the setting, and the young performers did an excellent job at not being distracted by the people passing through, some of whom stopped to listen to the very engaging program.

Chair of the Piano Department, Howard Spindler, the very genial host, observed that this was the first time that there were composers among the students.  Since the Community Music School has hosted a concert for their students as part of the festival for most its 10 years, it may well be that the festival itself is having an influence in generating young composers.

My favorites were: Rondo-Allegro from the Harp Sonata Op. 2, by Sophia Dussek (1775-1847), performed by Joanna Jin.  Sophia Dussek is name I’ve seen in history books so it was a real treat to hear her music brought to life.  The youngest composer, Madison Sutherland, age 10, played a set of three piano pieces that were captivating and imaginative. These pieces would be great additions to the repertoire for young piano students. And Annie Jacobs-Perkins (a high school senior) played a searching, introspective solo on the cello. While slow in tempo, it was technically demanding, going up into a very high register and employing a lot of double stops. This piece too I could imagine becoming a valuable addition to the cello repertoire (although I do think it needs a title more descriptive than “Sonata”).

This was a fascinating concert, and it emphasized that the festival’s reach is broad and diverse.  Festival organizer Sylvie Beaudette is to be applauded for bringing it all together.

Women in Music Festival: All-Higdon Concert, March 28

by Liane Curtis - March 29th, 2014

Sorry to have gotten behind in the blogging!  Here is last night’s concert, March 28.

I love Jennifer Higdon’s music.  BUT I did have some trepidation that a whole concert of her music might be a bit much. My concern was needless.  The evening was completely engaging, filled with emotions spanning joyful to transcendent. In fact I’m eager to hear more Higdon tomorrow, which I will do!

The details about the performers can be seen in the full program.  Once I get caught up I will go back and insert them in the blog….

Splendid Wood, a work for three marimbas and six players, began the program.  Hatch Recital Hall was a striking setting for this since the hall itself displays beautiful wood in its walls, stage and seating.  But Higdon’s wood was that of the marimbas themselves.  There was definitely visual drama in having three marimbas played by six musicians, and also a conductor.  Adding to the drama was the spatial effect of the sound moving around the room and watching the cascades of gestures flow through the twelve arms of the six musicians.

The beginning was energetic, a moto perpetuo, invigorated with rushing ascending figures.  The middle section was gentler, with smoother patterns and tremolos, and some interjections.  The final section returned to an even more energetic level with frantic exchanges of 16th-note melodic fragments, building to a crashing forte fortissimo, followed by a sudden hush and then building up again. Some shifts of the total center ratcheted up the level of the drama; as in the case of so many of Higdon’s works the ending was breathtaking.  These very impressive musicians were the Eastman Chamber Percussion Ensemble.

Next was String Poetic, a set of five movements for violin and piano.  Higdon’s own brief program notes (a few lines for each movement) are in themselves compressed poetry.  After all,

rise above, in jagged climb …
climb, arise, in jagged run …

is iambic heptameter, isn’t it?  (Higdon’s full program notes, and audio clips for many of her pieces are available here on her web site.)  This is a beautiful idea although I do think only  the composer can get away with writing program notes in the form of poetry—if someone else did it might be using one art form to distract from another. “Jagged Climb” (1) begins with percussive use of the piano (dampening the strings with one hand while the other hand plays); together with the resonance, the effect was ghostly, and the violin did indeed climb jaggedly, in swirling ascending gestures.  (2) “Nocturne,” begins with a simple repeated note in the violin that builds intensity and then expands into a poignant melody, warmed by the chordal harmony of the piano which eventually also adds a countermelody; it is lyrical and heartfelt.

The third movement, “Blue Hills,” begins with eerie muffled notes on the piano (again muted by one hand). The melody meanders in an arc but then fills out, building to a high point, and supported by luscious chordal parallelisms, and expansive gestures built on fourths. The percussive notes return, this time doubled by the violin in pizzicato.  The result is haunting and atmospheric.  “Maze” begins with a triple meter pattern with pulsing off beats; it coursed along exhilaratingly.  While the musicians were excellent overall, I thought this movement might have been a bit more lighthearted, perhaps even frisky. The “Climb Jagged” is a varied return of (1), leaving us gasping.  Where ever we were, it was quite a journey.

The Piano Trio of 2003 is inspired by two colors, and is in two movements. Can music convey colors? Higdon certainly convinced us of this.  “Pale Yellow” was evocative and peaceful, triadic cords enriched with extra tones. “Fiery Red” was filled with racing motives chasing each other in the strings, and syncopations of pizzicato chords and ostinati.  This was an impressive piece that reminded me at times of Shostakovich.

Following a short intermission a woodwind quintet performed Autumn Music (1995). This piece was inspired by Samuel Barbers iconic Summer Music.  It begins with smooth sliding chords with interjections followed by overlapping ascending figures that gradually slow and lose momentum. The full-throated sound of the bass clarinet evokes a poignant melancholy. Using repeating melodic phrases, the texture thickens as lines are built on top of each other.  Although it’s a woodwind quintet there actually seven instruments since the clarinetist doubles on bass clarinet and the oboe player is also asked to play English horn. Thus Higdon gets a very wide range of sound from the musicians she uses.

“Reel Time,” a movement from Higdon’s string quartet Southern Harmony was next, and it was a “reel” delight.  Comparisons to Copland’s “Hoedown” are unavoidable, but surely that’ not a bad thing.  There was lots of fun fiddling and double-stops using open strings, slides, vigorous unison chords and other folk gestures combined, performed with great gusto, for an energizing and upbeat effect.  I wanted to hear the rest of this piece!

Secret and Glass Gardens, for solo piano, expands a simple melodic idea into lush chordal parallelisms.  With the sensuality of impressionist textures, and rich arpegiation, it builds with emotional power.  This was a revelatory work, played with great conviction.

Finally was the saxophone quartet, Short Stories.  We heard four of the original six movements, performed superbly by the graceful musicians.  “Lullaby” had smooth running figures; although the baritone sax is not the instrument one expects to be featured in a lullaby, I’m sure that incongruity (or irony) was intended.   The aptly titled “Splash” has swirling gestures and ascending runs, and bold splashes by all 4 players.  The dark “Coyote Nights” began with a somber ostinato, with faster poignant gestures emerging over it.  Then all four instruments moved together, in a kind of vigorous chorale.  “Stomp and Dance” began with stray fragments of rhythms that gradually coalesced into an infectious 4/4 beat, followed by a section of percussive slap tonguing and key clicking, which served as an underpinning of melody, again, emerging  first in fragments.  Higdon delights in building remarkable constructions and in letting us also see how they come together—revealing to us the ingredients and how they fit.  We as listeners are invited into the process, and it always delights.


Women in Music Festival: The Kaplan Duo

by Liane Curtis - March 26th, 2014

The second concert (Mar. 25) of the Eastman Women In Music Festival (the Festival includes several venues that are near Eastman, but not part of Eastman):

The Kaplan Duo delighted us with their noon hour recital at Nazareth College.  I’ve known the pianist Nanette Kaplan Solomon for many years, first through her brilliant recordings of works by American women, and then by attending her performances and presentations at conferences; in fact she just gave a very engaging lecture-recital on Manna Zucca at the Society for American Music Conference (and, good news!  A CD is forthcoming!). So I was delighted for the opportunity to hear her, together with her sister, Iris Kaplan Rosenthal, in a recital of music for piano, four hands.  It’s obvious that the sisters have a lifelong experience of playing together, inspiring each other, and bringing excitement to audiences through their musical performances.

They began with a set of three pieces by Amy Beach, from 1883.  Even at age 16, Beach was a polished composer (as well as interpreter) of piano music.  The Kaplan sisters’ interpretation of the Allegro Appassionato was refreshingly different from the recording I know.  Theirs was smoothly flowing rather than a bouncy staccato.  The Moderato evoked dark cello tones in its exchanges of somber ascending, flowing lines. The harmonies are rich with some surprising modulations penned by the teen-aged Amy. The third movement, Allegro con fuoco, pulsed and surged with dark energy, and had a gently rocking middle section in a major key.

Welsh composer (now living in Schenectady) Hilary Tann composed Water’s Edge in 1993, a work in three connected movements.  The “edge” is the top surface of the water which can bend or reflect the light. Movement one, “Dawn Light,” was spare and built on the piano’s echoing overtones and resonances. It had an evocative, improvised quality.  “From the Riverbed” used oscillating fragments of a harmonic minor scale, gradually building momentum.  Finally, “Toward Dusk” was undulating and atmospheric, gradually fading away. It was an effective work and played with great sensitivity.

Judith Lang Zaimont is prolific and widely respected composer.  The Kaplan Duo performed two movements of her “Snazzy Sonata” (1972).  The “Two-Step” was playful and buoyant, with the real feel of Ragtime. With their energetic flourishes and complicated cross rhythms, the Kaplans had to carefully coordinate their arm crossings.  “Lazy Beguine” was relaxed and sensual, with an undulating melody than moved through different ranges.  The Kaplans created an evocative atmosphere by bringing out a range of lush colors in this work.

The Kaplans have personal friendships with the last two composers.  Their music was new to most of us and a welcome discovery.  Judy Bruce is a successful piano teacher.  She started studying composition as a way to inspire her own children, and then kept going with it very seriously.  Motions (2012) is a set of three pieces, inspired by the activities of children.  The first, “Flying,” was energetic with a refreshing brightness in the melodic vocabulary; “Drifting” evoked a gentle sweetness, and finally, “Jumping” had a relentless energy, with tumultuous, cascading gestures.

The concert ended with two pieces by Jane Leslie.  “A Walk in the Country” (1997) was an effective ballad, a pop song without words. Cascading pianistic flourishes enriched the lovely lyrical melody. “Fanfare” (2005) started with a high propulsive ostinato, that gradually moved to a middle register. Some Bartokian parallelisms were employed with great brilliance, and after a more melodic interlude, the opening ostinato was brought back for an exhilarating conclusion.  This piece was a real showstopper and a great choice.

This hour with the Kaplan Duo went by too quickly; they are very polished artists and musical communicators and I hope they will be recording some of this repertory.


Suzanne Sorkin

by sarah - March 26th, 2014

Today’s events at the Rochester Women in Music Festival feature works by Suzanne Sorkin.  Sorkin (b. 1977) has been in featured in festivals throughout the United States and is actively commissioned (including from  the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, Chamber Music Now, Third Millennium Ensemble, counter)induction,  and ASCAP).

Her work in composition is balanced with her work in education—she is an Associate Professor and currently serves as the  Chair of the Department of Music, Theatre and Film at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.  For such an active and involved composer and educator, I was a bit disappointed in the lack of information I could find for her career and works—at least not quickly.  Sorkin is certainly someone to watch as her music and career continues to develop.  I look forward to hearing more about Liane’s impressions of the work featured in tonight’s concert at Rochester.

For a taste of her style and sound, here is the first movement from her Remnants of Red


Eastman Women In Music Festival

by sarah - March 24th, 2014

Liane will be live blogging this week from the Eastman Women In Music Festival—a wonderful annual event full of lectures, masterclasses, and many, many concerts featuring women’s work in music.  The event encourages developing musicians to explore the works of composers not covered in typical Music History Courses, and to be enthusiastic about performing and listening to works outside the “standard” repertoire.  All events are also free and open to the public, serving as a wonderful educational opportunity for anyone interested in learning more.

They are featuring another brilliant program this year—and I’ll be highlighting some of the composers being heard (though many discussed this month are also included).

Jocelyn Hagen (b.1980) is a native of North Dakota and a highly accomplished pianist.  She holds degrees from St. Olaf College and the University of Minnesota.  Her composition teachers include Judith Lang Zaimont.  She writes largely for voice, including choral, solo, and chamber works.  Though still rather young in her career, Hagen has received over 40 commissions and 50 premieres, and many awards for her compositions.  You can find a complete list of her works on her website, where you can also listen to many of her works.

Here is the”Sanctus” movement from her large scale work AMASS: