Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

Hartford Concert Inspires!

by Liane Curtis - October 29th, 2015

The Women Composers Festival of Hartford (WCFH) is an indomitable event that has been taking place in March for fifteen years.  Composers, musicians and scholars come together to create this Festival, and on Friday October 26, 2015, their Board of Directors organized a concert as a fundraising event, which also served to remind everyone about work of the Festival, and to bring audiences and musicians together for an artistically important and intellectually stimulating occasion.  The concert took place in the lovely and historic Charter Oak Cultural Center.

The concert of 20 songs and piano works spanned time periods (Clara Schumann to newly composed music) and genres – classical art songs, selections from musical theatre, folk-inspired works and even experimental, genre-defying works. The emotional range, too, was vast – from poignant to comic.  And works by men were included, to emphasize that the creative process so often is a collaborative one: Ralph Vaughan Williams was influenced by his wife, Ursula, in setting a poem of hers; and Manual de Falla’s arrangement of an innocent folk lullaby was followed by another folk lullaby arranged by Elsa Olivieri Sangiacomo, in which the mother suffers a betrayal by the child’s father.  While not presented as such, the musical language of these two songs suggested that the latter might be a bitter reinterpretation of the former.  As WCFH President Penny Brandt pointed out, lullabies written by women are often not the idealized, unperturbed views of the idyllic sleeping child presented by well-known bachelor composers such as Brahms and Schubert. Brandt’s example of this was an 1872 lullaby by Teresa Carreño, who, as a professional pianist, often toured with her four children. This piano piece (Le sommeil de l’enfant, performed by Brandt) begins soothingly but included agitated outbursts and restless flurries.  The first half of the program concluded with the austere, mournful “Last Lullaby,” composed in 2010 by the (female) composer Tatev Amiryan, in memory of the Armenian Genocide (performed hauntingly by (Anna Hayrapetyan, soprano, and Brandt, piano). Brandt offered narrative between segments of the program, explaining the choice of works as well as the motivation of the Festival.

From the world of musical theatre, Lisabeth Miller (soprano, with Frank Viola, piano) gave us a gripping and insightful “How Could I Ever Know” by Lucy Simon.  Highlights of the second half included Gala Flagello’s song “If I,” a soliloquy of insecurity that crescendoed and spiraled in a halting form reflecting its content.  Soprano Amanda Kohl was both dramatically as well as vocally compelling.

I was very intrigued by Jessica Rudman’s “Glimpses” of 2006. A set of miniature piano works (performed with great sensitivity by Miguel Campinho) they were inspired by well-known pieces she was studying in a music theory class.  We weren’t told what those pieces were, and it was perhaps more fun to guess.  I heard delicate shards, glittering kaleidoscopic fragments reminiscent of Bartok, Debussy, and then the propulsive momentum of  J.S. Bach.  The varied flavors were at times juxtaposed in succession and even briefly layered in simultaneity.

Diane Lipari was assured and powerful in Amy Beach’s “Three Browning Songs.”  These short, polished gems are among the prolific composer’s best-known works in this genre.  Another (relatively) well-known gem was “Song to the Dark Virgin,” Florence Price’s setting of a poem by Langston Hughes.  Amelia Nagoski sang this persuasively and with a vital freshness (with able support from Mahlon Peterson, piano)

I was fascinated to learn about María Grever, (1885-1951) a Mexican-born composer who wrote many bolero-inspired songs (such as the sultry “Júrame,” sung by Kohl, with Campinho) as well working as a composer in the U.S. film industry.

The entire Board came together to sing Jeanine Tesori’s “Forget About the Boy” (with Campinho energetically at the piano) providing a fun conclusion, full of spirited exuberance, and also demonstrating the Board’s unified dedication, as well as letting the audience acknowledge and thank them.  Of course the lyrics had relevance – we don’t expect to ever “forget about the boy”  — men are part of music history and our musical lives –  but it’s about time that we stop forgetting about the girls – and women!  Thank you, WCFH, for making that point so entertainingly!



Featured Guest Blogger: Amy Zigler reviews “The Wreckers”

by Liane Curtis - July 29th, 2015

    Dr. Amy Zigler is Visiting AssistAmy Ziglerant Professor of Music at Salem College in Winston-Salem, NC.  She specializes in music of the 19th and 20th centuries, with a focus on the cultural study of chamber music, the social history of music in Germany and Great Britain, and the study of gender and sexuality in music. She holds a doctorate in Musicology from the University of Florida; her dissertation explored the chamber works of Dame Ethel Smyth. Dr. Zigler is an active member of American Musicological Society, College Music Society, and North American British Music Studies Association.  As a pianist, Dr. Zigler performs as a soloist and collaborative artist, and has performed in Germany, Puerto Rico and across the United States. 


On Sunday July 26 I had the pleasure of attending Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers, presented by Bard College’s SummerScape series. Under the direction of Maestro Leon Botstein, soloists and chorus joined the American Symphony in reviving this neglected work. Not only were the title roles sung with conviction, profundity, and insight, but the chorus was powerfully and expertly performed. Their performances were lifted by the exceptional playing of the American Symphony, whose performance brought the opera to life.

The Wreckers is British composer Ethel Smyth’s third opera, composed between 1902 and 1904 and first performed in Leipzig in 1906, followed by a London performance in 1909. The work is a collaboration between Smyth and French-American philosopher Henry Brewster (1850-1908). Inspired by trips to Cornwall’s jagged coast, Smyth created the opera by sending scene and plot ideas to Brewster and receiving dramatic text in return. Unfortunately, Brewster wrote the original libretto in French, which Smyth had translated to German for the premiere and then superimposed English text over the German manuscripts for the London premiere. Consequently, the biggest fault of the work is that, at times, the melody and text seem ill-suited for each other. Luckily, these moments are rare and do not detract from the overall composition or performance.

Unlike many historical operas performed today, The Wreckers is a thought-provoking tale with moral lessons for our own time. As Maestro Botstein astutely pointed out in his program notes, it is a story that questions the laws and morality of a society that believed itself justified in its actions because it represented the will of God. The ‘betrayers’ to the community turn out to be the only ones who believe murder is wrong and are willing to die (not kill) for their beliefs.

The Wreckers is set in 18th century England on the cliffs of Cornwall, a jagged seashore with treacherous waterways. An isolated religious community is led by Pascoe (played by baritone Louis Otey), their minister and moral authority. The story implies that for many generations, this community has put out the beacons on the shore, thus causing ships to crash. The community members – men, women, and children – then proceed to pillage and plunder the wreckage in order to survive. They justify their actions because they are God’s Chosen Ones and their deeds are done in His name. While most of the community does not question Pascoe or their livelihood, a few do. Pascoe’s young wife Thirza (played by mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner) refuses to participate in either “wrecking” or worshipping and says from the beginning that she disagrees with their actions. Mark (played by tenor Neal Cooper) is a fisherman in the village who pretends to go along with the community, but he has been secretly lighting beacons and having an affair with Thirza. The true catalyst for this love triangle and the broader plot, however, is Avis (played by soprano Sky Ingram), a young woman and the jilted former lover of Mark. She single-handedly raises suspicion about a traitor in the community, exposes Mark and Thirza’s affair, and reveals them to be the true betrayers to the community. Bucking traditional operatic convention, Smyth has switched the expected moral roles of the soprano and mezzo-soprano; Avis, the soprano, is a morally corrupt and conniving character, while Thirza, the mezzo-soprano, is the morally true heroine who dies for her love and her beliefs.

The chorus in this performance is deserving of its own praise. Smyth structured the opera in such a way that the chorus as community plays a prominent role in the narrative of the story as well as the anchor for most of the recitatives and arias. The first and third acts are dominated by the chorus, and the energy, ferocity, and musical talent of this group of individuals established the chorus as a main character. Whether singing their call to arms, “Wreckers, awake!” or any number of hymn-like numbers and sea chanties, the chorus brought out the gusto in Smyth’s music and performed it with sincerity. (the Chorus Master is James Bagwell).

Like her contemporaries Debussy, Strauss, and Puccini, Smyth emphasizes the through-composed nature of the opera, with songs woven into the ongoing action and leitmotivs returning to serve as clues to the audience and providing further commentary on the story.  This avoidance of literal strophic repetition propels the narrative forward in a way that is exciting even for modern audiences. Musically, she does draw upon her predecessors and contemporaries, but as Botstein noted in the pre-concert talk, Smyth “revels in that eclecticism and makes it her own.” The work contains expert English choral writing, imaginative orchestrations, and at times highly chromatic harmonies, yet it succeeds in presenting a cohesive musical work that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Performances of the work continue through August 2nd at Bard College’s Fisher Performing Arts Center. I highly encourage all readers to see this monumental work. Maestro Botstein and the American Symphony have done much to bring attention to Smyth’s music, but like all musical works it must be heard (and in this case seen) to be appreciated.


The Wreckers: An Opera for our Time

by Liane Curtis - July 23rd, 2015

Ethel Smyth’s “The Wreckers” (1906) will receive its’ first staged US performance Friday night (July 24) at Bard Summerscape (total of 5 performances).  NPR’s All Things Considered aired a feature (available here)  about this historic performance (Musicologist Elizabeth Wood and Music Director Leon Botstein were interviewed).

The first sentence of Music Director Leon Bottstein’s program note is certainly one to invite debate:  “It is hard to imagine an opera whose argument is more pertinent to our times than Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers.”   Botstein continues

 “…The human predicaments that evolve on stage transcend the personal, and the music turns the spectacle of opera into an experience of ethical and political recognition that contests the confines of narrow aesthetic criteria.”

The plot concerns villagers whose belief in themselves as appointed by God to do his work, leads them to sanctify their own habitual practice of murder and theft  (and of course there is love interest as well, intersecting triangles…).  BTW, at the bottom of the page with the program note is a link for the entire libretto.

Botstein (in the note) makes a strong case for “The Wreckers” as  both a work of political and philosophical significance and also as an artistic triumph, using a wide palette of musical approaches to convey the layers of meaning in powerful and convincing ways. Let’s hope the performance supports that assertion! I am inclined to think it will — musically it is a compelling piece (the 1994 performance at London’s Proms was released as a commercial recording; I have been told the Bard performance will also be made available on MP3 format).  The Summerscape webpage includes three short videos about the production, including this insightful one with the Producer Thaddeus Strassberger and Bottstein, and this exciting one with scenes from rehearsals.

Botstein’s commitment to Smyth’s opera (“The Wreckers” is her most monumental of her six works in that genre) is impressive: he conducted a concert performance of the work in New York City in 2007.   Here’s wishing this exciting premiere great success!

And here is the evocative Prelude to Act II, “On the Cliffs of Cornwall”

Curtis on tour features Higdon Viola Concerto!

by Liane Curtis - March 29th, 2015

(3/14/2015)    “Curtis On Tour” is the Curtis Institute of Music’s annual showcase of its students and some distinguished alumni.  Last year I attended their concert in Boston, and just last night I was thrilled to be able to hear their chamber orchestra at U.C. Davis’s Mondavi Center.  The conductor was (Curtis alum) Robert Spano, and a featured work was Curtis Faculty member Jennifer Higdon’s new Viola Concerto.  The soloist is violist Roberto Diaz, also Curtis’ President.  The work premiered just last Saturday, and is the recipient of one of our Performance Grants.  The tour is continuing with two more concerts in California, and I urge you see it if you have the chance!

In the pre-concert discussion, the Curtis Institute student who spoke about the piece said that Higdon had wanted to write something that contrasted with the melancholy of other viola concertos – I imagine she meant the anguished Walton or the self-absorbed gloom of Berlioz’ “Harold in Italy.” She succeeded, creating a work of sweeping momentum and rugged determination.  Underpinning this is Higdon’s genius at using the colors of the orchestra, creating a magical, varied and atmospheric expanse of sound.

The work opens with a hushed, close sonority of muted strings, with a stark melody in the solo viola beginning on a low string but in a high register, giving a kind of restrained warmth.  The ensemble slowly builds in several grand expansive waves of growing intensity, with woodwinds and brass entering for interludes at the peak of the wave, at which the viola yields to them.  The effect is of heartfelt resolution.

The middle movement breaks loose with intensity, with a first theme of rapid-fire repeated notes, followed by running scalar lines.  The viola gets a work-out in this breathless moto perpetuo, with some of the melodies heightened by glockenspiel doubling, with amazing virtuosic playing.  Relentless, it leaves us gasping.

The final movement returns to legato, but now with a more strongly chiseled melody – taking broad steps of fourths and fifths, and eventually with the viola playing in octaves, and then introducing a spiky, staccato theme.  The orchestra interweaves in a contrapuntal texture and the vast expanse of activity is supported by a contrabassoon.  With the broad legato melody resonating in all the instruments, conclusion was majestic.

Although Diaz’ body language is reserved, his playing is passionate and (as needed) full of warmth, brilliance, or edgy intensity, and is absolutely surefooted in all the technical demands.  Let us hope that this work enters into the repertoire for the viola, just as Higdon’s Violin Concerto is now doing!

There are reviews of the premiere here — David Stearns enthused “Subtle construction elements kept that lyricism aloft so artfully you didn’t want the movement to end.”

And and also here: “An appealing piece that deserves to be heard — a lot.”  (Joan Reinthaler)

Disclaimer: Liane Curtis is not related to the Curtis family of the Curtis Institute of music. Liane’s distant cousin who does genealogy has researched this back to 1562(!)

NEW DISCOVERIES of Florence Price’s Music revealed in Arkansas Festival!!

by Liane Curtis - February 26th, 2015

The historic importance of Florence Price (1887–1953), as the first African American woman to have a Symphony performed by a major orchestra, has been recognized.  However, while she had some success in her lifetime, after she died very little of her music remained the performing repertoire. A few of her songs were known — after all she was championed by Marian Anderson  — but her orchestral music was unknown until the 2001 recording by The Women’s Philharmonic.

Recently, progress has been made: two of her symphonies have been published, and conductor Mei Ann Chen has taken up Florence Price, performing her with the Chicago Symphony, the Chicago Sinfonietta, the San Diego Symphony, as we noted in 2013, and then last fall with the Alabama Symphony.   And a room was just dedicated to her at the Berklee College of music.

But a major breakthrough has taken place at the University of Arkansas.  Apparently a great deal of Price’s music was simply abandoned after she died, and it was (amazingly) discovered in the Chicago house where she had lived — the house itself was also abandoned.  Fortunately, these materials wound up in the University of Arkansas Special Collections (which already had a major collection of Price materials), and the University just sponsored a significant festival which included many world premieres of this newly found music.  The program for the festival is listed here with a more detailed version in this PDF document.

In 2011 the University of Arkansas’ Special Collections library acquired a number of her scores, photos and other documents that had been lost for decades in the attic of an abandoned home in the Chicago area.  This included music which has either never been performed or has not been performed for at least 60 years.  A number of these newly recovered songs, piano pieces, chamber works, and her first orchestral composition, “Ethiopia’s Shadow in America,” will be performed by guest performers and faculty and students from the University of Arkansas throughout the festival.   

Florence Price, photo courtesy the Univ. of Arkansas, Special Collections

Florence Price, photo courtesy the Univ. of Arkansas, Special Collections

So many works by women have been lost to dumpsters and trash bins, and it is quite miraculous that these works by Florence Price would be recovered all these years after her death.  Here Prof. Rae Linda Brown (Assoc. Provost at Loyola Marymount University) explains what the new discoveries mean for our understanding of Florence Price, and what it meant to be a composer who was a woman, black, and American in the mid-20th century.  Astoundingly, the discovery includes two symphonies and two concertos that were previously believed to be lost (!!!)

“Performance today” — on PRI, Feb. 26, 2015,  features Price and the Arkansas Festival in their second hour, so you get the wonderful opportunity to hear a string quartet by Price, from 1929, in what is believed to be its world premiere.  The performance of the quartet begins at 10:12.  The first movement impresses me as a tone poem: at times evocative, moody, playful, and atmospheric, expressed in a seamless flow.  It is played with great warmth and sensitivity by the Northwest Arkansas String Quartet: Er-Gene Kahng, violin; Ryan Cockerham, violin; Tazonio Anderson, viola; Patrick Bellah, cello.  The second movement is a heartrending spiritual type of melody (Andante moderato) that frames a playful dance section (Allegretto).  You can also watch a video of the last section of the second movement;  it is very beautiful to watch!   And Prof. James Greeson, of the Univ. of Arkansas, has made six other performances from the festival available on his Vimeo Page (thank you!).  These include the Andante from Price’s “Ethiopia’s Shadow in America” with the Univ. of Arkansas Symphony conducted by Dr. Robert Mueller.

I am sorry I missed the Festival, but thank you to the Univ. of Arkansas for organizing it, and for preserving and making available these remarkable discoveries about a composer who we can now begin to appreciate more completely.