By William Albright
HOUSTON – Because of the record number of women who were victors in national elections in 1992, it was dubbed The Year of the Woman. But women made dramatic electoral gains this year, too, and 2018 is also shaping up as a Year of the Woman Composer.
For the first time in its 135-year history, the Metropolitan Opera has commissioned operas by women. Missy Mazzoli will write an opera based on George Saunders’s novel Lincoln in the Bardo, and the company is planning to stage Jeanine Tesori’s opera Grounded, based on the George Brant play. In addition, the Met will perform a Mazzoli chamber opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Only two other operas by female composers have been staged by the company: Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin in 2016 and Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald in 1903.) Also, the American Composers Orchestra’s current season is made up almost entirely of works by women composers.
The River Oaks Chamber Orchestra – River Oaks is kind of Houston’s Beverly Hills – has been promoting women composers as well as new works for more than a decade. Women composers are represented in fully half of this season’s programming and account for a fifth of ROCO’s total repertory, versus 2 percent for orchestras nationally ‒ and few outfits can top the 14-year-old, 35-member ensemble’s record of 72 commissions.
On November 17, in the Church of St. John the Divine, ROCO presented an all-female-composer program titled “Queen of Hearts.” With Taiwanese-American conductor and Chicago Sinfonietta music director Mei-Ann Chen deftly shaping and energizing the polished readings, the centuries-spanning lineup featured Anna Clyne’s 2009 Within Her Arms, Ruth Gipps’ 1958 Seascape, Louise Farrenc’s 1847 Symphony No. 3, and Solitaire, a world-premiere commission by Heather Schmidt.
Beginning composition studies at age 5 and later trained at Juilliard and Indiana University, where she became the youngest student to receive a Doctor of Musical Arts degree, the Canada-born Schmidt likens Solitaire to vanilla ice cream with a rich, sweet topping.
And indeed, the piece – actually first performed the day before, during a panel discussion on women in the arts – is film-score lush. Written to showcase long-time friend and ROCO concertmaster Scott St. John, the work is a 16-minute violin concerto awash in soaring, ruminative passion filigreed with lots of motoric fiddling and briefly cleaved by a yearning cadenza.
The program opened with Within Her Arms by British composer Anna Clyne, who was born in 1980, completed her first work at age 11, studied at the Manhattan School, and once served as a composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony. First performed by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Clyne’s strings-only piece is dedicated to her mother, who died in 2009. It was the most “modern”-sounding item in an otherwise musically rather conservative evening; its astringent harmonies, layered textures, and long intertwining lines made for 16 minutes of subdued but poignantly sustained keening. [To hear it, played by another orchestra, see below.]
An oboist and pianist who studied with Sir Eugene Goossens and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ruth Gipps (1921-99) was another British-born child prodigy who performed her first composition at age 8. Seascape, her Opus 53, is a pocket-size La Mer for double wind quintet, its seven atmospheric minutes of rippling, billowing arpeggios briefly enlivened by what sounds like a jaunty hornpipe.
Paris-born Louise Farrenc (1804-75) studied piano with Moscheles and Hummel, was a professor of piano at the Paris Conservatory for 30 years, and took composition lessons from Anton Reicha. Judging from her Symphony No. 3 in G minor, Op. 36, she knew her way around a good tune and understood how to put one across. After an opening Adagio-Allegro propelled by jaunty rhythms, the Adagio Cantabile movement unspools sweetly. Following a bustling, skittish Scherzo, the allegro Finale makes a dramatic, propulsive conclusion to a 37-minute work that would grace any orchestra’s program no matter the sex of the other offerings’ authors.
William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera Quarterly, and other publications.