Austin Symphony Salutes Gifts Of Women Composers

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Jennifer Higdon: Carefully Composed (photo from the video by articulateshow.org)
By Paul E. Robinson

AUSTIN — Thankfully, most Western countries are finally acknowledging that women deserve to be paid the same wage as men for the same work, that women can conduct symphony orchestras just as well as men, and that women are just as capable as men of composing music. On March 22 and 23 at Long Center for the Performing Arts, deep in the heart of conservative Texas, the Austin Symphony presented concerts of music composed by women. Assembled by music director Peter Bay, the program included a wide-ranging set of pieces. The performers gave them stellar readings, and, at the performance I attended, the audience seemed thrilled with the whole thing.

Surely one of Bay’s intentions in planning this concert was to show that women have been composing music for a very long time and doing it well. The program, which spanned 177 years, opened with Fanny Mendelssohn’s Overture in C major, composed around 1830, and finished with Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto 4-3, premiered in 2007. If he had wanted to include some really old music composed by a woman, Bay could have programmed a work by Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), although she lived long before the advent of the symphony orchestra.

Fanny Mendelssohn in a painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim

Mendelssohn (1805-47), the eldest sister of the celebrated German composer Felix Mendelssohn and by all accounts a gifted musician, had the misfortune to live in a time when it was simply not acceptable for women to become professional musicians; in fact, some of her compositions were published under her brother’s name. She wrote the Overture in C major, a concert piece about 10 minutes in length, between the ages of 25 and 27. If one didn’t know she was the composer, one might guess it was a work by young Felix Mendelssohn, although clearly not of the quality of his Octet, which he composed at the age of 16 or his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he composed two years later. Although not a neglected masterpiece, Fanny’s Overture in C major is tuneful and competently crafted.

Felix Mendelssohn died at 38, and one wonders what he might have accomplished had he lived a lot longer. And might Fanny, who died at 42, have found her way to a major career as a composer?

Marie-Juliette Olga “Lili” Boulanger
(George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

Fast forward about 80 years to 1912 and a five-minute orchestral piece by Marie-Juliette Olga “Lili” Boulanger (1893-1918), the younger sister of Nadia Boulanger, one of the great teachers of the early 20th century, whose illustrious students included Aaron Copland, Daniel Barenboim, George Antheil, Elliott Carter, John Eliot Gardiner, Roy Harris, and Quincy Jones. Czech composer Vítězslava Kaprálová, one of the composers on this program, was also Nadia Boulanger’s pupil.

A major talent, Lili Boulanger, at 19, was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome with her cantata Faust et Hélène; she went on to write some beautiful songs and choral works. Her symphonic poem D’un matin de printemps, a lovely work that deserves to be heard more often, was one of the last pieces she completed before her death at the age of 24. Striking in its mastery of an impressionist style in the manner of Debussy and Ravel, the musical ideas in the piece are very much her own.

Clara Schumann (Franz Hanfstaengl)

Unlike Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896), who became one of the foremost piano soloists of her time, did have a professional career in music, but like Fanny she had a tough time making her way as a composer. At age 13, Clara wrote her only piano concerto under the direction of her father, Friedrich Wieck, and her husband-to-be, Robert Schumann. Impressive, especially for its demanding solo part that gives some indication of how prodigious a pianist Clara must have been, the piece is reminiscent of the Chopin piano concertos in some respects, with the solo part featuring elaborate passage work while the orchestra remains mostly in the background. That said, it is unlikely that Clara would have known either of the Chopin concertos, since the Polish composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 dates from 1830.

Michelle Schumann

An unusual feature of Clara Schumann’s piano concerto is the slow movement, in which the orchestra is mostly silent except for a solo cello part almost equal in importance to the piano part. In this Austin Symphony performance, the piano soloist was Michelle Schumann, artistic director of the Austin Chamber Music Center. As far as I know, Ms. Schumann is not related to the composer; nonetheless, she proved to be a passionate advocate of this neglected composition. Austin Symphony principal cellist Douglas Harvey played his slow movement solo beautifully. Not coincidentally, 2019 is the 200th anniversary of Clara Schumann’s birth.

Like Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, and Lili Boulanger, Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-40) was a child prodigy. Born in Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic, she studied in Prague and Paris. Among her teachers were Bohuslav Martinů, Charles Munch (conducting), and Nadia Boulanger. A prolific composer in her short life, she produced songs, works for solo piano, two piano concertos, and two orchestral suites. Her music is promoted today by the Kaprálová Society based in Toronto.

Vítězslava Kaprálová at the age of 20

Interestingly, she is cited in the Amazon TV series Mozart in the Jungle (Season 3). Her Suita rustica, in three movements, with quotes from Moravian, Slovak, Silesian, and Czech folk songs, including one of the dances from Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride, was composed in 1938 just two years before Kaprálová died of an undetermined illness, perhaps typhoid fever. Stylistically, Suita rustica is more advanced than Smetana’s Bartered Bride or Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances. The folk songs in Suita rustica have harmonic and rhythmic twists and turns that make some of them almost unrecognizable, which leads one to wonder if Kaprálová was paying tribute to her heritage or punishing it as a way of moving forward; in any case, she speaks with an original voice and shows a remarkable gift for orchestration.

Finally, in this stimulating program, came what was clearly the pièce de resistance: Higdon’s Concerto 4-3. Like Kaprálová, Higdon makes use of folk music — in her case the bluegrass music of her native Tennessee — which she gives the fullbore contemporary treatment. Concerto 4-3 was jointly commissioned in 2007 by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and the Wheeling Symphony for performance by the group Time for Three (Tf3) (Nick Kendall and Charles Yang, violins, and Ranaan Meyer, double bass).

Time For Three (Tf3)

Is Tf3 a classical group? Perhaps, since all three musicians received advanced training at Curtis, but probably not, since there is little if any classical repertoire for this combination of two violins and a double bass; that said, no such combination exists in jazz, country and western, or gypsy music, either. In fact, this new combination lends itself to virtually any genre it wishes to take on. In Tf3, three extraordinarily talented and versatile performers seem to embrace all kinds of music.

Onstage, the members of Tf3 exude funky and cool. While the members of the Austin Symphony behind them were dressed in traditional matching black concert attire, the Tf3 players were in jeans and casual shirts. As a further indication of their crossover status, the group makes use of amplification, which they do so carefully and so professionally that it projects as acoustic.

Higdon’s Concerto 4-3, which masterfully balances improvisation and written-out music, is an ideal vehicle for Tf3, exploiting to the full their virtuosity and amazingly wide range of dynamics. Concerto 4-3 is a piece that is decidedly contemporary in every sense and yet almost a guaranteed crowd-pleaser — at least with Tf3 fronting the band. I was not surprised at all when the members of the audience rose almost in unison to cheer the performers even before the last chords had died away.

The audience did not let them get away without an encore. First came Joy by Tf3’s Austin-born violinist Charles Yang, then Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in an arrangement that captured fully the beauty and depth of emotion in this beloved secular hymn from the 1980s.

Under Bay’s direction over a period of more than two decades, the Austin Symphony has become one of the finest professional orchestras in Texas. Like most orchestras around the country, it plays more than its share of Nutcrackers, but season in and season out its programming covers a wide spectrum. Last season, it celebrated the Bernstein anniversary with a brilliant staging of Mass. In the concert devoted to women composers, the orchestra played magnificently throughout a program of music that would have been almost totally unfamiliar to them before that week. The Higdon was especially challenging, but the orchestra showed no weakness whatsoever. Special kudos to the wood block player!

Any concert made up of neglected or unknown pieces by mostly unknown composers is a learning experience for the audience. Judging by the smiles on the faces of Austin listeners as they finally made their way toward the exits, it was one they would welcome again. Bay could surely offer up another entire concert by women composers in the near future. I suspect that he is already thinking about it, and making sure that one of the composers selected is an Austinite, or at the very least, a Texan.

For something more…There is no doubt that women composers are seriously unrepresented on symphony programs. A survey of American orchestras for the 2015-16 season revealed that only 1.7% of the music programmed was by women.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is going all-out next season to honor Clara Schumann, who was born in Leipzig. The orchestra and its chamber ensembles and choirs will be performing nearly everything she wrote, and will continue to honor women composers throughout the season.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for theartoftheconductor.com, www.ludwig-van.com (formerly musicaltoronto.org), and www.myscena.org.

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