PERSPECTIVE — It was at once inspiring and chilling to witness Julia Wolfe’s fierce and angry and exultant oratorio Her Story. Performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with the 10 singers of the Lorelei Ensemble under the baton of Marin Alsop, a tireless champion of women in the world’s concert halls, Wolfe’s composition is about the struggle by women a century ago to win the right to vote. But implicitly, it’s about the unshackling of women generally. And there was the immediate example before us: women on the classical concert stage. The last several weeks of Chicago Symphony concerts spotlighting women bespeak nothing less than ascendancy.
Wolfe’s dramatically staged 40-minute tribute to that visionary and resolute quest for the right to vote capped a run of Chicago Symphony programs since mid-November spotlighting women in the role of composer, soloist, and conductor. Co-commissioned by the CSO, Her Story falls stylistically between minimalist and expressionist. Its story is told through three texts, the first a letter from Abigail Adams to her husband John as he was immersed in the framing of the U.S. Constitution. She asks that he “remember the ladies, and be more generous and more favorable than your ancestors.’
Abigail also makes the remarkable observation that “all men would be tyrants if they could.” She further notes that women “have no voice,” and so the work begins haltingly, deferentially, one might even say fearfully, with a kind of blurted incantation of the word “I” — until the presumptuous writer can utter the next charged, key word: “desire.” Abigail is imploring John on behalf of all those of her sex to remember them and give them due regard and place in this new nation, this new social structure.
With a sure ear for dramatic tension, Wolfe interweaves the choral cries with spare but expressively textured orchestration: a rising plea punctuated and underscored by the ten singers, initially arrayed in the choral loft behind the orchestra, Abigail’s words writ large above them.
The work’s second section, the pushback from all-powerful men who saw nothing good in the notion of women with the vote, brought the singers down into the orchestra. Here the suffragettes are condemned as everything unbecoming in women: Unloving, unstable, unruly…unmarried, unlovely…untoward, uncivil, etc., etc., and ultimately Un-American. Lest anyone miss these epithets, they were bannered on large, hand-held signs for all to see. This harangue ends with the 10 female singers arrayed downstage, their long, plain dresses rearranged to suggest more manly attire as they chew off a final thought: “I didn’t raise my girl to be a voter.” All that was lacking was a juicy spit of tobacco.
To conclude Her Story’s epochal dialectic, Wolfe invokes the words of a once-enslaved woman called Isabelle Baumfree, better known to history by the name she later took: Sojourner Truth. “Look at me. Look at my arm…I have plowed and planted, reaped and gathered…I am strong.” This simple, basic declaration, a demand for respect and inclusion, is delivered in music of ravishing edge and shattering power. From Abigail Adams’ tentative “I…I…I…desire…” to Sojourner Truth’s proclamation on behalf of women everywhere, Wolfe’s distilled text and her fearsome musical setting command full attention. Like Homer recounting the epic of Achilles, this story, her story, defies anyone to turn away.
Wolfe was on hand to share in a vociferous ovation. So, too, was Anna Clyne, a former CSO composer in residence, whose brilliant, lyrical and resonant nocturne for orchestra, This Midnight Hour, opened the program. Also present was the orchestra’s current composer in residence, Jessie Montgomery, whose rhapsodic — and jazz-inflected — Rounds for piano and strings received an infectious performance featuring soloist Awadagin Pratt.
It’s been quite a season for women at Orchestra Hall, if not unprecedented, then at least auspicious and one might add exemplary. Lera Auerbach’s cello concerto titled Diary of a Madman, played by Gautier Capuçon in November with Manfred Honeck conducting, surely will go down as a highlight of 2022-23.
Two women delivered another memorable evening when violinist Hilary Hahn, the CSO’s artist in residence, offered a grand tour of the Tchaikovsky concerto led by the Ukrainian-born Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska in December.
Stasevska, 38, could well turn out to be, as it were, The One — the woman who finally ascends to the podium of one of the world’s preeminent orchestras. Her account of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra with the Chicagoans was an impressive display of the art of conducting: focused, knowing, imaginative, confident. The rumor mill has been grinding on the idea that another Finn, Susanna Mälkki, could follow Jaap van Zweden at the New York Philharmonic. Maybe that will happen. If not, Stasevska, who’s just starting to make the rounds of the major circuit, could well zoom to the front of the line. We’re all but there, just the turn of a page in history from seeing a woman make that leap.