The Brookline Library’s Hunneman Hall provided a cozy atmosphere last Wednesday evening for duets by women composers as the inaugural event of the Boston Women’s Music Project, created by NEC piano student Katherine Miller “frustrated with the lack of gender parity” in classical concerts. Miller plans to elevate women composers through such concerts plus the online archive here. For this engaging performance she collaborated with conservatory fellows Kate Arndt (violin), Sophia Adickes (soprano), and Dominique Kim (flute).
Spanning 150 years, the show sampled diverse works. The opener was the oldest (1874), and the only non-American one, Sonatine for violin and piano by Pauline Viardot (1821-1910). French but of Spanish descent, Viardot was a highly successful mezzo in her day; Berlioz and Liszt admired her compositions. Sonatine’s first movement flows with comfortable melody, then a scherzo-like second movement livens the mood and here sparkled with the performers’ clean articulation and ease of exchanges. Aside from a few intonation problems, Arndt and Miller exuded both confidence and spontaneity in the exciting and playful conclusion.
A pair of duets for soprano and piano featured African-American composers Betty Jackson King (1928-1994) and Margaret Bonds (1913-1972). King’s “In the Springtime” is a jazzy setting of text by Shakespeare and Bond’s familiar “He’s Got the Whole World” arranges the spiritual. (These are details I looked up; while the program included interesting biographies, aside from the commissioned work there were no notes on the individual pieces nor texts of the songs. It would have been helpful addition for such lesser-known examples.) Shaky ensemble moments made the songs feel a bit under-rehearsed.
The second pair of songs, Lucy Simon’s “How Could I Ever Know?” from her 1991 Broadway musical The Secret Garden (1991; Simon is sister of songwriter Carly and former Met mezzo Joanna) and Libby Larsen’s “Bucking Bronco” (1994) from her trio of cowboy-themed songs, were brought to life delightfully. Musical theater seemed to find soprano Adickes in her element and she executed dramatic flourishes with ease and poise.
“the truth depends on a walk” by recent Harvard graduate Stella Fiorenzoli comes from Wallace Stevens’s “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake,” and in her note Fiorenzoli explained that her inspiration came during a winter walk across the Boston Public Garden lagoon in which she reflected on the relationship among ice, the frozen lagoon; earth, ground surrounding; and flesh, the body. The three movements explored a wealth of textures. The first movement, “of earth and ice,” felt rustic and folklike with repetitive figures that built and suddenly released tension. The short second movement, “of ice and flesh,” featured surprising harmonies and syncopated rhythms interspersed with calm tonal sections, keeping listeners on the edge of their seat. Finally, “of flesh and earth,” brought a meditative atmosphere.
3 Short Character Pieces (the chase, captivity, and freedom) for flute and piano by Brooklyn composer Elisa Kahn-Ellis (b. 1961) and Romance for violin and piano by Boston’s Amy Cheney Beach (1867-1944), concluded the evening. Flutist Kim played with a rich dark tone and the pair navigated with ease the pieces’ variety of colors and moods. “Romance” felt like the perfect conclusion, Beach’s talent for expressive line on full display and the ABA form highlighting the sentiment. Arndt and Miller played together with taste. Although some of the climactic moments could have been conveyed with more abandon, Arndt’s lush tone, especially on the G string, combined with Miller’s beautifully paced return of the A section, proved a satisfying and pleasing close.
I look forward to hearing Boston Women’s Music Project deliver another such stimulating introduction to forgotten composers and compositions.
Carol Cubberley, a freelance violinist in the Boston area, currently teaches a class on women composers through the ages at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education.