IN: Reviews

American Women Composers Varied Yet Cohesive


An article in a recent issue of Opera News ponders “Are vocal recitals an endangered species?” The answer, of course, is debatable, but I think Friday night’s concert offered a very healthy specimen of the genre. Music Director of the Cantata Singers Chamber Series, Allison Voth has an amazing knowledge of the song repertoire, coupled with fine and insightful artistic sensibilities. She assembled (working with six excellent vocalists) a recital full of insight and artistry; and connected by unexpected resonances. I was honored to have been invited to give the pre-concert lecture, and have adapted some of my remarks for inclusion here, adding observations on the performance. Voth’s own detailed program notes are HERE.

The program title “Women Composers in America: Early Days and Here and Now” was another debatable element. There were women composers from colonial times, but Amy Beach was the outstanding member of a group who were the first women to achieve a breadth of fame and achievement in multiple genres of concert music, and in fact Beach might be measured as the most successful American composer of her era of any gender.

The first half addressed themes of the beauty and power of landscapes and nature, themes present in the second half as well, along with a focus on human drama.

A lively a capella work for three women’s voices (sopranos Lisa Lynch and Alexandra Whitfield, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Webb) opened the program, Sheila Silver’s “First Fig.” Why a fig in a poem about a candle, the famous candle that burns at both ends? Edna St. Vincent Millay placed it first in her book of poems called “Figs from Thorns,” that is, fruit where you shouldn’t expect fruit. Also the expectation of fruitfulness: full of good possibilities, and thus an auspicious beginning to a concert.

Sheila Silver used “First Figs” to begin and end her own Millay song cycle, and Voth used them to frame this concert: “First Fig” was reprised at the end, in a jazzy vein with syncopated rhythm. Two other works from that Millay cycle were also included.

The three songs by Amy Beach offered a broad span of emotion. “The Year’s at the Spring” (op. 44, n. 1) is exuberant in its energy, “Forgotten” (op. 41, n. 3) is grim and despondent, and “In the twilight” (op. 85) is mysterious and stressful. “The Year’s at the Spring” holds a special place in history, for in April of 1916, 103 years ago, it became the first work to be sung by telephone across the U.S., sung by soprano Helen Hoburn Heath, in San Francisco to a group in Newark NJ. This was the first time that music was transmitted by wire across the continent. At one time Caruso was believed to have accomplished this “first,” but his event was a few weeks later.

With its text by Robert Browning, “The Year’s at the Spring” is certainly Beach’s best-known song. Its joyful excitement was conveyed by mezzo Majie Zeller, although someday I would like to hear it performed by a real roof-raising Heldensopran. The concert moved smoothly, with the singers remaining onstage on stools to move smoothly in and out of their roles. Mezzo-soprano Bonnie Gleason captured the pathos of “Forgotten,” although the tempo was perhaps a bit too lugubrious. “In the twilight” is a famous Longfellow poem that was widely set and anthologized. Beach’s version skillfully creates a dramatic scene of a fearsome storm, using a broad chromatic palette of harmonies unleashed in the cascading waves of the piano part. Its ending is un-resolved (reflecting the ambiguity of the poem), which is a unique feature among Beach’s many songs.

Jennifer Webb is such a remarkable actor, to have gone from the suspenseful cliffhanger of “In the Twilight,” to have transformeed musically and brought us along, to Margaret Bonds’ “Poème d’automne.” The two songs by the African-American Bonds are to texts by Langston Hughes, a collaboration for which Bonds is known. In “Poème d’automne” the elements of nature are personified into sensual beings, sultry languid creatures evoked with Jazz inflections. Bonds employed a rich layering of back and forth, the interchanges between the voice and piano (in marked contrast with Beach keeping the piano strictly in an accompaniment role). Bonds’s “Summer Storm” vividly paints a picture of the rumble of an approaching thunderstorm, with emotional excitement of new love paired with the drama of the storm. Majie Zeller brought a crackle of electricity to it, although again I thought the tempo needed a bit more drive.

Libby Larsen’s song cycle My Ántonia, closed the first half with seven scenes drawn from the novel of the great prairie. Larsen adapts Willa Cather’s own words to create a succinct and effective cycle, distilling the rich emotion and atmosphere of the novel. “Landscape No. 1 from the Train” employs an undulating train travel motive that moves the narrator Jim back in time to the prairie of his childhood. For audience members there were obvious musical resonances with Bonds’ “Summer Storm:” a similar driving motive suggesting excitement, being transported, anticipation. This was one of the elements that unified the program with multilayered connections and resonances. This cycle was divided among the four female singers, with Alexandra Whitfield giving a riveting version of the first and last songs. She is a compelling dramatic presence.

In the declamatory second song, with narrative and dialogue, we observe child Jim meeting Ántonia, a young Czech immigrant, and getting to know her. Lisa Lynch proved adept and agile at singing the different roles. “Landscape 2: Winter” (Maije Zeller) evoked both the barren cold, and the harsh life of the immigrants through stark, restrained music, jangling chord clusters a bleak descending vocal line. But the music becomes animated when Antonia greets her beloved father: a fragile folk-style melody slips in. The ominous bleak sounds return when we learn the father takes his own life.

“The hired girls” is upbeat, as we encounter Jim, now a bit older, attending a dance. Larsen has written a foot-stomping, folk-like tune, presented with vigor by Bonnie Gleason, as was the next song, “Landscape 3: Prairie Spring,” my favorite of the cycle. The throb of spring is evoked with brilliant pulsing sonorities that recall the motion of the opening train motive, but high and radiant, with the voice careening in expansive large leaps.

“Ántonia in the fields” begins with poetic, lyrical piano writing. Larsen evokes the wistful moments with great poignancy. Here Lynch returned to show vocal warmth and sensitivity. The last movement (Whitfield) recalls the opening train idea, but tempered with the lyrical memories of Ántonia, memories fused with the powerful landscape. Larsen’s song cycle makes a vivid impression, and is an effective recasting of this important American story. As pianist, Voth provided a rich and expressively shaded and shaped interpretation.

We returned after intermission to two songs by Marjorie Merryman, who lived in Boston for many years and is well-known here. She set two poems by her daughter, Sarah Cohen, an interesting and unusual mother-daughter collaboration, performed expressively by Jennifer Webb, in the world premiere.

“The heart” is a poetic contemplation of the human organ. The melodic writing is frequently abstract, but there is a moment, when at the mention of a girl at a sewing machine we hear a lovely rippling effect, perhaps an echo of Gretchen at her spinning wheel.

In “Cassiopeia,” we encounter the queen, who in mythology, was turned into the constellation. And here is another train journey for our concert, as the motion of her constellation is like a train on its tracks, evoked by precise clockwork intricacy. But when the conductor tells her to “get comfortable, the night is long,” a warm, sinuous melody then unfolds. I hope to be able to hear these moving and thoughtful songs again, and it was a pleasure and honor to be there for the premiere.

Composer Laurie Laitman has been devoted almost exclusively to setting the spoken word, both in art song and in opera. This pair of songs, And Music Will Not End was commissioned by the Lyrica Society in 2006 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. The poems contrast, although both treat death abstractly. Baritone Brian Church sang both with a heartfelt warmth and gentleness.

In “Partial lunar eclipse, September 7, 2006,” lunar motion reflects time and loss, with the final section presenting the narrator in the first person: is my death like a moon slipping into shadow?

“A Pastoral Lament” has a lyrical simplicity, one that is hard to connect with the two political leaders working in a time of turmoil. Yet each of the assassinated was once an innocent boy with dreams, and someone who died too young.

Shiela Silver’s setting of Millay’s “I, being born a woman,” is sensual and jazzy, bringing back some of the mood of Bonds’s “Poeme D’Autoume,” with a sizzling coyness (recalling Webb as singer brought out this connection) although this is a much more upbeat work, powered by couplets and a driving ostinato. Another Millay setting by Silver is “A visit to the asylum” which offers evocative warmth in the simple words of the young narrator. Silver sets the accessible quatrains with a richly modal accompaniment. Here Webb perfectly captured the sweetness and innocence of the story.

Ruth Crawford Seeger took a commission from the Society from Contemporary music in Philadelphia as an opportunity to explore her newly ignited political consciousness. She wrote this in 1932, the same year she married musicologist and composer Charles Seeger, using a text by H.T. Tsiang, a Chinese immigrant then attending Columbia University. “Chinaman, Laundryman” is from his Poems from the Communist Revolution. We hear Crawford both as a devoted modernist, and also using music as a tool on behalf of the worker. Crawford’s biographer, Judith Tick, explains the juxtaposed roles of piano and voice as symbolic of the class struggle: the remorseless drive of the piano, in its rigid 12-tone rows, is the cold, calculating boss, and the singer, with the flexible half-spoken, half-sung voice part, is the hapless, downtrodden worker. While at times the protagonist offers an unhinged rant, the worker does arrive at a place of hope; that we can create a cleaner world, a better world. Lisa Lynch was the adroit and versatile singer in this challenging role.

Several scholars have written about this song; it helps us contextualize Crawford’s famous String Quartet, written only a year earlier. And its commitment to the political may help us understand why Crawford would shortly turn away from writing art music and instead turn to transcribing and arranging folk music.

Kamala Samarkand was the youngest composer on this program. Also a singer, she has written several successful operas. Her song “The Last Blast of Anthony the Trumpeter (or how Spuyten Duyvil Creek got its name)” is a commission from the Five Boroughs Music Festival. The text is based on a Washington Irving story from his History of New York, one that is dramatic but fictitious. Even the notion that the Dutch phrase “En Spuyt den Duyvil” translates to “In spite of the devil” is not accurate, but it makes for a fun and exciting story. Anthony is something of a Paul Revere who fails in his quest to warn his Dutch colleagues about an impending British invasion. Another frightening storm scene was evoked although this one with great comic effect, as Anthony drowns in his attempt to cross the creek. Brian Church was in his element in this uproarious scena.

Allison Voth, Bonnie Gleason, Brian Church, Majie Zeller, Jennifer Webb, Alexandra Whitfield, Lisa Lynch (Michelle Rush photo)

After quite a bit of commotion, we turned to some delicate reflection, Susan Botti, another current and versatile composer and singer, set a poem by e e cummings, “Listen, It’s Snowing.” The title itself is something of a Zen koan; after all we don’t hear snow, we only hear its effects. The repeated note at the end of the song could illustrate several images of the text, such as: what, snowflakes? the millions of fingers? time passing? It’s up to us to listen and think. Whitfield engaged us with focus and introspection.

Composer Tania León, born in Cuba in 1943, has lived in New York City since 1967. She set a Spanish text by well-known poet Carlos Pintado, who is also a Cuban born American. “Mi Amor Es” was commissioned by Luigi Terruso as part of an album of music in memory of his husband, Emery W. Harper, who passed away in 2009. We hear a Rumba rhythm of León’s native Caribbean, but also brilliant splashes of harmony, in cascading arpeggios. The rhythmic pattern does not restrain the musical language; the vocal line is both declamatory and exuberant, and Brian Church navigated its restless energy and wide range with great ease.

And after that, we are back to First Fig, as Last Fig, the other end of that burning candle, with an energy that left the audience charged up and deeply satisfied.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences was certainly beautiful, interesting, and comfortable, although a bit dry acoustically. The Chamber Series will instead present its two concerts at Longy during the 2019-20 season HERE.

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is President of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy and The Rebecca Clarke Society, Inc.  Her website is here.

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  1. Sounds amazing. Wonderful article, Liane. So sorry to have missed this unique performance!

    Comment by Mei-Mei Ellerman — May 1, 2019 at 2:10 pm

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