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The American Female Century

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Nicole Parks, Kyra Davies, Lauren Nelson, and guest cellist Zan Berry at Leslie Lindsay Chapel

The Semiosis Quartet took its “American Century” program of works by female composers to the Lindsey Chapel of Emmanuel Church on Friday evening after having offered it in Cambridge the night before. Through the vagaries of scheduling that sometimes happen, we agreed to cover it, unaware that our colleague David Patterson would already have heard it across the river. His report is here. What follows, therefore, is more a set of impressions of how the two performances may have differed, with a few observations on the repertoire.

The first thing to remark about the different settings is that Lindsey Chapel is a larger, more reverberant space than the room at the New School of Music. This has both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, the strong, vigorous playing that seems to have characterized both editions of the program came across as just that, rather than something overwhelming. We were actually quite pleased with the sound quality of the strings, especially in the Crawford [-Seeger] quartet, which, when we last heard a performance a few months ago, seemed a little underplayed. The negative impact of the resonance is that we could make out hardly anything of the sung text to Shelley Washington’s Say (2016), a problem compounded by the curious decision to print Washington’s quasi-poetic program note but not the text itself (also by the composer). Only the strongly intoned refrain “black in America” came across clearly. On the whole, while the idiom Washington employs is standard 21st-century eclectic neo-tonal, with the expected occasional clusters, slides, ostinati and the sound effects mentioned in David’s report, with an overlay from time to time of a folk-derived pentatonicism, one must conclude that here the message was the medium, and the actual notes almost didn’t matter.

Skipping about in the program order, we find it instructive to contrast the Washington piece with the Quartet in G Major (1929) by Florence Price. In only two movements (it sounded unfinished, as if there might be one or two more movements yet to be discovered in somebody’s attic, which is where most of Price’s music has turned up), the first offered remarkable twists of chromatic harmony; at times we thought intonation issues with the performers might have been supplementing the chromaticism on the page. The second movement, a tender and lyrical ABCBA andante, is tightly constructed and emotionally satisfying, with a very Chadwickian folksiness (Price had studied with him at NEC) that thoroughly amalgamates a generalized Americanism with the particularities of her black Southern roots. As far as we can tell, this piece has not been recorded; somebody ought to. The fine performance it got from Semiosis is self-recommending in that regard.

As noted, we were generally happy with the Crawford (she wasn’t yet quite Seeger when she wrote it in 1931), and only wished every so often for a little more dynamic contrast. The finale was especially solid, especially when the instrumental forces “switch sides.” We were of somewhat more mixed feelings about the Quartet No. 2 (1998) by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. When its dedicatees, the Emerson Quartet premiered it, Paul Griffiths wrote in the New York Times that it sounded to him like a wan imitation of Shostakovich. We see his point, though we detected elements of Prokofiev, Stravinsky (especially in the finale) and the Baroque (in the slow movement). Perhaps in her first neo-tonal string quartet (after her earlier, atonal, No. 1, from 1974), she was still feeling her way, and after all, to whom is it better to look to than the greatest 20th century writer of tonal string quartets? The structure, though, is not characteristically Shostakovian; it proceeds in an arc from an opening to a closing unison A, and linking rhythmic nodules running throughout. And it also dispenses some complicated chromatic and “wrong-note” harmonies that, to Griffith’s ear, the Emersons sounded out of tune; since we heard the same effect from Semiosis, it may be that the Zwilich just wrote it that way. This quartet hasn’t been recorded either.

Carolyn Shaw’s brief Valencia (2012), perhaps a planned encore, brought brightness and cheer with lots of slides, mostly rhythmic and gestural. Nevertheless, it gradually layers up and acquires an almost Vaughan Williams-ish motive with a surprise snap pizzicato sting. This nicely bookended the concert’s opener.

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