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Celebrating the 19thAmendment With 14 Women Composers

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Jihye Chang (Julie Ingelfinger photo)

In this 100th-anniversary year of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women’s suffrage in the United States, women who create music have more opportunities, but still not equal to those enjoyed by men. Things have certainly improved since my father told me, “women do not have the imagination or insight to be good composers.” The message was, “don’t even think of it.” More recently, when my granddaughter wanted to write some music, we provided both composition paper and a transcription program for her computer and said, “go to it,” which she did.

In synch with the Zeitgeist, versatile pianist Jihye Chang, a passionate champion of new music, offered a rich and varied, if too brief evening of 14 contemporary women composers at BoCo’s Seully Hall last night. Faculty member Eun Young Lee (b. 1967) facilitated the wide-ranging and compelling concert.

Juri Seo’s (b. 1981) Doremi Variations (2015), provides surprising phrases to that basic progression, “written” she said “for myself.” At present an assistant professor of piano and composition at Princeton, Seo contrasts classical and contemporary sensibilities in pieces at times lyrical, humorous and light but for emphasis, repetitive and even violent or disruptive. Doremi encompasses three variations each beginning in B major and going to D-flat major and from allegro to largo. The third variation dominates and includes to fughettas. Chang’s precise and clear touch served the set well.

Four concise and distinctive miniatures followed. Jocelyn Hagen wrote her vibrant Miniature No. 1 (2019) for Chang as part of Continuum 88. Hagen (b. 1980), a composer-performer whose oeuvre ranges from choir to orchestra to individual instruments and video projections, combines her love of words AND music, altering expectations to include musicians and audiences together with electro-acoustic music, opera, dance and language. Here Chang provided a precision with deft musicality.

The late Steven Stucky was among Korean-born (1971) Kay Rhie’s composition teachers at her alma mater, Cornell. Now at UCLA, she penned this miniature for the Garlands Project with Gloria Cheng. Her Interlude (2017), played softly yet with focus, evoked his memory, peacefully and kindly.

A tonal bon mot by the Singaporean educator, sound artist and composer Joyce Beetuan Koh (b. 1968) suited Chang. Koh’s Edenkobener Beethoven Bagatellen (2005) combine a sense of “calligraphy on a sonic canvas,” written through computer-assistance. The 2nd, relayed here with panache, recalled Beethoven’s quirky humor with originality.

The last of the miniatures came from Adria Stolk, who was present for this soaring world premiere. Stolk, who joined BoCo at Berklee in 2016 as an assistant professor of core studies, creates vocal and instrumental genres. Written specifically for Chang, Stolk’s And It Still Remains is a gem.

Eun Young Lee’s Mool (water in Korean, written in 2012), a longer piece, utilized all registers of the 88 keys. Chang executed well with cascading motifs that evoke soft waterfalls. The pianist seemed totally immersed.

A series of dances began with Dancing Barefoot in the Rain (2012). American composer N’Keiru Okoye concerns herself with the soul of the African diaspora in this work. Here Chang created unmistakable rain sounds and joyous phrasing.

The syncopated rhythms in Tania León’s (b. in Cuba, 1943) Tumbao (2005) allowed Chang to shine. Reflective and eloquent, León often performs her own works. That being said, Chang treated us to a spirited and rousing performance.

The dark and resonant fardance CLOSE (2009) by Israeli-born (1957) Chaya Czernowin, the first-appointed woman composition professor at Harvard, provided contrast, starting with its soft high register tinkling, soon edged by thunderous low notes. Again, Chang was true to Czernowin’s effective, oppositional intoning.

Laurie San Martin’s 2007 Ziozuki, like much of her output, has a forthright energy and has been called “intense and rumbly.” San Martin (b. 1968), who holds a PhD in Theory and Composition from Brandeis, is a faculty member at UC Davis in California. Ziozuki energized both Chang and the audience.

The audience responded to Haven, a longer work by a Marti Epstein (b. 1959), Berklee professor of composition with great fervor. Epstein, who was in the audience, seemed clearly moved as well.

A series of four etudes made up the closing set. Unsuk Chin, born in South Korea in 1961, resides and creates in Germany and counts many 20th-century composers as mentors. Her output is often playful, as evident here in Etude No. 4 a three-minute example from Scalen. Chang produced the requisite light touch.

Joshua Kosman wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle about UC Berkeley Professor Cindy Cox (b. 1961), also an active pianist, that “her music…is always buoyant, puckish, rhythmically alive and crisply engaging.” Here No. 2 from Hierogamus (7 movements for piano) fit that description, as did a 2009 etude from Sylvan Pieces.

The short showpiece, Etude No. 1 “Octaves,” by Natalie Williams (b. 1979), ended the evening. Powerful and breathtaking, Chang’s rendition wowed the crowd.

Chang champions new music and encouraged the audience to continue discussions with her. Many fans lined up to do just that. We will hear much more from Chang, who has already premiered over 40 solo and chamber works, many by women composers.  The concert, in all, celebrated women as creative musicians and composers, fitting for a centennial.  

Cantabrigian Julie Ingelfinger is classically-trained amateur pianist, who has day jobs as a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, as a pediatric nephrologist at MassGeneral Hospital for Children at MGH and as deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine.

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