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Tanglewood Affirms Four Women Who Compose


Anna Thorvaldsdottír

The 2023 Festival of Contemporary Music at the Tanglewood Music Center featured a rather uncustomary organizing principle. In most previous years, the events were largely planned by a single senior composer (Oliver Knussen, John Harbison, and others) with the collaboration of a few other guest composers. This year the guest composers consisted of four women from different parts of the world and different cultures, who have been widely successful in getting their music performed and also frequently as teachers:  Reena Esmail (Indian-American, resident in Los Angeles, but frequently returning to India and working with musicians trained in either style); Gabriela Lena Frank (American uniting Peruvian, Chinese, and Lithuanian/Jewish descent, born in Berkeley, California): Tebogo Monnakgotla (born in Sweden of a South African father and a Swedish mother, resident in Sweden); and Anna Thorvaldsdottir (born in Iceland, earned Ph.D. at the University of California, San Diego, currently based in London).

The Festival began on Thursday July 27th with a panel presentation led by Michael Gandolfi, head of the Tanglewood Music Center composition program. Unfortunately two of the four composers (Frank and Thorvaldsdottir) were unable to attend the festival. To fill out the panel, Gandolfi invited Ania Vu, a 2022 composition fellow at Tanglewood, who had been commissioned to write a work to be performed this weekend. She was born in Warsaw of Vietnamese parents who had emigrated to Poland. Her native languages were Vietnamese and Polish, though she studied German, Latin, French, and English; she now speaks the latter most frequently as a resident of Chicago.

Issues raised in the panel included some that do not often turn up in this venue, but entirely appropriate for this group of participants: the effect of growing up and learning a wide range of languages and cultures from every region of the world. Each composer also discussed her own approach to conceiving music and how (or if) it reflects her culture or, frequently, a mixing of elements from different cultures in which she has lived and worked.

As is usually the case, most of the programs during the weekend call for various kinds of chamber ensembles, both small and large, from solos, duets, and trios up to groups that might be regarded as approaching chamber symphonies. Each of the principal guest composers planned an entire program containing largely her own work (these are often called “portrait programs”), usually with the addition of a piece by a composer with whom the principal figure in that concert feels a special kinship.

Gabriela Lena Frank (Sabrina Frank photo)

The first of these concerts featured chamber works by Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1974), with a visit from Béla Bartók. Frank’s selections consisted of a 2012 composition for piano, four-hands, Sonata Serrana No. 1, which evokes her mother’s Peruvian background, emphasizing rhythms and harmonies of the music of the Andes. In the four movements, the two pianists alternate the change of mood and character, one (usually the bass end of the keyboard) having pounding, dark chords, the other (usually the treble end) emphasizing faster-moving decorated lines. The splendid performers were Fifi Zhang (upper part) and William Shi (lower part).

Next came a quartet of cellos (Luis Parra, Hyunji Kirn, Mizuki Hayakawa, and BSO cellist Mickey Katz) entitled Las Sombras de las Apu (Shadows of the Apus). This was her earliest work on the program, premiered at Juilliard in 1999. The imagery of the work involves the strength and beauty of the Andes, and the score’s title suggests the minor divinities (the Apu) that haunt the mountain tops in Quechua mythology, causing endless problems for careless travelers. The music evokes the rugged harshness of that world and the storms and avalanches created by the Apu.

The “extra” work on the program was Bartók’s Contrasts for violin, clarinet, and piano, composed at the request of Benny Goodman. Though composed for an American performance, the composer’s Hungarian rhythms and themes are fully audible. The performers—Marissa Weston, violin; Alisha Zamore, clarinet; and Joseph Vasconi, piano—gave it a vivid, tasty reading.

Frank’s Milagros (Miracles) for string quartet is another work with Peruvian inspiration, in this case the “miracles” celebrated the “religious and marvelous occurrences” encounters in many aspects of life. The piece consists of eight short movements evoking women dancing, religious shrines, dances, and natural wonders of the day and of the starlight. The variety of rhythms and tunes is considerable. The work opens with the second violin, and the activity moves around the circle ending with the first violin. The excellent performers were Christian Gonzales, violin 1; Sohyun Ahn, violin 2; Yun-Ting Kuo, viola; and Juhyeon Kim, cello.

The portrait concert devoted to Anna Thorvalsdottir (b. 1977) took place on Friday, Jul 28th. The first part included works built out of small rhythmic and melodic fragments that echoed the elements of György Kurtág’s Hommage á Mihaly Andras, 12 Microludes for string quartet. solo piano piece in seven short movements (the entire work runs eight minutes). The score is written with an expansion of normal piano staves, of five lines each, adding an upper fifteen strings to reflect playing inside the piano to create a haze floating over the more solid sounds of notes playeáád on the keyboard. It was excitingly played by Shaoai Ashley Zhang.

The other recent piece was Spectra, for string trio, performed by Archer Brown, violin; Nathan Ernans, viola; and Yong-Jun Lee, cello. Again in short movements linked throughout, the six section fill just nine minutes, enlivening them with constant variations and opposition of playing techniques in bowing, pizzicato, harmonics, and slow contrapuntal motion.

György Kurtág was represented by his earliest work to establish itself widely, setting up, once and for all, the interest in aphoristic writing, which continued even in vocal works, where the text might be expected to tie the miniature moments together.  Hommage á Mihaly Andras consists of a dozen miniature numbers (the entire score lasts only ten minutes), mostly without titles or tempo markings. They flow in a series of varied miniatures, sometimes with wild divergence of character, sometimes nearly without evident contrast between numbers. The quartet that presented the work consisted of Zili Sha (violin 1), Sheena Lan (violin 2), Kelly Avila (viola), and Ji Sun Jung (cello).

The remaining three compositions by Thorvaldsdottir were rather similar in character, in that they were larger pieces, cast in what was essentially a chamber orchestra mold of about a dozen instruments with conductor. These pieces suggest to a degree the influence of another Nordic composer, Sibelius, whose music made extensive use of drones, sometimes just one long, sustained sound for a considerable stretch, sometimes overlapping drones, sometimes building a considerable energetic force suggesting possibly the stone of Icelandic mountains and the rumble of volcanoes. Though she admits that listeners may be caught up in seemingly illustrative images, she ultimately thinks of the music as “an ecosystem of sounds” that are passed among the performers as a rumbling and roiling of sounds that transform throughout the piece.

The first of this group, Hrim (2010), directed by Stephen Drury, was written to appear on a program with Ligeti’s chamber concerto, which apparently inspired the intense underpinning of the drones, often balanced against lighter, fast-moving sound clouds like volcanic gases bursting forth.  Aequilibria (2014), also conducted by Drury, is similar in character, though almost twice as long. Contrasting or developing musical ideas grow at different rates in contrast to the drones, clearing to allow individual instruments balance different sonorities into including consonant harmonies. The third and last of these related works, (Calm), conducted by Agata Zajat, is an octet calling for bass flute, bass clarinet, percussion, piano, and string quartet. It begins with a drone on A, which is sustained through much of the piece, acting as contrast with sustained sounds in other instruments, whether consonant of dissonant in effect. The strings use an electronic device, an ebow, that sustains the sound without the need to change the direction of the bow, giving it a seamless string sound. The overall feeling of the piece is suggested by its title, Calm.

Reena Esmail

Saturday (July 29th) at 4pm Studio E resounded with music by Reena Esmail (b, 1980), who offered commentary before each piece. Her family is Indian, though she herself was born in Los Angeles after her parents had separately immigrated from India and Pakistan and married in the United States. She grew up bilingual, speaking English with her parents and in the world around her, but with her grandparents she spoke their native language from northern India. Her musical training began as a pianist, the career that she first intended to pursue. But while pursuing undergraduate work in New York, she became interested in Hindustani music, which was readily available there to hear and learn, thus inspiring her to begin informal playing of this music. A Fulbright Fellowship in 2011-12 took her to India, where she worked with Hindustani artists to absorb the traditions of that music and to recognize shared values despite the many differences between Indian and European music. Following her Fulbright year, she studied at Yale, where she completed a Ph.D. degree in 2018 with a dissertation on “Finding Common Ground: Uniting Practices of Hindustani and Western Art Musicians.”

Reena Esmail summarized her approach with a brief statement placed at the head of the program notes: “I wish I could live in India and America at the same time. I wish they shared a border, and I could build a little home right in between them. I know I can’t do that in the physical world, but this is where I live every day in my music.” She works with American artists to show them how Indian ragas, rhythmic traditions, and improvisatory technique work, and with skilled Indian artists to show how phrasing, harmony, and textures work. The music heard in this program involved blended elements of both traditions.

The first two works on the program were compositions dating from 2019. Darshan (“Seering”), for unaccompanied violin, is a work in progress with Esmail husband, the violinist Veejay Gupta. Intended to be complete in five movements, the first and third were performed here by Sage Park. It was based on an Indian raga, essentially a specific scale pattern (of which there are many in Indian music) used as the basis of improvisation. Esmail said the Kaija Saariaho was a particular influence in balancing the sound and silence of the piece.

The third movement of her Piano Trio (the movement labeled “Capricious” followed, played by Tiffany Wee, violin; Benjamin Fryxell, cello; and Corey Silberstein, piano. This work uses a traditional western heading because the composer saw herself as following the specific tradition of Beethoven and Mendelssohn. The third movement performed here paid a lively “homage to Mendelssohn”in a lively, brilliant outing.

Eva Martinez, soprano; Sage Park, violin; and Benjamin Fryxell, cello; freely wove together individual a song with three parts. The strings form an alap (an opening improvisational section) into which the soprano weaves a vocal line uttering a text by the American poet Wendell Berry: “Who makes a clearing makes a work of art.”

Esmail had worked with Lakshmi Shankar until her death in 2013. Thereafter she became a close friend and collaborator with the Hindustani singer Saili Oak, was at first her teacher and who time became a regular collaborator. She performed in three substantial works (one an encore) of the present program.

Ramagala (2016) , for voice and string quartet, is cast in four movements with optional vocal interludes improvised. Movements 2 to 4 were performed here: Scherzo (Malkauts): (Adagio, ephemeral, Scherzo); Recitative (Basant): Adagio, ephemeral, Basant);

Rondo (Jōg): Adagio, ephemeral, Presto (C), performed by Saili Oak, vocalist, Tiffany Wee, violin, Sage Park, violin, Elizabeth Doubrava, viola, and Benjamin Fryxell, cello. It takes a fair amount of time and experience (or even a lot of both) for a westerner to grasp the effect of the different ragas. It is easiest to quote the composer’s words in this regard. “The second movement is a vivacious and rhythmic setting of a Malkauns taan, which to the western ear always seems to be pulling to a dominant rather than a tonic. The third movement is the contemplative Basaant—a raag that signifies the season of spring in Hindustani music. And the fourth movement is in the complex and multifaceted Jōg, a single raag which seems to contain western notions of both major and minor [modes] within it.

The most recent work was the 2022 duo for oboe and piano, Pranayam, in five movements, played by Anqi Zhou, oboe, and Elias Dagher, piano. The International Double Reed Society commissioned it. Esmail is particularly fond of the oboe, and she thought of this piece as a way of encouraging young musicians to take up the instrument. Each of the five movements bears the word for a type of breathing pattern used in yoga.

Tebogo Monnakgotla (Elin Model photo)

The biggest and longest piece on the concert, Meri Sakhi Ki Avez (“My sister’s voice”) required a decade of composition,  while the friendship and collaboration between Reena Esmai and Saili Oak was developing. The score calls for two singers—a western soprano (Robin Steitz) and and Indian vocalist (Saili Oak); a string quartet (the same musicians who played in Ragamala), and piano (Gracie Francis). The work exists in both orchestral and chamber versions. It begins with a grief reference to a European representation of Indian music: the “Flower Duet” from Delibes’s opera Lakmé, but Indian elements soon arrive. It is a complex 21-minute work that Reena Esmai built up over a long period of planning, discussing, and singing with her “musical soul sister,” Saili Oak. It involves many raags, which Esmai treats as relatives of western key modulations, bringing both musical worlds into a rich relationship.

The unannounced encore was very similar to the piece that preceded it comprising vivid and lively interplay of the two singers and the other instruments, closing the concert with an enthusiastic reaction from an audience hearing a remarkable fusion of cultures and of musics, in most cases for the first time.

A serious storm warning came just as the 4pm concert was ending, with the suggestion that it might be wise to wait before proceeding to Ozawa Hall for the 6pm concert. As a result, I missed most of that event, though I was happily able to catch the world premiere by Ania Vu, commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center from a Tanglewood composition fellow from the previous year. She decided to compose a piece in honor of Ellen Highstein, who had ended decades of directing the Tanglewood Music Center in the summer when Ania Vu attended, and Joyce Linde. She frequently writes poems and regularly reads poetry in Polish (her first language), English, and French. For the commissioned work, she wrote a poem in English, “Small tenderness.” She was asked to write for a vocal sextet (soprano, two mezzos, two tenors, baritone). She asked if she could add a string quartet to extend the range of colors and sonorities. Her poem was inspired by a Nobel Prize lecture, “The Tender Narrator,” by Olga Tokarczuk in 2018. This gloss on Tokarczuk’s words presents the six singers (Bridget Ester, soprano; Bella Adamova and Gabriela Barkidjia, mezzos; Bradyn Debysingh and Nathaniel Bear, tenors; Jacob Heacock, bass-baritone) with various sonorities and vocal techniques—sometimes a soloists, sometimes as ensembles of various kinds, occasionally speaking. The string players (Tiffany Wee, violin, Sage Park, violin, Elizabeth Doubrava, viola, and Benjamin Fryxell, cello), conducted by Stefan Asbury provided a generally supportive bed on which the singers’ voices, with many contrasts of string techniques, in rather the same kinds of varieties that the singers employed, All in all, the work suggested a modern equivalent, in both the vocal and instrumental parts, of a late Renaissance madrigal, shaping the imagery of the poem with musical imagination

Unfortunately I was not able to attend the Sunday morning concert of the South African/Swedish composer Tebogo Monnakgotla.

Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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