“Let Her Shine” concert

Short description

International Women’s Day may have just passed us by, but the Sun Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Olivier Ochanine keep the celebration going this coming March 22 with a very special concert of music by only women composers.

Fantasia on welsh nursery tunes

Piano concerto in A minor, op. 7
Soloist: Anna Polonsky

Gaelic symphony in E minor, op. 32

International Women’s Day may have just passed us by, but the Sun Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Olivier Ochanine keep the celebration going this coming March 22 with a very special concert of music by only women composers.

The opening work, a sort of overture based on eight Welsh children’s songs, and the main work of the concert’s second part, a symphony largely based on Irish and Scottish folk songs, are wonderful bookends that surround a piano concerto written by another woman composer, Clara Schumann, whose composition talent was overshadowed by her husband’s own compositions.

Out of the 3 composers featured on this programme, Grace Williams is probably the least known – although she is certainly the most known of women composers from Wales. In a letter from 1931, composer Ralph Vaughan Williams writes to Grace Williams (no relation): “I know you’ve got it in you to do some lovely music, dear Grace, if it can only come out…” and even though much or most of her music has never been recorded, she has established herself as a woman of great talent, writing superbly for orchestra and with a unique voice. The Times obituary reminded readers that Williams always knew and spoke her own mind: she formed her own opinions and stuck to them. Although she did not often extensively quote folk tunes, surely not as much as Amy Beach does in her Gaelic Symphony, her later writing leaned more nationalistic. Even before that, she wrote her Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes (1940), which cleverly connects 8 popular tunes from her childhood into one continuous work that is delightful, colorful and such a joy to play and to hear. Of particular note is her use of two lullabies in creating the fantasy–like atmosphere that begins with solo winds and eventually erupts in lush string melodic outpouring. The colors are beautiful and reminiscent of an epic, cinematic film score.

According to Clara Wieck Schumann, “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?”

This declaration sums up much of the thought surrounding women composers pre–21st Century; although women are still marginalized to this day, more orchestras and performers have given heed to woman composers’ merit in recent times. For Clara Schumann, composing in the shadows of her husband – the more famous Robert Schumann – meant a constant balancing act, as she was also known as a formidable pianist, where Robert was better known as composer. Clara devoted herself to the music of her husband as well, often performing his music. While Clara was certainly not generally disparaged during her lifetime, her piano was more respected. She also had to spend much time to care for her eight children, whom she started having with Robert immediately after they married, following a period of contention between Robert and Clara’s father (Robert was much older than Clara, and they had met when she was 9 years old).

The Piano Concerto in A Minor (Robert’s Piano Concerto is in the same key, incidentally), showcases a composer who is clearly a pianist at heart. The concerto seems to adopt pianistic and lyrical elements in a way similar to that of Chopin’s concertos. During much of her life, especially while married and raising her children, Clara was restricted in her piano playing. This probably frustrated her considerably, as she had been groomed by her father to become a concert pianist, even seen to be exceedingly competitive with her brother, who struggled to play the same pieces as well as her. The piano concerto was written prior to her marriage to Robert, in a time when she would have been more free to compose to her liking; Robert did spend time assisting her with the composition, even offering the orchestration for the final movement, which was originally meant to be a standalone work. The second movement is quite unique in that it is a work for solo cello and piano; one would be forgiven for thinking that it was a movement from a cello sonata. Years later, Johannes Brahms wrote to Clara about his new piano concerto (#2), which could very well have been inspired by Clara’s, given that his concerto features an extensive cello solo with the pianist.

American composer Amy Beach, today probably as well known a woman composer as Clara Schumann, is mostly known for her Gaelic Symphony and her Piano Concerto. While her concerto may be performed on a future programme, tonight’s concert focuses on her symphony, which infuses her own compositional style with her ancestry via Irish and Scottish folk song. Beach is the first American woman to succeed as composer of a large work for orchestra. She was well aware of the challenges of being a woman composer during her era, and took up piano studies, performing Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony in her late teens.

SSO audience members may recall the performance of Dvořák’s “From the New World” Symphony in January. Written just before Beach’s Gaelic Symphony, the work served as a sort of impetus for Beach to write a work inspired by her own roots. She was not fond of Dvořák’s use of African and Native American songs for his source of what was to supposed to be American musical nationalism. The result was a symphony derived in large part from the use of four traditional Irish tunes and also some of her own previously composed songs.

The first movement is based on her song “Dark is the Night”, depicting a rough sea voyage (with the rumble heard at first in the strings and recurring throughout). Also included is a joyful Irish jig, a lively dance that contrasts nicely with the predominant darkness of the movement.

The second movement seemingly draws upon Dvořák’s own, with an extensive lyricism (another beautiful folk song) that is interrupted by a scherzo. The oboe plays a large role in the singing lines (much like the English Horn of Dvořák’s work).

In the third movement, Beach claims to depict the “laments…romance and …dreams” of the Irish people. Some gorgeous solos from the violin and the cello outline this lament, in what is surely some of the most poignant writing by the composer.

The fourth movement extrapolates the ending section from the first movement into what Beach claims to be a full fledged celebration of the Celtic people: “their sturdy daily life, their passions and battles”. Struggle and conquering are both present, with an ending that showcases the composer’s masterful use of orchestral color and vivacity.

The Sun Symphony sincerely wishes that our audience will enjoy this wonderful music, composed by women that endured, as most women did, the unbalanced judgment of a society that favors the woman as a domestic help instead of understanding women for their talent, artistic strength and valuable intellectual gifts.

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