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UNCG's Festival of Women Composers

March 26, 2002 - Greensboro, NC:


While the program for the March 26 concert of chamber music by women composers listed all the works and extensive biographies of all the UNCG faculty that participated in the School of Music Recital Hall performances, not a word about the composers was included. Arriving early, I spent a fruitful half-hour jotting quotes from the New Grove II in the nearby Music Library. Briefer background was given in each half of the concert by Eleanor McCrickard, from the podium.

For anyone with any familiarity with her seminal role in nurturing several generations of American composers and musicians, it was a treat to at last hear a live performance of a work by Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979). Both her father and her beloved, ill-fated sister, Lili, had been winners of the Prix de Rome (in 1836 and 1913, respectively). Carolina Pother, in NGII, writes, "[Nadia] first came to public attention in 1908, when she wrote an instrumental fugue in a preliminary round for the Prix de Rome, rather than the vocal fugue required, resulting in a scandal. She placed second with her cantata, La Sirène . Her musical language is often highly chromatic (though always tonally based), and Debussy's influence is apparent in her fondness for modally-inflected melodic lines and parallel chordal progressions." In the early 1920s she quit composing, dedicating herself to teaching and to promoting the works of her sister, whom she regarded as more gifted than she. In addition to her role with American composers, she was a pioneer in the Early Music movement, reviving works by Monteverdi among others as well as being a pioneer woman conductor.

Boulanger's Trois Pièces (1911) for organ, arranged for violoncello, piano and orchestra in 1914, were heard in a version for cello and piano on this occasion. With the piano lid fully up, pianist Andrew Harley easily reined in his volume so as not to cover the fine tenor song of cellist Christopher Hutton. The moderate first movement began with a long "p" melody over a repeated piano figure. Throughout, the cello part remained a tenor song, rarely touching the outer reaches of the cello's range, while the piano part became more complex. The short "Sans vitesse et à l'aise" was a nostalgic cello melody set against a crystalline piano part. More reminiscent of Debussy was the last movement, Vite et nerveussement rythmé, which opened with piano chords and fast cello bowing in a rushing theme occasionally interrupted by pizzicato strings. A repetitive piano figure was followed by a slower melody and the swift return of the faster one, leading to a brilliant finish.

The next composer, Donna Shelley (b.1944), does not appear in the NGII. The Chicago-based horn player's works were too aptly described by McCrickard as being almost Gebrauchsmusik."El guacero" ("The Downpour") was clearly a teaching piece; its long melody was played by GSO principal Jack Masarie, who dispatched the wide-ranging dynamics and capably handled its variety of technique. Pianist Carol Cook expedited the boring piano part. Both had more interesting material in "Apple Blossom Rag," a transcription.

Perhaps the most cutting-edge work came with Night Bird , for alto saxophone and tape, by Japanese composer Karen Tanaka (b.1961). She worked at the IRCAM in Paris in 1986-7 after graduate studies in Japan. After winning the Gaudeamus Prize in 1987, she studied with Luciano Berio in Florence from 1990-1. In NGII, Stephen Montague describes her music (as) "delicate and emotive, beautifully crafted, showing a refined ear for both detail and large, organic shapes. Her harmonic vocabulary is consonant without being tonal, and she is attracted by what she describes as 'transformation of timbre in space,' analogous to a gradual change of light refraction in crystals and prisms." McCrickard pointed out two major aspects of Tanaka's work: Nature and environmental concerns plus use of the latest technology. This 1997 work surely displayed all of these elements. In a very darkened hall, saxophonist Steven Stusek explored the full range of his alto instrument set against a tapestry of electronic sounds on tape. The resulting sound colors were similar to the impression derived from looking at a rotating prism.

After intermission, the work of one of the most successful younger American composers, Libby Larsen (b.1950), was sampled. She received her B.A., M.M. and Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, where her teachers were Domenic Argento, Paul Fetter and Eric Stokes. NGII's Mary Ann Feldman writes, "Determined to find a role outside Academe, with Stephen Paulus, she co-founded the Minnesota Composer's Forum (since 1996 the American Composer's Forum)" and observes that her music is "adventurous without being self-consciously avant garde.(with a) style noted for energy, optimism, rhythmic diversity, colorful orchestration liberated tonality without harsh dissonance, and pervading lyricism." She has been a frequent composer-in-residence with orchestras such as the Minnesota Orchestra, the Charlotte Symphony and the Colorado Springs Symphony. Her "Corker for Clarinet and Percussion" (1989) was played by GSO Principals Kelley Burke and Nathan Daughtrey. Burke did superbly with the jazzy, wide-ranging tone and the dynamics. Daughtrey was kept busy with what looked like two marimbas, snare drums and cymbals, with a variety of whisks (he used both ends), mallets and felt. All this occurred stage left while some fourteen dancers performed John Gamble's choreography, Out of Time , in which two rows of dancers fed increasingly larger groups moving freely to the music.

Next came a light pleasing trifle, Trio for Flute, Oboe and Piano, by English composer and actress Madeleine Dring (1923-77). Among her teachers were Howells and Vaughan Williams. In NGII, Stephen Baufield writes, "in a light style, Dring composed unpretentious and attractive chamber and instrumental works [including] several for her husband, the oboist Roger Lord. [She had an] affinity with Poulenc [and an] enjoyment of vernacular idioms such as Latin American rhythms with a harmonic and melodic fastidiousness." In the US, her work has been compared to that of the Gershwins. Flutist Deborah Egekvist carefully matched the phrasing of oboist Mary Ashley Barret. Andrew Harley's piquant piano playing never masked his woodwind partners. The piece richly melody piece contrasted the woodwinds, closely paired and in contradiction.

Each of the pieces on the program was pleasing, but I came away with the overall impression of "women composers-lite." Except for the marginal study work by Shelley, most were skillfully constructed but lacked "gravitas." I had expected a program that featuring significant works by such major women composers as Joan Tower, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Shulamit Ran, Sofia Gubaidulina, Galina Ustvolskaya or Grazyna Bacewicz. Nadia Boulanger was a treat, but she was correct: her sister Lili was more gifted, as a recent Chandos CD reveals. This was my first chance to sample Larsen's work, although Marvin J. Ward reviewed her recent Triangle residency in our pages. Based on "Corker" and accounts from others, it is clear that she is in the same class as the aforementioned six..