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UNC Chapel Hill's Process Series premiered Her Story: Celebration of Women Composers at Kenan Rehearsal Hall Saturday evening, featuring Korean-American violinist Dr. Sunmi Chang and Chinese-American pianist Dr. Clara Yang. These talented women delivered a superb concert of Florence Price, Amy Beach, and a premiere of Dr. Liliya Ugay's Mother Tales. The program, co-sponsored by UNC's Department of Music and Asian American Center, repeats Sunday at 2:00pm, and, like other events by the Process Series, audiences are invited to attend a talkback with the artists, Dr. Ugay, and program producer Heather Tatreau. An audience questionnaire was also provided as a link on the digital program, giving the opportunity for thoughtful feedback about programs featuring female composers and emotional responses and impressions of the compositions in general.
Doctors Chang and Yang opened the evening with Fantasy No. 1 in G minor for Violin and Piano by Florence Price. A delightfully passionate work, Price's writing utilizes African-American folk and spiritual singing elements, framed in a deeply European-influenced compositional context. Price, an African-American woman born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1887, became a part of the Chicago Black Renaissance in the 1930s and was the first African-American woman to have a work performed by a major US orchestra.
Price wrote award-winning symphonies, choral and orchestral works, many settings of folk songs and spirituals, and a number of chamber music and solo piano works – much of which was presumed lost or incomplete until the 2009 discovery of a large cache of her works – many of which are still being studied and restored. Some of these works are just now being performed and recorded for the first time.
The Fantasy itself is full of an Americana-style nostalgia, and the performers were compelling in its conversational style. Chang opened with passionate solo playing with rich, vibrant resonance, and performed some lovely double-stops throughout the piece. The intimate setting of the performance was such that Chang's breaths to cue phrases and entrances were audible, a reflection of her investment and embodiment of her work.
Dr. Ugay's work, Mother Tales, comes in two movements, and, as the composer described, reflects the struggles of mothers as primary caregivers while trying to manage their own personal lives and ambitions. Many respected male composers share details of works inspired by parenthood and children, but Ugay nods to women's history of struggling not only to make names for themselves professionally, but to maintain their identities after starting a family. Since women have historically been expected to become default caregivers and homemakers, there are still relatively few stories of professional mothers in the music world. Composers like Amy Beach were given strict rules after marriage; Beach's husband asked her to limit her public performances to two a year, and the profits of those would be donated to charity to prevent her performing to be seen as a career. Despite these limitations, Beach was able to create incredible compositions and continue her work encouraging young female musicians and composers. Ugay's work manages to honor these kinds of experiences through her own highly evocative contemporary classical work.
Mother Tales' first movement, "Croon," begins with an intentionally whispery violin solo, just barely surfacing over wide, lush piano chords. The theme is soft and patient, full of dissonance but not unpleasant. It evokes the image of a harried mother singing a lullaby to an unruly child, often diverting into fast-moving technical flourishes. The instruments' rhythmic lines are often at odds, shifting constantly between soft, harmonic moments, and outbursts of worry and anxiety. Chang's tone was varied between rich singing melodies and thin, ethereal harmonics (created by pressing lightly enough on a string to evoke a whistling overtone); this effectively captured the full experience of a mother as both a vibrant professional and a sleep-deprived, thinly-stretched homemaker. The second movement, "Perpetual Delight," continued the varied emotional experience, underpinned by rhythmic, generally cheery, rhythm, but always toeing the line between jubilant and frenetic. Chang's pizzicato playing was exuberant and clear over Yang's flurry of joyful dissonance, telling stories of hectic days full of both celebration and contemplation, of joy and of introspection.
Beach's Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 34, followed, a four-movement tour-de-force that provides – as one audience member remarked in the post-show talkback – a "musical sampler" of Beach's writing capabilities. Having received virtually no formal compositional training, Beach took it upon herself to study the works of other accomplished composers while developing a unique style of her own that is still rarely celebrated today. Yang described the choice to perform Beach's work on this program as an underlying "urgency" that suffused her after leading her students through study of Beach's life and work. She introduced the work, remarking upon its long, complex phrases, and intense, emotional "entanglement" of the two instruments' roles. Indeed, the work continually evolves in its emotional and technical complexity, beginning with an understated declaration that quickly soars into rippling melodic lines.
Chang displayed an excellent variety of tone colors throughout, invoking sharp dynamic contrasts and different amplitudes of vibrato to display a wide range of emotion. Yang's playing was no less expressive, utilizing versatility in her touch and compelling phrasing. Their technical brilliance was on full display in the Beach Sonata, through a rhythmically intricate, dancing Scherzo; an emotionally intense Largo con dolore, and the absolutely dazzling Allegro con fuoco. The final movement's cheeky fugue section was performed with delightful dryness, its energy exploding out of this Classical-sounding container and pouring out in alternately sweet, suspenseful, and powerful sounds.
The revival of these relatively prolific composers is a welcome one, and sparks larger conversations about the programming and reception of works by lesser-performed female composers, reigniting these women's legacies as pioneers and innovators in the 19th Century. Chang, Yang, Ugay, and Tatreau presented themselves as quietly strong women; they delivered this program with reverence and humility, allowing the compositions themselves to shine – yet their enthusiasm, passion, and incredible talent were easily palpable. Hopefully we are closer to the day that these works could sustain their own headliner program, rather than being presented as an experimental, back-room performance. The focus of attention on the kinds of programs that encourage recognition of lesser-known but hugely impactful historical figures, whether acknowledging women, African-Americans, or Asian-Americans, is hugely significant and reflects a continued social and racial reckoning in the US – but also provides a really nice and out-of-the-box presentation of quality music.