From the evening of March 5 to noon on March 8, Meredith College held a "Festival for Women Composers" for which one of America's most prominent ones, Libby Larsen, served as Composer-in-Residence. There were concerts on the three evenings, the first of which was devoted entirely to her music: chamber, vocal and one choral piece. The single printed program for the festival contained, in addition to the concert programs, short bios of the participating musicians and composers, and brief notes, supplied for the most part by the composers, for most of the works presented, both arranged in alphabetical order.
The performance opened with the two-movement Blue Third Pieces (1996) for flute and guitar, presented by Elizabeth Lester and Ed Stephenson. The title comes from the dominant rhythms and note intervals. The first, "Deep Blue," emphasized the lower register, and the second, "Salt Peanuts," imitates the repeated syncopated rhythm from the 1945 jazz piece by Dizzie Gillespie and Kenny Clark from which its title comes. The nice performance of this light, pleasant and melodic piece made for a good opener.
A selection of three songs-the first, fifth and last-of the six-song cycle, Beloved, Thou Hast Brought Me Many Flowers (1994), presented by Ellen Williams, mezzo-soprano, Virginia Hudson, cello, and Janis Dupré, piano, followed. Williams had a score on a stand to her left, but it was really only a crutch. These are love poems focusing on a loving relationship between two mature people; the cycle was commissioned by a woman as a 70th birthday gift to her husband. Williams' diction was not as clear as it might have been; a listener seated with me commented that he could not understand a word that was said. Texts were provided in the program. It struck me that this was the result of Williams being too tense and that the performance also suffered as a result. The songs chosen were all fairly similar, although the addition of the cello and the role it plays was very interesting and lovely. The full cycle is more varied and has been recorded much more effectively by Theresa Treadway Lloyd on Albany's Music from Luzerne CD, drawn from the 2000 Lake Luzerne, NY, music festival.
Next came a lively performance by Pamela Nelson, flute, Jimmy Gilmore, clarinet, and Kent Lyman, piano, of Barn Dances (2001), a four-movement suite inspired by cowboy dance steps. This was an interesting instrumentation for works that one would expect to hear played on a fiddle and was the most "fun" piece of the evening.
David Lynch next played two movements-the second and third-of Aspects of Glory , commissioned by the American Guild of Organists for its 1990 convention. Lynch read from the composer'' notes in the preface to the printed score before playing. Each movement was inspired by a different text (provided in the program) featuring the word "glory", the second, from a spiritual, and the third, from a Langston Hughes poem. It was a fairly loud, grandiose piece on the whole, although some spots in the third movement brought a circus organ to mind. I'd have liked to have heard the first movement as well.
This was followed by four of the six songs in Sonnets from the Portuguese , composed in 1989 for Arleen Augér, revised in 1991 and recorded by her then, and issued on the posthumous CD The Art of Arleen Augér on the Koch International label, which has recorded a good deal of Larsen's music. The texts were selected by Augér in a close collaboration with Larsen who wrote the wonderful booklet notes for the CD recounting the compositional process. They have orchestral accompaniment in their original version. Numbers 3 and 5 were omitted at this performance. Soprano Sally Thomas did the honors, using a score on a stand in front of her, accompanied by James Fogle at the piano. Texts were not printed in the program but John Creagh read each of the Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems before it was sung. Thomas' diction was excellent (making the advance recitation seem to this listener like distracting breaks in the flow); so also was her singing, even when compared with Augér's on the CD.
The evening closed with the choral work "Day Song" (1999), a "hymn of rejoicing at sunrise," ably presented by the Meredith Chorus under Lisa Fredenburgh's direction.
The work is fanfare-like and complex rhythmically but contains some dissonance and seemed a bit repetitive, as the organ piece also did. Musically, it was a fitting conclusion for the evening even if textually it was not.The program gave as good a cross-section of Larsen's music as possible in a single, intermission-less recital. The whole was well balanced. The song cycles had the greatest depth, although I'd have preferred hearing them in their entirety. The songs chosen are also quite serious, and the lighter chamber pieces were a delightful contrast.