Dallas — Women composers would appear to be a rarity, if we judge by the programming decisions still made by many major American orchestras. Many of these orchestras, including the Dallas Symphony, have zero women composers on their programs for this season. Only 1.8 percent of works programmed by the 22 largest American orchestras in 2014-2015 were by women. More distressingly, only 14.8 percent of works by living composers were by women.
It’s not just composers, of course. Major American orchestras have a rarely broken glass ceiling. Music Directors of major orchestras are almost always men, Baltimore’s Marin Alsop being the lone exception. Musicians in leadership roles are disproportionately male, too. The Chicago Symphony, for example, has never had a female Principal Flute, even though the huge majority of flutists are female.
We may have come a long way, but in the world of classical music, we still have a long way to go.
Kudos, then, to the contemporary chamber music group Voices of Change for regularly programming women composers. Saturday’s concert at Caruth Auditorium on the Southern Methodist University campus was an especial treat, because it represented the work of five living American women composers.
First on the program was Part V of the redoubtable Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. Although the title, and the instrumentation of the first part, make a clear nod to Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, Tower’s piece has a broader scope than the original. It includes, as of last year, six parts, some for small ensemble and two for full orchestra. Part V is scored for four trumpets, which made a rousing opener for Saturday’s concert. While the performance, by University of North Texas trumpet professor John Holt and three of his students, was somewhat uneven, it was still a rousing entry point for the afternoon: Tower’s musical voice is rich and distinctive, and she is a grand dame of American music.
Wyoming composer Anne Guzzo’s sweet Things Bright received a performance by Voices of Change Artistic Director and violinist Maria Schleuning, violist Barbara Sudweeks, and cellist Jeffrey Hood. With a name derived from the well-known hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” this piece serves as an homage to Guzzo’s backyard chickens. It is a lyrical, neo-romantic piece in traditional scherzo and trio form, but with jazz and blues influences, prettily played by the Voices of Change musicians.
Libby Larsen is one of the best-known and most prolific American women composers and co-founder of the American Composers Forum. Her work is often influenced by other women artists: she has written an opera based on Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and she has created a song cycle from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, and the piece performed on Saturday, Black Birds, Red Hills, is inspired by the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe. Scored for viola (Sudweeks), clarinet (Jonathan Jones), and piano (Liudmila Georgievskaya), it is perhaps more challenging for the listener than other pieces on Saturday’s program. However, the piece, in four brief movements, delivers ample dividends. Mood alternates between calm lyricism in the first movement to anxiety and even ferocity in the second movement. Some apparent jazz influences combine with occasional harsh dissonances to produce music that, when played as well as the musicians of Voices of Change do, is a revelatory experience.
Gabriela Lena Frank’s Rapsodia Andina, for flute (Helen Blackburn), harp (Cheryl Losey Feder), viola (Sudweeks), and cello (Hood), includes a variety of extended techniques, asking the harpist to knock and tap on her instrument, the flute to create almost pitchless breathy sounds, and the strings to play near the bridge to create a glassy effect. Often, these techniques can be red herrings, distracting from a lack of musical substance. Here, though, they reflect Frank’s extensive ethnomusicological research into traditional Peruvian musical forms. Able playing from all four musicians, provided a real sense of South American mood. The abrupt ending of the final movement, sounding fragmentary and unresolved, suggests a broken panpipe that has been found in ruins.
The guest composer for Saturday’s performance was Augusta Read Thomas; three of her compositions appeared on the program, and she was in attendance, making some illuminating remarks before the performances of her compositions. Scat, for flute, violin, clarinet, cello (Kari Kettering), and piano, indeed takes its influence from scat singing and jazz. With surging crescendos, snapped Bartók pizzicati in strings, and complex rhythmic interrelationships, this piece requires musicianship of the highest order, and the Voices of Change players delivered.
Likewise, Dream Catcher for solo violin (2008), written for, dedicated to, and played by Maria Schleuning, could not even be attempted by a musician without the skills of the brilliant Schleuning. Her intonation and range of tonal colors are impeccable, and were on resplendent display Saturday afternoon. Thomas noted that Dream Catcher is structured as an arc, and indeed, it moved from the relatively simple to the technically complex, and back again. Passion Prayers is a cello concerto in miniature. Dallas Symphony cellist Kari Kettering performed the solo part, while flute, clarinet, piano, violin, harp, percussion (Bill Klymus), and conductor Brad Cawyer filled the remaining roles. Kettering has a deceptively modest stage presence: her playing is magnificent, and the other players supported her effectively. This piece primarily features sustained playing rather than technical flash, yet manages to be compelling for its 10 minutes or so.
Voices of Change is filling a much-needed role in the Dallas music scene, and doing so with performances of the highest artistic caliber.