Dallas — The Blue Candlelight Music Series consistently does many things well: they select their programs with care, find outstanding musicians to perform those programs, and create a spectacular ambience by presenting their concerts in the elegant home of Richard and Enika Schulze.
Additionally, this season they’ve chosen to showcase the work of women composers, which is an exciting and much-needed initiative. After all, many groups seldom if ever perform the works of women composers. Unlike women writers and, increasingly, visual artists, women composers have always been very much in the background. Women writers gained prominence because writing a novel or poetry was a task that women could complete in the privacy of their homes, and even then, they frequently used pseudonyms so that they might remain anonymous. Having one’s compositions performed, on the other hand, is a far more public venture, and requires the complicity of musicians, administrators, and the like. So until the 20th century, composing music was often seen as not quite seemly for women. Thus, even as Western culture has progressed, the field of music has not caught up. Women performers are now common, but conductors and composers are still predominantly male.
Because of these cultural barricades, women who did compose prior to the 20th century have often been overlooked, even when their music is worth hearing. Kudos, then, to Blue Candlelight for bringing the music of some of these women out of obscurity this season.
For their first concert, the group not only featured the work of four female composers, but also chose three women musicians to perform the works: pianists Anya Grokhovski and Alena Gorina and soprano Icy Simpson-Monroe. Even the lecture, provided in lieu of extensive program notes, was delivered by (female) musicologist Laurie Shulman.
Not all the music on the program was written by women, though. The evening opened and closed with works by Brahms and Rachmaninoff for piano four hands—although even these were written in each composer’s youth and are rarely performed today.
Grokhovski and Gorena complement one another well for performances of piano four hands works. They alternated playing the treble and bass parts, and truly played like one four-handed pianist.
Soprano Simpson-Monroe sang three songs by largely unknown African-Americans; two of them, Florence Price and Margaret Bonds, women. She also presented the slightly better-known “Three Browning Songs” by Amy Beach and based on texts by Robert Browning. Although clear diction was sometimes a challenge given the acoustics of the room, Simpson-Monroe has a big, projecting, and at turns bright and earthy voice that is a pleasure to hear. Simpson-Monroe’s advocacy of vocal music other than spirituals by African-American composers is much needed— the evidence indicates that these composers are worth hearing not just as historical curiosities but as musicians whose work is inherently interesting and valuable.
Unlike most Blue Candlelight performances, this one was not sold out—I hope that this was merely a function of having several competing performances on offer for the evening, and not a response to the group’s innovative programming.