Dallas — “There’s a good reason why there are no great female composers.” Huh?
This disconcerting sentence was the title of the program insert for Ensemble75's sixth season opener. It was an extract from an article by Damian Thompson that was published in The Spectator on Sept. 19, 2015. Thompson argued that famous women composers don't receive attention because of the quality of their work, and not merely because they are women.
Ensemble75 set out to prove him wrong with this concert at The Goss-Michael Foundation. Synergizing with the feminine artistic energy within the gallery exhibits, this concert, the 28th for this ensemble, focused attention on the works of Clara Schumann, Nadia Boulanger, Joan Tower, Rebecca Clarke, Galina Ustvolskaya and Lera Auerbach. These composers represent musical styles from the 19th century to the present day.
After welcoming the audience, Music Director and pianist Jonathan Tsay framed the evening as a point-counterpoint with Thompson, offering each composer’s work as rebuttal to the notion that the work of male composers is inherently superior. Playing a Fazioli piano provided by Collora Piano, Tsay began the concert with Clara Schumann’s Nocturne in F, Op. 6, No. 2. In his article, Thompson remarked that the lyrical passages of Schumann’s compositions “could have been cut and pasted from one of her husband’s works.” In fact, it was Clara Schumann that enjoyed the spotlight as a composer and performer as Clara Wieck and after her marriage to Robert. It is she that earned the family income through her performances, pulling back only in an effort to give her husband, Robert, a chance.
Next on the program was Nadia Boulanger’s Three Pieces for Cello and Piano (1915). Tsay and cellist Jolyon Pegis appeared to have the most fun with the third movement (Vite et nerveusement rythmé). Having fun for musicians playing at this high level means two things: respecting the quality of the composition, and appreciating the technique required to perform the work. Boulanger remains ranked as one of the most significant composers in music history. Her list of American students includes Phillip Glass, Quincy Jones, and Aaron Copland.
Platinum Spirals by Joan Tower (performed by violinist Chloé Trevor) was commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts. Tower dedicated the piece to her father, a geologist and mining engineer. Musicians recognize this piece as a serialist composition. What does that mean? Simply put, it’s sort of like architecture, geometry. All music is mathematical but the serialists create a series of notes in a specific order and use that series to build the entire composition. Tower is interested in stretching line and creating shapes, form and process, as with geometry and architecture. Stylistically, serialist music is not easy to translate for an audience. That is the bigger challenge for the musician, a challenge met by Trevor.
In a 1918 recital program, Rebecca Clarke listed Anthony Trent as the composer for Morpheus. Whenever she used her real name, her compositions generally received light if any notice from the press, but those listed under her male nom de plume received high acclaim. This was her experience most of her life. One of the best moments of Wednesday evening’s program was Tsay and violist Steven Juarez’s interpretation of Morpheus. It is a beautiful composition and was handled with respect, joy and admiration by the musicians.
The last two works of the program were Grand Duet for Cello and Piano by Galina Ustvolskaya (Pegis and Tsay), and Lera Auerbach’s Piano Trio (Chloé Trevor, Pegis and Tsay). It is hard to say which of the two was more successful. Tsay prepared the audience for the possibility that the Ustvolskaya piece might be more challenging to process because of its style, which has been described as ugly, but the audience liked it a lot, actually saying so during the applause. That was nice and unexpected. The last composition, Auerbach’s, was outstanding in every way, a final confirmation of the ensemble’s proficiency and the composer’s skillfulness.
Ensemble75 had a good idea, working through a musical concert to not only entertain, but to counter a controversial article. They succeeded in reaffirming the simple truth that people will respond positively to good music. No one will ask “did a woman do that?”