Dallas — March is Women’s History Month so the Fine Arts Chamber Players presented a fascinating concert on March 23 featuring almost all women composers. It was a delightful afternoon of excellent players performing mostly unknown music by equally unknown women composers.
FACP presents concerts that are free to the public at the Dallas Museum of Art. Thus, this concert was coordinated with the DMA’s current exhibit of impressionistic paintings by Berthe Morisot. She was part of the “wild” group in Paris that became known as the “impressionists”, which included such luminaries as Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley. Of course, her name remains unfamiliar while the others are widely celebrated, perhaps solely because she was a woman.
The musicians that performed this exceptionally superb concert are all associated with Opus Nova, a chamber music group. Opus Nova’s mission statement (from their website) describes the group as a “Fort Worth-based chamber music series devoted to enriching lives by presenting a refined and eclectic chamber music experience in traditional and alternative venues.” The pianist that joined them is a concert musician, but all of the instrumentalists are also members of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.
Pianist Daniel Anastasio was up first with Vítězslava Kaprálová’s Dubnová preludia, Op.13, which translates to “April Preludes.” She was a Czech composer and conductor (1915-1940). These preludes are a tour de force for the pianist presenting many challenges, from both technical and interpretational. Anastasio gave it an impressive performance by meeting its multiple challenges. He said that this was his first time playing the preludes but intends to keep them into his repertoire. It will be an interesting experience to hear him play them again once he has completely absorbed them.
The four movements only designated by their tempo marks, present a wide variety of compositional techniques, with the harmonies ranging from grinding dissonance to. All four are based on a five-note motive and have different degrees of compositional complexity. Anastasio attacked movements 1, 2, and 4 with ferocity, especially the last movement, a frantic polka as seen in a fun house mirror. He lavished some lyrical playing in the contrasting third movement.
Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) was born in Paris. Her father was the composer Ernest Boulanger, who was also a professor of voice at the Paris Conservatory. She herself studied at the Conservatory distinguishing herself and winning several prizes in composition. Although she pursued a career as a composer, conductor and performer, she is remembered today as one of the most influential composition teachers of the 20th century. Her compositions were influenced by Fauré, Debussy and to some extent, Ravel.
Next up was Nadia Boulanger’s Trios Pièces for cello and piano by Nadia Boulanger (1887-1940). These three pieces were performed by Anastasio at the piano joined by cellist Christine Lamprea. The muffled acoustics of the small lecture hall didn’t help the sound of the cello, but she managed to project a rich sound anyway. Anastasio, who had already impressed as a soloist, proved to be a sensitive collaborative pianist.
These pieces were originally for organ and Boulanger transcribed them for cello and piano somewhat later. They are definitely part of the impressionistic movement. That is no surprise given her composition teacher given that her teacher at the Paris Conservative was Gabriel Fauré.
The opening piece is only defined by its tempo mark, Moderato and the pair gave it a subtle performance. The second movement, Sas vitesse et l'aise, took on a melancholy and reserved mood. What was of interest here is that the two instruments chased each other one measure off, like in the Franck violin sonata.
They saved the fireworks for the finale, Vite et nerveusement.
The only living composer was a work by Missy Mazzoli (b. 1980) titled Lies You Can Believe In for string trio. The miserable English syntax aside, this was a surprising piece. Her musical language is a mishmash of modernism, neo-romanticism, folk music and electronica. It was played convincingly by cellist Lamprea who was joined by violinist Ke Mai and violist Sarah Kienie. The composer considers “lies” to be embellished stories and this work is a tapestry of embellished musical influences. Her composer’s note says that she was inspired by “…modern gypsy music, punk, and electronica as it is by traditional Bulgarian and Romanian folk music.” It was somewhat bewildering but, thanks to the exceptional level of the musicians performing it, it was convincing enough to drive me to the Internet to hear more of her works.
Amy Beach is the best-known name on the program. She was a piano prodigy, but her career was cut short when she married the much older Boston surgeon Henry Harris Aubrey Beach. At the age of 42, she resumed to perform and compose when he died in 1910. There after, like a proper Victorian era Bostonian lady of social position, Mrs. H. H. Beach in on her published music, but she toured as Amy Beach.
She was represented by a work for piano called Dreaming. Anastasio gave it a beautifully lyric performance. The music featured a singing melody over a rocking accompaniment. It reminded me of one of Franz Liszt’s occasional pieces like Liebestraum.
The only male on the program was a work by Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959). He composed during the era of wild experimentation that produced music that basically drove the audiences out of the concert halls. He was criticized by the Nazis for his tonal style. The spiffy Serenade utilized the string trio plus a pair of clarinets, expertly played by Ann Hung and Stanislav Chernyshew. This work was written when the composer was living in exile in the United States and an interesting sideline is that his Piano Concerto No. 3 was premiered by the Dallas Symphony with Walter Hendl conducting.
The four movements are identified only by tempo markings. The opening Moderato actually has an opening slow passage before it hits its stride. The two clarinetists mostly interacted with themselves, occasionally joining the trio as an ensemble and their intonation was superb. This is is not an easy task because the clarinet is in B flat and the strings are in C. This means that they are built on different overtones. They also got to add a jazzy element. This was a terrific performance of a delightful piece. It made me smile.
The program ended with an arrangement for the string trio and two clarinets, by Alyssa Weinberg, of an aria by Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677). This was a beautiful example of Baroque lyricism. It is based on a constantly repeating and descending scale in the cello, in the manner of a Chaconne. The ground bass is surrounded by lots of counterpoint. The performance was a perfect ending to the concert—a touch of serenity after all the hubbub.
The concert also included a major announcement: After 38 years, Rogene Russell is retiring as Artistic Director of Fine Arts Chamber Players. That role now goes to Emily Levin, Principal Harpist for Dallas Symphony.