at Ravinia

August 29

The creative side of music has long been a men’s domain, and it remains astonishingly so even today. Few women figure in any account of the history of music, and none can claim a place in the familiar pantheons of great composers. This dearth can be attributed to social prejudices and the old boys’ networks of the two largest employers of composers–the church and the aristocracy. Even at the turn of the century young women were still being discouraged from taking up (and therefore blowing into) wind instruments, let alone expressing their feelings in musical notes.

Yet if we look beyond the official histories, as advocacy groups such as American Women Composers (AWC) have, we see that a surprisingly large number of women have made genuine (albeit minor) contributions. Among the notables are Fanny Mendelssohn (sister of Felix) and Clara Schumann (wife of Robert), both of whom, in accordance with Victorian conventions, composed in the shadow of a man. And there must have been more women in earlier ages like the medieval abbess and mystic Hildegarde, whose prodigious output is just being rediscovered (local organist and scholar Frank Ferko is one champion).

In this century women composers have become enfranchised and are less and less often ignored by the critical and musicological establishments. In the assertive and inventive works of Ruth Crawford Seeger or Pauline Oliveros one can detect sensibilities more attuned, perhaps, to women’s emotional and intellectual experiences. These pioneers have paved the road for younger women such as Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Shulamit Ran, both Pulitzer Prize recipients, who in turn are opening territory for the next generation. A sampler of recent works by women composers under 40 was the first of two programs recently offered by the well-regarded, New York-based New Music Consort in its Ravinia debut. (The second was a potpourri of Pulitzer-winning compositions.) Preceding this program was a lecture recital organized by the AWC’s midwest chapter, “Women Composers: An Historical Perspective,” with Tania Leon introducing each composer’s work.

The first stop on the history tour was Sicilienne by Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824), a blind Viennese keyboard virtuoso for whom Mozart wrote his B-flat major Concerto no. 18. Scored for flute and piano, the piece is a charming stretch of pretty, ersatz Mozartean sounds enlivened by vaguely Mediterranean accents. Almost the same can be said of the piano sonata by Paradis’s Viennese contemporary Marianne von Martinez (1744-1812). Classically proportioned and guileless, this sonata brings to mind those clever Clementi sonatinas familiar to intermediate piano students. It’s not at all surprising to find that Martinez was a student of Haydn’s, though more likely in keyboard instruction than composition.

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), as Leon reminded the audience, was precocious. She was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome and would surely have been part of the French mainstream had she lived longer. A semi-invalid much of her short life, she crafted beautiful compositions in the style of Debussy. Her D’un matin du printemps for flute and piano contains faint echoes of Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, its languid drowsiness punctuated by breathy agitations. The interpretation by Mary Stolper on flute and Melody Lord on piano was effective, leaving no doubt that had Boulanger amassed an impressive oeuvre her reputation might have rivaled that of her sister Nadia, the legendary teacher and mother hen to expatriate artists.

Alma Mahler, six of whose songs were performed by mezzo Bonita Hyman, has a legendary reputation as muse to a legion of remarkable men. Among her conquests were painter Oskar Kokoschka, architect Walter Gropius, and of course her husband Gustav Mahler. The songs were composed during her stormy marriage (1902-11) to the emotionally fragile composer but published years later. Set to texts of Rilke, Heine, and a couple of minor poets, they are deeply moving, well-crafted late entries in the lieder tradition perfected by Schumann and Brahms. Still, they must have seemed a bit quaint coming a decade or two after Richard Strauss’s and Hugo Wolf’s more psychologically penetrating songs. With her marvelously rich voice and beguiling artistry, Hyman, who placed third in the recent Marian Anderson vocal competition, showed why she may be on the verge of a major career.

The most memorable work of the evening turned out to be Tania Leon’s A la Par. In her introduction, the Cuban-born composer talked about her work with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, about the encouragement given her by choreographer Arthur Mitchell and composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Dance and the theater figure prominently in her exhilarating piece for piano and percussion–and I’m told, in her other works as well. With an arsenal of instruments–marimba, conga drum, xylophone, chimes–at his command, Dane Richeson engaged in a funky, streetwise pas de deux with Kathleen Murray at the piano. The thoroughly Caribbean beat gave way to interludes of introspective, moody ruminations. Then the beat of the marimba band returned for a frenzied finale that subsided in evanescent chimes. It was a spectacle of rhythms, masterfully timed by Richeson and Murray. This exotic and hugely appealing work deserves a high place in any percussionist’s repertoire.

In stark contrast to Leon’s exuberance was the anxiety and gloom that pervaded most of the works in the New Music Consort’s recital of recent works. Chameleon (1981)–a trio for flute, cello, and piano by Marilyn Bliss–supposedly took the lizard’s “remarkable adaptability” as an inspiration. But what I heard in the performance by Judith Pearce on flute, Madeleine Shapiro on cello, and Martin Goldray on piano were largely empty gestures: anguished sounds occasionally turning ferocious but ultimately tiresome–an academic exercise gone awry. The two neatly crafted miniatures Bohmes Liebeslied and Bittersweet Music I by Bun-Ching Lam, a Macao-born American with a PhD in composition, also had a forlorn air. Bohmes Liebeslied, for flute and piano, is arresting in its low-key broodiness; Bittersweet Music I, its piccolo a lonely bird in its nervous twitters, continued the despairing mood. Spring Sonata, for flute and piano by the highly touted Soviet composer Elena Firsova, carried on the sense of desolation, somberness, and futility. The two instruments begin their uneasy encounter in agitation (lots of trills); after a long elegiac middle the duet turns playful, with the impetuous flute having the last word. Here too the writing is elegant and thoughtful–the program notes point to the “organic unfolding, blossom-like, of the musical material”–but the music fails to make any emotional connection.

Extremes–the latest work by the evening’s best-known composer, Barbara Kolb–is an intricate study in interwoven, contrasting textures. The two-movement flute-cello duo starts off solemnly. (One can’t help but get the impression that women composers have taken up wind instruments, particularly the flute, with a vengeance.) The tender musings between the two instruments climax in a delirious panic before fading out altogether. The second movement begins with energetic rhythms (lots of 16th-note triplets). The sharp exchanges slowly come to a halt, only to end in an outburst of affirmation. Kolb’s music, according to the program notes, “is emotive and evocative–the progeny of Ravel and Debussy with occasional reminiscences of American jazz.” But while impressive in its sophistication, this work is too constrained by its formalism to be either emotive or evocative.

In Judith Weir’s Several Concertos, cello, piano, and piccolo each get five minutes center stage. The instruments’ capabilities are explored to the hilt (often through wide-note clusters), and their cliches knowingly exploited. In its movement, the cello launches its attacks with vigor and mock mirth, all against a thin backdrop provided by the flute and the piano. During its star turn, the piano sounds like a crazed Victor Borge–delicate and trembling one moment, madly virtuosic the next, then as naive as an obedient pupil. At one point in the performance the pianist “accidentally” dropped his right hand on the keyboard–and the humor was that the improvisational gesture wasn’t at all out of place. The piccolo’s movement is lyrical and leisurely, highlighted by playful pirouettes. If nothing else, this 1981 work earns high marks for its sense of fun. All three soloists–Pearce, Shapiro, and Goldray–were as precise and empathetic in their playing as one would expect from the best new-music apostles.

Overall, these concerts provided a vital introduction to women composers from both sides of the Atlantic. Yet I felt neither enlightened nor enthralled. It was nice to have heard the 19th-century compositions, but none is a revelation, for the women seemed to have been simply studiously following the accepted styles of their male counterparts. Compared to them, the contemporary compositions are no more original. Their composers are expert and conscientious craftsmen, but do they have anything striking to express? Are they in touch with their emotions? (The same, of course, can be said about the overwhelming majority of contemporary male composers.) With the exception of Leon’s vibrant, jungle-fever voice, they sounded like enervated intellectuals suffering from anxiety attacks.