Female Artists Matter: Sarah Cahill’s Survey of Piano Music by Neglected Women Composers


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Strictly speaking all women composers are neglected. Despite significant efforts in recent years there remain significant disparities in the representation of women composers in the concert and recital halls. Realistically it will take years just to catch up on those composers whose music has languished in unfair obscurity. Now in this International Women’s Month we are seeing the release of a great deal of music by various artists attempting to correct this neglect each with their own lens. Here we have the first installment of three planned CDs by the Berkeley based pianist, Sarah Cahill. This volume, titled “In Nature” is to be followed by one called “At Play” in November, 2022 and “The Dance” in March, 2023.

Photo by Christine Alicino from Cahill’s web site

Cahill is as much curator as artist, a skill evident in her weekly radio program “Revolutions Per Minute” on Bay Area radio station KALW and any number of creative concerts and musical projects in the San Francisco area. She is an internationally acclaimed recitalist and soloist and her You Tube Channel is one I frequently visit just to see what she’s up to. It is where I first heard many of the women composers featured on the present CD and a place where one can get a sense of her unique choices of repertory that characterize her career. Her husband, acclaimed videographer and video artist John Sanborn does the camera work and I must say that these videos were a welcome respite during the COVID lockdown and an opportunity to experience her musicianship up close and personal (only a page turner at a recital gets a better seat).

The first release in this series contains music spanning some 250+ years. The first selection is by Anna Bon (1739/40-ca.1767) which puts her in the late baroque/early classical era. This is the 5th (of 6) in her Opus 2 sonatas for keyboard. This is the first recording on a piano of this entertaining work by this Venetian composer who died in her 20s. Listeners will discern echoes of Mozart (1756-1791) and Haydn (1732-1809) for whom she sang in the choir at Prince Esterhazy’s, Haydn’s celebrated patron and employer. But the sound of the mature J.S. Bach (1685-1750) certainly dominates this very accomplished sonata. This writer hears it almost as a not too distant relative of the Goldberg Variations.

Next we come to 1846 with the music of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847), sister of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Though Fanny composed some 450 pieces in her short life most remained unknown and some were falsely attributed to her more famous younger brother, Felix. In fact he published some of her work under his name (in his Opus 8 and 9 collections) as women rarely got published at the time and Felix recognized his older sister’s talent.

Cahill has chosen numbers one and three of Fanny’s Opus 8 “Four Lieder for Piano” (a form which her younger brother would later embrace in his “Songs Without Words”). These accomplished early romantic works will leave the listener wanting more of this woman’s music which remains still largely unrecorded. They are a testament to her inventiveness as a composer as well as her virtuosity as a pianist and one hopes for a reassessment of her work.

The next selection comes from a Venezuelan composer, soprano, pianist Teresa Carreño (1853-1917). Sometimes referred to as the “Valkyrie of the Piano”, she had a 54 year career championing the work of luminaries such as Edward MacDowell and Edvard Grieg. Her 1848 etude-meditation, “A Dream at Sea” is a romantic virtuosic work that sounds like a challenge to play but a joy for the listener. This deserves to be in the recitalist’s repertory.

The next unknown gem in this fine collection comes from the pen of Leokadiya Aleksandrovna Kashperova (1872-1940) who was one of Igor Stravinsky’s piano teachers. In a sad echo of present day events Kashperova’s works, though published, were suppressed from performance due to her Bolshevik in exile husband whose politics were, to say the least, unpopular. Cahill here plays her Murmur of the Wheat from the piano suite, “In the Midst of Nature” (1910). Cahill handles the finger busting, Lisztian virtuosity with seeming ease and makes a case both for the further exploration of this woman’s music and the inclusion of it in the performing repertoire. This recording is the commercial recording premiere of the work.

We move now from one of Stravinsky’s piano teachers to one of John Cage’s. American composer, pianist, educator Fannie Charles Dillon (1881-1947) studied composition with Rubin Goldmark (one of Aaron Copland’s teachers) and piano with the great virtuoso Leopold Godowsky.

Years before Olivier Messiaen took up the practice, Dillon, was known for the inclusion of birdsong in her works. One of her 8 Descriptive Pieces, “Birds at Dawn Op. 20 No. 2” (1917) was performed and recorded by early 20th century virtuoso Josef Hoffman. Cahill comments in her fine liner notes, “Dillon’s score is remarkable in its specific notation of bird songs: the Chickadee, Wren-tit, Thrush, Canyon Wren, Vireo, and Warbling Vireo…”. It is indeed a sonic painting of the birds at dawn.

The Czech composer, conductor, pianist Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940) was the daughter of composer, pianist Václav Kaprál (1889-1947). She composed some 50 works in her short life and died at the age of 25 in Montpelier, France two days after France surrendered to the Nazis. Her four “April Preludes Op. 13” were written for the Moravian-American pianist Rudolf Firkušný and are her best known piano works. Cahill has chosen the first and third for this recording. The music is notable for its exploration of extended harmonic language and made this listener curious about her other compositions.

This next work is a classic Cahill achievement. As a pianist known for working with living composers as well as being a producer who knows good music when she hears it this is a bit of musical archeology that brings to life in this world premiere recording a work from 1949 by Hungarian pianist Agi Jambor (1909-1997). Jambor studied with the legendary Edwin Fischer and had a career as a pianist and teacher very tragically interrupted by the events of World War II. She came to the United States in 1947 where her husband passed away two years later. She taught at Bryn Mawr College and was granted Emeritus status in 1974.

Her three movement Piano Sonata “To the Victims of Auschwitz” was brought into a legible and performable score with the assistance of Dr. John DesMarteau who befriended Jambor late in her life and to whom the piece is dedicated. And it was in consultation with Dr. DesMarteau, Cahill writes, that she was assisted in the interpretation of this music. According to Cahill’s liner notes this work attempts to represent sonically some of Jambor’s war time memories. It is a substantial work, a lost and lonely artifact of history given a definitive performance and recording.

The amazing composer Eve Beglarian (1958- ), the only of these composers known to this reviewer prior to receiving this album, provides the next offering, “Fireside” (2001). It is in fact a Cahill commission for a project commemorating the centennial of another neglected female composer, Ruth Crawford (Seeger) (1901-1953). Beglarian takes a poem written by the 13 year old Ruth Crawford hopefully describing her fantasy of what she would be in future years and, utilizing some chords from one of Crawford’s piano pieces, constructs a powerful meditation on the subject at hand. As it turned out Crawford wound up giving up her composing career to work with musicologist Charles Seeger, not exactly tragic, but hardly what her 13 year old self had imagined. Beglarian writes that “Fireside is dedicated to women composers of the future, who will undoubtedly be making devils bargains of their own.”, a cynicism which is hard to deny.

This piece, in its world premiere commercial recording, is one of a genre unique to the 20th and 21st centuries, that of the speaking pianist. This puts in in a category shared by works like Frederic Rzewski’s classic “De Profundis” (1994) and Kyle Gann’s “War is Just a Racket” (2008), a Cahill commission for yet another of her fascinating themed projects and recorded on her CD, “A Sweeter Music” released in 2013.

The penultimate track on this journey is provided by Belfast born (now in London) Irish composer Deirdre Gribbin (1967- ). “Unseen” (2017), in its commercial recording premiere, is described by the composer as a sort of meditation on the innocent victims of violence she has seen in her now home city of London whose presence is frequently unseen by many and, in the composer’s words, “reflects my desire to embrace an awareness more fully of my immediate surroundings in all their beauty and cruel pain”.

Mary D. Watkins (1939- ) is an American pianist and composer, a graduate of Howard University who has penned three operas as we as music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, jazz ensembles, and solo piano. She is a fine pianist, an advocate for Black

At first glance I was struck by Shane Keaney’s dark, drab art work of this album’s cover. It echoes the photographic work of Declan Haun and his contemporaries who documented the harrowing events of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. But after reading the harrowing stories behind this music I find it entirely apt. There is certainly beauty here but also pain and sadness. The monochrome portraits that make up the inside of this gatefold album charmingly includes Sarah Cahill’s face alongside portraits of the composers within, a reflection of the pianist’s solidarity with them. And the other photos in the booklet by Cahill’s daughter Miranda Sanborn add to the sense of connectedness that seems to characterize her projects. This is a wonderful start to a promising project.

Transformations, Elizabeth Chang takes on mid-century masters


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Albany Records has demonstrated a commitment to lesser known composers of the mid-twentieth century. Perhaps the term “neglected composers” is more accurate. This disc, headed by an artist new to these ears, Elizabeth Chang is an exciting release for folks who appreciate post-Schoenbergian music. That is a limited audience for sure but the sheer quality of the works of the composers represented should entice hungry minds.

Three composers are represented: Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Leon Kirchner (1919-2009), and Roger Sessions (1896-1985). Schoenberg is the only one adequately represented in recordings (if not in performances). The two American composers, Kirchner and Sessions, are both Pulitzer Prize winners and were respected as teachers as well as composers.

The recording opens with Kirchner’s Duo No.2 (2002) for violin and piano. I am familiar with Kirchner’s four string quartets, the third of which earned him his Pulitzer. His catalog of works is large and, sadly, most recordings are out of print. This late work compares favorably with the quartets. Clocking in at about 15 minutes, this work is decidedly very post-Schoenberg with an almost neo-romantic lyricism. The demands, met ably by the artists (Steven Beck, piano; Elizabeth Chang, violin), perform what is nearly a mini concerto.

The second piece, covering tracks 2-5, is the major standout here. Roger Sessions Sonata for Solo Violin (1953), can stand beside other twentieth century works in this genre such as Bela Bartok’s 1944 masterpiece. It has been recorded by Paul Zukofsky, Hyman Bress, Curtis Macomber, and, most recently, by Miranda Cuckson. While I have not heard any but Zukofsky’s rendition, it would seem that this performance is a welcome addition to the discography of this major masterpiece. I will leave it to the fine liner notes by David E. Schneider for more details on this rather complex work.

Sessions is given more exposure with a late work, the Duo for Violin and Cello (1978). The fact that this was found among the composer’s papers after his death with sketches for at least one more movement suggests that this was intended to be a much larger work. What does exist would make a fine companion to the (also too little performed) 1922 Maurice Ravel masterwork for this unusual combination of instruments.

The recording ends with Arnold Schoenberg’s Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment Op. 47 (1949). Both this and the previous work represent the last chamber music compositions by Sessions and Schoenberg. I am somewhat chagrined to admit that this is my first hearing of the Schoenberg piece. It is a thorny, almost pointillistic piece which is a very fine piece. and one that deserves more attention from this writer and

Even if this release may speak to a limited audience it is, nonetheless a significant and enjoyable contribution to the recorded legacy of this very significant western art music.

Louisville Orchestra Reboot on CD: All In


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The Louisville Orchestra was established in 1937 and its history has been wonderfully told in a 2010 documentary entitled, Music Makes a City.  Since their founding they released about 150 LPs containing new and interesting music not available anywhere else.  Many of those recordings have become available on the Albany CD label but the orchestra hasn’t released a new recording in about 30 years.

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Teddy Abrams

Along comes new music director, composer, clarinetist Teddy Abrams and now we are graced with a new recording on the Decca Gold label.  Now for a reboot this release is somewhat conservative in it’s musical choices but that’s not to say it isn’t interesing.  This recording, released also in commemoration of the orchestra’s 80th season, reflects a sincere effort to draw younger audiences to the concert hall.

This auspicious release contains as its opening Abrams’ Unified Field, a finely crafted four movement work that channels the late Aaron Copland and his ilk.  It’s style is inflected with elements of jazz and other so called “vernacular” music but it incorporates those styles in much the way that Copland and his contmporaries incorporated folk song as well as jazz/pop rhythms. It is virtually a symphony in its dimensions and is highly entertaining while remaining seriously classical and very finely crafted.  The year of it’s composition is not specified in the notes this writer received but best guess is that it is of recent vintage in this talented composer’s oeuvre.

This is followed, curiously, by three torch songs, one by the able soloist Storm Large, one by Cole Porter, and one by Teddy Abrams.  The stylistic unity of these three songs is striking and Storm Large (who is known for her work with Pink Martini) is a convincing chanteuse.

These are followed by another American masterpiece, the Clarinet Concerto (1948) by Aaron Copland.  Originally written (and subsequently recorded by) Benny Goodman, the concerto is definitely in the repertoire but receives far too few hearings in concert.  This writer had not heard the concerto in many years and was struck both by its quality and by the convincing performance recorded here.  Abrams takes the solo role and the orchestra is conducted with assurance by one Jason Seber.

Abrams’ reading is as convincing and authentic as any and this is a delightful way to close this wonderful recording.  Here’s hoping that this release will be the restart of Louisvilled great recorded legacy and that Abrams tenure as conductor will breath new life into an orchestra which has become a venerable part of America’s cultural history.

 

 

Howard Hersh’s Chamber Music: Dancing at the Pink House


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This latest release by Howard Hersh reveals more of his range as a composer.  His previous release focused on one large concerted work for piano and chamber orchestra as well as some virtuosic writing for piano and for harpsichord.  This disc (worth a listen if only for the return engagement of the pianism of Brenda Tom) focuses on some smaller chamber ensembles and a look at the composer’s more impressionistic moods.

This writer is left with the notion that each piece seems to be an intimate telling of a story.  Though the stories are not explicit, each piece has a distinct narrative character.  Mary Rowell handles the multi-track violin parts on Madam’s Tavern (2014).  The piece has an almost symphonic character evoking a variety of styles and meandering most pleasantly through a musical narrative whose details are not as important as the fact that the piece engages very successfully on a purely musical level.  It is written for solo violin with a chorus of some 15 tracks of violin accompanying.

Loop (2006) is a sort of cyclic quasi-minimalist work featuring Jonah Kim on cello, Brenda Tom (gently) on piano, and Patricia Niemi on vibraphone.  It is a dream-like, perhaps even impressionistic piece whose structure and compositional techniques serve the end goal of being a charming aural object.

I Love You Billy Danger (2012) was written for pianist Brenda Tom.  Here she demonstrates her virtuosity and her dramatic and dynamic range in a piece which, though related to Liszt according to the liner notes, seems to evoke the rather Lisztian master Frederic Rzewski as well.  Tom is at her fines with this challenging work and she conveys the narrative well.

Night (2013) seems related to the earlier Loop by virtue of being a percussion piece but also by its gentle evocation of a shimmering musical narrative punctuated with a clarinet part that alternately hides within the percussive sounds and comes wailing out  in jazzy/bluesy moments.  This writer was left with the notion of Gershwin haunting the score (but maybe that is because this review is being written in the Halloween season).  José González Granero is on clarinet, Patricia Niemi on marimba, and Nick Matthiessen on percussion.

Dancing at the Pink House (2006) is a musical narrative for clarinet and piano that Hersh has featured as a teaser on his website.  It was written for Patricia Shands, clarinet and is accompanied by James Winn on piano.  Shands is the owner of said Pink House and she seems to be having a lot of fun with this playful but substantial piece.  Both of these musicians appeared on Hersh’s 2007 CD release, Pony Concerto (Albany Records).

Dancing at the Pink House is a valuable addition to Hersh’s discography and reveals more of his range as a composer.  This is a highly entertaining recording and leaves the listener wanting more.

Black Classical Part Five


Looking at the previous four installments in this, my personal tribute to Black History Month, I decided that I needed to write one more (for now) in this series. So here I will present some of the resources I have found useful in learning about this music. While I have some knowledge in this area I could not have written these posts without these sources and I will continue to look to them to help me discover more musical gems. I hope that these essays have sparked some interest and I hope that any such interest will have ways to grow further.

The most useful general search terms formed the titles of these posts: black classical (or “African-American classical” which then limits your search to U.S. or the Americas). The term, “classical” is problematic but did serve to differentiate my searches from blues, ragtime, traditional jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, pop, rap and related genres that are more stereotypically associated with black people in music.

My focus was on composers and conductors leaving out a vast category of black classical musicians. A useful overview can be found at: http://www.wqxr.org/#!/articles/black-history-month/2013/jan/31/timeline-history-black-classical-musicians/. This little timeline provides a perspective on the slow acceptance of black musicians in the elite ranks of producers and ensembles that define the classical music experience.

africlassical.com is a good general site that lists many black musicians and its far more up to date companion site http://africlassical.blogspot.com/ has postings of great interest on an almost daily basis has been both essential and revelatory at times (I bookmarked this blog).

Center for Black Music Research is a rich resource and also publishes an academic journal on the subject as well as many other useful and interesting publications. They also maintain a large research library of books, journals and recordings. And they cover all forms of music. An excellent resource.

But the starting point for my personal interest in this subject is the landmark set of recordings which I encountered in the mid to late 1970s. Columbia records release of nine albums entitled ‘Music by Black Composers’ is perhaps the best starting point due to the wonderful scholarship and musicianship in this set. Conductor Paul Freeman along with musicologist Dominique-Rene de Lerma collaborated on this set. They produced a fine overview of neglected black composers from the 18th century to the mid-20th century in an intelligent selection of music and excellent performances by American orchestras. I was pleased to find that the reissue of these albums as a 9 vinyl disc boxed set remains available for only $35 plus postage from here. I jumped at the opportunity to acquire this great reissue funded by the Ford Foundation and my order was sent to me in less than a week.

Chicago-based Cedille Records has some great releases and even more great black classical is available at Albany Records.  Search for the work of Paul Freeman on both labels.

The ultimate goal for me in all this would be to have black classical musicians and composers equally represented on recordings, in performances and in programming. But until that happens (I’m not holding my breath here) the recordings and resources thus far cited (and many that were not) will have to suffice. While I continue to enjoy discovering this music as a “best kept secret” or a limited boutique-type item I would much prefer that the art of these black musicians become common knowledge, not a political issue of which Marian Anderson‘s concert at the Lincoln Memorial has become emblematic.

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Let me end by referring my readers to my favorite fiction book about black musicians: Richard Powers‘ 2003 masterpiece ‘The Time of Our Singing‘. Powers, who is also trained as a musician, demonstrates amazing insight to music as well as civil rights issues in this sweeping epic of the twentieth century. The chapter entitled, Easter, 1939 (too long to quote here) brings the Marian Anderson concert to life in powerful prose. Read it, preferably out loud to a friend, because it will give you a history lesson and perhaps put you in touch with the emotional power and significance of that event.

Happy Black History Month to all. And happy listening.

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