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


First Hand Records FHR 131

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.

“Dreams of a New Day”, a Landmark Recording Project from Cedille


Cedille CDR 90000 200

I have always made my admiration clear regarding Chicago based Cedille Records. They release quality recordings of unusual but intelligent choices of repertoire. This recording continues that formula but here achieves what is likely to be seen as a landmark anthology (or at least sampling) of Art Song by Black Composers. It speaks on many levels, as poetry, as music, as a collaboration between an incredible baritone, an amazing pianist, in a beautifully recorded and produced album. I was left throughout with the feeling that this is a loving collaboration. It is an integrated collaboration between many people who worked well together. It is a beautiful document and a timely one.

Baritone Will Liverman, the young rising star baritone who is slated to perform at The Met in the world premiere of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” scheduled for fall of 2021 is clearly at the heart of this production. His intelligent choice of repertoire is both pleasing and revelatory. (the poetry of the song texts are published in one of two booklets that come with this CD). And Liverman’s voice is an admirable instrument that he wields with power and nuance. His commission of fellow rising musical star, composer Shawn Okpebholo whose “Two Black Churches” receives its world premiere recording. The pianist who manages to navigate significant demands with confidence and artistry, is Paul Sanchez, an excellent pianist, composer, and a fine collaborator.

The beautifully packaged CD (you gotta buy the CD) consists of 19 tracks representing 8 composers. The recording is billed as “Songs by Black Composers” but one can hardly miss the justly sad or angry tone of the texts and this was recorded July 22-24 of 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and amidst social unrest over the epidemic of modern day lynchings. (2020 was also the year that Anthony Davis won the Pulitzer Prize for his protest opera, “The Central Park Five”) The moving rendition (“put together”, as Liverman quips in the liner notes) of Richard Farina’s 1964 song is played and sung by Liverman connecting this release with the tradition of protest music of another era. The struggle continues.

Before discussing the music I must supply a disclaimer of sorts. My working knowledge of art song in general is fairly limited and my knowledge of black art songs even more so. I know none of this music and have only in the last year or so came to know of the work of Shawn Okpebholo. I had read about the historical significance of Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh and Margaret Bonds but have heard little of their music.

In about 61 minutes listeners are given a survey, a sampling of art song by black composers ranging from Burleigh (who studied with Antonin Dvorak) to Okpebholo whose compositional talents continue to get much deserved recognition. It is a learned sampling of a huge repertory that deserves attention.

The opening song is I Dream a World (2017) by Damien Sneed (1979- ). This setting of the Langston Hughes (1901-1967) poem strikes a somber but cautiously optimistic note. It is followed by “Five Songs of Laurence Hope” (1915) by Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949). The name Laurence Hope is the pseudonym of Adela Florence Nicolson (1865-1904), a British poet who spent much of her life in British India where she developed an interest in the culture of the land. Fascination with the literature and culture of India was strongly in evidence in the early twentieth century. These five songs are reminiscent of Debussy and the impressionists and is but a small sampling of Burleigh’s art song output.

Harrison Leslie Adams’ (1932- ) setting of his own lyrics in “Amazing Grace” is yet another iteration of the abolitionist song. Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-1972) is represented by her “Three Dream Portraits” (1959), a song cycle on Langston Hughes poems. Bonds’ style put this listener in the mind of Copland’s Dickinson Songs though notably darker. This cycle is contemporary with the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

Next is “Riding to Town” (1943) by Thomas Kerr (1915-1988) who chose to reach back to the late nineteenth/early twentieth century poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) for his text. Dunbar was for the 19th century what Langston Hughes would be for the early to mid twentieth century.

“Two Black Churches” (2017) is the work commissioned by Liverman for this recording. It is a setting of two poems and one of the musical highlights here. The first, “Ballad of Birmingham” to a text by Dudley Randall (1914-2000) is a contemporary reaction to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four little girls. The second song, “The Rain” to a text by the Poet laureate of Charleston, poet and musician Marcus Amaker (1976- ). It is about the Charleston Church shooting of 2015 at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal in which a lone gunman killed nine people. Okpebholo is modernist but accessible and these settings are among the most devastating and powerful statements on this recording.

“Mortal Storm” Op. 29 (1969) is a song cycle by one Robert Owens (1925-2017). It is a powerful cycle set to Langston Hughes poems. Owens left the United States in 1968-9 in response to the racial violence and moved to Europe where he had studied music under the GI Bill from 1946-1957. Owens died in Munich having never returned to the land of his birth. This work deserves to be better known and thanks is due to Liverman and his associates for bringing this sad masterpiece to contemporary listeners.

The album concludes with Mr. Liverman’s arrangement of “Birmingham Sunday”, a 1964 song by writer and composer Richard Farina (1937-1966). Liverman plays and sings on this final track which is an homage to a previous generation of song writers and protestors as well as a reminder that that generation’s work in Civil Rights is hardly complete. The song was notably used by Spike Lee in his elegiac film, “Four Little Girls” (1997).

The lucid and detailed program notes by Dr. Louise Toppin are a welcome addition to this production and help to provide a context. The design by Bark Design ties this little gem together. This one has Grammy and “collector’s item” written all over it.

MLK, the Classical Playlist


President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin ...

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no doubt that rhythm and blues is the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement but in this, the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, I am issuing a programming challenge to the classical music world.  Hey there all you classical music stations, both internet based and broadcast.   Hey there Spotify and Pandora.  Have you explored the music written for and about the Civil Rights era?  Well, here’s your chance.

I begin my programming day with Joseph Schwantner’s “New Morning for the World” (“Daybreak of Freedom”), written in 1982.  Comparisons to Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” are made due to the similarity in character and the use of a narrator.  The other work on this  Oregon Symphony CD under the late great James De Preist is  a work by an older composer Nicolas Flagello.  The cantata, “The Passion of Martin Luther King” from 1968, was composed in the shadow of the assassination of Dr. King and first performed in 1969.  Both works deserve more hearings for their musical accomplishments as well as for the subject of their dedications.

Description unavailable

Description unavailable (Photo credit: pennstatenews)

Moving on to the next segment I will move on to Adolphus Hailstork‘s 1978 “Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed”  followed by William Grant 1930 Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American”.  Still is rightfully known as Dean of Afro-American composers.  A contemporary of Aaron Copland, his accomplishments established without a doubt the place in classical music for black composers.  Hailstork acknowledges his debt to the older master.  He is the next generation of black musicians contributing to the repertoire.  I will conclude this segment with Hailstork’s Symphony No. 2 which contains his impressions upon visiting the slave market areas of western Africa, places where began the shameful history of black slavery.

And on we go now to Luciano Berio’s 1968 “O King”, a chamber piece later incorporated into his masterwork, “Sinfonia” of the same year.  I program the version from Sinfonia, it’s my favorite rendering.  The vocal parts of this piece are solely comprised of the name “Martin Luther King”.  Also from 1968 there is Michael Colgrass’ “The Earth’s a Baked Apple” which is subtitled, “A Musical Celebration in Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” (psst, I have a bootleg of it).

We move on to afternoon programming featuring Anthony Davis’ opera, “X”, based on the life of Malcolm X.  This is  a work that deserves a new production.  Following this I will move on to Duke Ellington‘s 1943 “Black, Brown and Beige” Suite and then his “Three Black Kings” titled in French with rhyming wordplay as “Les Trois Roi Noir”.

Album cover

Album cover

The program would be incomplete without programming the wonderful Other Minds CD of Sarah Cahill’s album “A Sweeter Music” featuring a diverse collection of compositions written for her on commission by Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Kyle Gann, Carl Stone, Phil Kline, Yoko Ono and The Residents.  The title is taken from Dr. King’s Nobel Prized lecture in which he refers to peace as “a sweeter music”.

Dizzy Gillespie

Cover of Dizzy Gillespie

I will end my fantasy program with Dizzy Gillespie’s “Brother K’ and Hale Smith’s “In Memoriam Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”  But fear not I leave you with a useful reference I have recently discovered.  “A Catalog of Music Written in Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.” edited by Anthony McDonald.

Stay tuned for more on these subjects coming up during February for Black History Month.  Peace, Dr. King.

A mural painted on the side of the African Ame...

A mural painted on the side of the African American Museum depicts the Hough riots, the civil rights movement and a family looking towards a bright new future for the city and the community. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

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