The attention paid to women composers remains much less than it should be but releases like this latest on Cedille features the Chicago Sinfonietta (Chicago’s second professional orchestra established in 1987 and sporting programs distinctly different from that of the Chicago Symphony) are incrementally correcting that error. Here for your listening pleasure is a disc with five world premieres, all by female composers, and a world class orchestra conducted by a female conductor, Mei-Ann Chen. (They also boast that on average the Sinfonietta is 47% women. Is there an orchestra that can match that?).
With the exception of Florence Price (1887-1953) all are living composers on this release. The others (who were commissioned by the Sinfonietta to write these pieces) include Clarice Assad (1978- ), Jessie Montgomery (1981- ), Reena Esmail (1983- ), and Jennifer Higdon (1962- ). Montgomery and Esmail are new names to this reviewer. Assad and Higdon are generally well known and very accomplished. Higdon is the second woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize in music (the first was Ellen Taafe Zwilich) and Florence Price is enjoying something of a posthumous revival with recent recordings of several of her larger works and the recent discovery of some of her scores long thought lost.
This disc is pretty much representative of Cedille’s mission to record new music and a selection of older music featuring largely Chicago musicians. This label has done great service in promoting the music of women and other minority groups and has exposed the record buying/listening public to musical gems that otherwise would languish in that minority wasteland of music which remains unperformed due to sociopolitical rather than aesthetic reasons.
This is one of their finest releases. It is a nice survey of 20/21st century women composers (just a small sampling but an intelligent one) from the early twentieth century to the present. The works are given definitive readings by a fine ensemble and a clearly accomplished insightful conductor.
The disc opens with music which serves both the theme of presenting women composers and the desire to do honor to the Chicago Sinfonietta’s founding conductor, the late Dr. Paul Freeman. His advocacy of the music of black composers began with the groundbreaking Columbia release (now Sony) of music by black composers and continued the series on Cedille (African Heritage Symphonic Series: CDR 90000 055, CDR 90000 061, CDR 90000 066 followed by the Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson disc CDR 90000 087). The disc opens with a set of piano pieces by Ms. Price (Dances in the Canebreaks, 1952) which were orchestrated by no less than the dean of Black American composers, William Grant Still. These three friendly, light hearted dances will remind listeners of the sort of fare that characterized the jazz inflected classical idioms of the time, a tradition which also gave birth to Rhapsody in Blue.
Next up is Sin Fronteras (2017) by the Brazilian-American composer Clarice Assad. She comes from the well known musical family which includes her father, guitarist and composer Sergio Assad. Her work has a tinge of Aaron Copland and works well as a follow up to the opening track. She, like Still, seems to have an impressive command of the orchestra which she handles with tremendous skill in this overall light hearted piece.
Jessie Montgomery (1981- ) is a new name to this reviewer but a look at her well organized web page reveals an astoundingly accomplished young musician. Her Coincident Dreams (2017) follows in the American traditions of including folk music in her compositions. Here her material includes non-American folk musics blended into a lucid listenable score that marks her as a musician worth watching.
As with Assad we hear a composer who is comfortable with the sprawling pallet of the modern orchestra where she manages to make the best use of her materials in an entertaining orchestral work.
Reena Esmail (1983- ) is another name new to this reviewer. She is the only artist here to have two works on this CD. The first is a traditional Hindustani piece called Charukeshi Bandish in which she sings the vocal part. Like many of the composers here she draws on her own cultural heritage and has managed to incorporate these traditions into her more (western) classically oriented works. In fact she does so in the next track with #metoo (2017), a piece in which she expresses both solidarity and rage at the mistreatment of women worldwide. Here’s some uncomfortable activism for the concert hall whose time is certainly due.
The disc concludes with perhaps the best known living American woman composer, Jennifer Higdon. In addition to being a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in music, Higdon is a prolific composer whose work has been heard in concert and opera houses world wide. Her post-romantic style has made her work popular in concert halls and the depth of her musical invention continues to amaze. Her five movement “Dance Card” (2017) harkens back to the lighthearted dance music which opened this recording. But it is tinged with a depth of emotion which reflects not only her personal vision but her solidarity with women world wide, people who would not need a special feature release but for their gender and racial differences which have marginalized them historically. This release goes a long way to shifting that trend. It’s a gorgeous record.