"A Toast to Women," a concert by the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle organized and led by Lorenzo Muti and his son, Niccoló Muti was a most welcome musical experience in the Triangle concert season.
Women have been denied participation in the field of music and in the arts generally for centuries because of the male dominant western culture. They were seen as lacking depth, strength and imagination. This view has been supported to some degree by the fact that most women composers wrote smaller chamber works such as art songs. Take a look at the Wikipedia: List of female composers by birth date. There you will find an abundance of women composers, only a scant few of whom wrote symphonies and/or large orchestral works.
An even scarcer breed is women composers of African descent. All that is changing. A new age is sneaking in with the help of open minded leaders in the field of music who see the vast untapped resources that lie in what we have labeled the fairer sex. All these false assumptions will fall by the wayside as new discoveries replace the ignorance of the past.
The concert was preceded by a superb panel discussion put together by Margaret DeMott, Durham Arts Council Director of Artistic Services, and included harpist Winifred Garrett, jazz vocal artist Lenora Zenzalai Helm, and COT concertmaster, violinist Tasi Matthews.(There is a report on the panel discussion on the COT web site.)
The concert began with Overture No. 1 in E minor by Louise Farrenc (1804 - 1875), who broke many glass ceilings in the 19th century, including being the only woman in the entire 19th century to hold a permanent chair at the famous French Conservatoire. This overture was not performed during Farrenc's lifetime. However, a second concert overture was and received positive reviews from the likes of Hector Berlioz.
The Overtures, modeled after Beethoven's Concert Overtures (Egmont, Coriolanus, etc.) were composed for large orchestra including wind instruments and percussion. Under the direction of Niccoló Muti, the orchestra delivered a crisp, lively and lyrical performance of the Overture No. 1. The ensemble was precise and well balanced, and the music was a delight to hear.
The father, Lorenzo Muti, took over the podium next and informed the audience that it now occurred to him that the Piazzolla piece would be better heard after intermission and that now was the best time to hear the piece by the second featured woman composer, rather than in the reverse order as printed in the program.
Florence Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887; died in 1953. She was notably bright, graduating from high school at 14. She had her first piano lessons from her mother at age 4, published her first compositions at age 11 and enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music after her graduation from high school.
Her First Symphony (1931-32) won first prize at the Rodman Wanamaker Competition. It was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Frederick Stock in 1933 to critical acclaim that was, alas, short lived. For most of the rest of her career she was largely ignored and undervalued by the male dominated Classical music establishment.
The first movement of the Symphony No. 1 in E minor is a dramatic and lyrical essay, very reminiscent of Dvořák's New World Symphony. It is not so much a copy of Dvořák's work, but rather a commitment to the same kind of resources and inspirations Dvořák used - Negro spirituals and a general attempt to devise an American nationalistic voice. Opening with a bassoon solo over a hushed string pattern it proceeds to explore a variety of lyrical and heroic themes, some of which do sound like quotes from Dvořák. The movement ends with some big chords with a few dissonances thrown in to enrich the listening experience followed by a series of strong cadence chords.
The second movement, marked Largo: Maestoso, is a well-developed hymn-tune of Price's own devising. It has the strong feel of the Spiritual with some nice brass choir passages and ends with a quiet and calm assurance.
The remarkable third movement will make you want to get up and dance. Moving with delicious syncopation underscored by a driving base line, it was irresistibly charming and a pleasure to hear.
The short fourth movement, labeled "Juba Dance" and marked Presto wraps things up with a spritely march theme. Price is definitely a competent and talented composer and her music is well worth hearing. The COT delivered the charm, the inspiration, the joy and pleasure of this remarkable work. We are most grateful to the Mutis for bringing the music of these two extraordinary women to our attention.
Miraculously, in 2009, several boxes of Price's unpublished manuscripts were discovered in a dilapidated house in St. Anne, Illinois that was scheduled to be demolished. This has stirred new interest in her works and recognition of her achievements.
The addition of a very fine brass choir added to the rich sounds, giving the COT a truly big orchestral sound. The brass shined warmly especially in the second movement. The strings matched the richness of Price's orchestration with vibrant and dynamic playing. Also notable was the bassoon solo work in the first movement. A quartet of French horns played with precision and dynamic intensity and were wonderful throughout.
After intermission we were treated accordion virtuoso Hanzhi Wang. Praised for her engaging stage presence and performances that are technically and musically brilliant she is the first accordionist to join the roster of Young Concert Artists in its 57-year history of discovering notable musicians.
She performed Aconcagua: Concerto for Bandoneon, String Orchestra and Percussion by Astor Piazzolla, the Argentine tango master. It is scored for strings and percussion, including piano, harp, and timbales. The first movement, Allegro Marcato, is a technical demonstration of the skills of the accordionist with the orchestra and the soloist in conversation with one another. The richness of dissonant enhanced harmonies and irregular rhythms were welcomed additions to the menu.
The second movement, Moderato, was a mystical tour, beginning with the soloist alone. The middle section with the harp playing an obbligato line, a solo violin and the accordionist playing a simple folk-like tune was especially beguiling.
The third movement, Presto, begins with rhythms and orchestration that reminded me of Stravinsky. Then it develops by adding instruments to what at first seems an innocent and playful theme. Instruments are added Bolero-like increasing in intensity, becoming more and more demonic until it ends abruptly.
Piazzolla's masterpiece contains considerably challenging rhythms and thematic inventions in combination and in counterpoint, not only for the soloist, but for the entire ensemble. The accuracy and precision of this performance was astonishing, delivering the unique pleasure of excellence.
The COT with its artistic director, Lorenzo Muti and staff continue to bring diversity and excellence to the Triangle music scene. Often, as now, we have them to thank for bringing us rarely heard, but important musical works. It is much to be hoped that support will continue and grow for them to keep up the good work.