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“Threads” Highlights a Millennium of Music Composed and Performed by Women

March 7, 2017

Gold Coast Chamber Players

Overcoming spouses, society, and often their own, limited self-definitions, it took strength equal to steel for most of the women composers featured in Gold Coast Chamber Players’ Sunday afternoon performance to create music.

The Women’s History Month concert was given the title, “Threads,” to acknowledge the tapestry women musicians have woven in the field of music, despite encountering considerable obstacles relative to their male counterparts. But introduced in a preshow talk by co-founder, artistic director, and violist Pamela Freund-Striplen, the program’s eight composers spanned more than 1,000 years of history and demonstrated solidarity far surpassing spindly fabric. In a performance dedicated to the memory of Susan Groag Bell, a pioneer feminist scholar and author who chronicled European women’s history, largely at Stanford University, it was impossible to ignore the undercurrent: the remarkable fortitude of women creatives.

Faced with dismissive comments that essentially assigned any woman composer secondary status — if she was even allowed to write music at all — it’s a wonder that sophisticated, technically challenging, structurally sound works were written prior to the 20th century and the era of women’s liberation movements.

Perhaps Hildegard von Bingen got away with composing the moving, enveloping Antiphon for Divine Wisdom in the 12th century because she was a German Benedictine abbess and claimed a “voice from heaven” told her to write the piece. Contralto Karen Clark gave the medieval chant an expansive reading, well-supported by subdued viola lines played by Freund-Striplen.

Harder to figure out is by what force Clara Schumann overcame her prevailing tendency — to promote her far-more-famous husband’s work — to write works like Romance Op. 22, No. 3. Violinist Livia Sohn and pianist Bernadene Blaha exchanged the lead with deft toss-offs that lent an impression of camaraderie to the light, lyrical work. Lili Boulanger’s overtly suspenseful Nocturne, although pleasant, lacked a distinct voice compared to other works.

If there was punch to the program, it arrived interspersed within the lighter fare. Following two sections marked by dignified restraint and efficient, understated thematic material, the third section of Nadia Boulanger’s Three Pieces for Cello and Piano, composed in 1914, was the sonic equivalent of hiking up one’s skirt and petticoat and dashing through a field of tall grass. Cellist Ani Aznovoorian tackled the work with gusto and obvious delight.

Jennifer Higdon’s Piano Trio offered intricacy and passages that seemed to tangle, then unwind in the “Pale Yellow” section. “Fiery Red” followed, if blazing speed and complex, fearless rhythmic and instrument shifts can be considered as “following.” The trio’s clever, vigorous playing of this piece was thrilling, arguably the program’s highlight.

Composer Amy Beach’s romantic Quintet, op. 67, written in 1907, required a more cerebral hearing. The first movement impressed with dramatic texture — always the piano seemed the rock star — that built until it reached peaks, then subsided, rested, resumed the next climb. So too, the Adagio followed a series of swells that emphasized the piano’s rippling, bubbly arpeggios topped by gorgeous, lush splashes from the violin. A vivacious Allegro to close allowed brief solo moments for cello and viola, but largely, the violins were kept unison and it was the piano that dominated the work.

Blaha was terrific throughout a program that required she perform a wide range of expressions and subtle shifts of style to make each work distinct from the next. Clark showed equal versatility in two songs from Thea Musgrave’s Five Songs for Spring. The upside of the all-women composer/performer concert was the clear accomplishment it demonstrated. Shed a tear for all the female voices lost or never heard — and vow to be both steel and connective thread by supporting today’s and tomorrow’s women in music.

Correction: When this story was originally published, the caption in the top photo mistakenly identified the ensemble as the Golden Gate Chamber Players rather than the correct Gold Coast Chamber Players.

Lou Fancher is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Her work has been published by WIRED.com, Diablo Magazine, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, InDance, East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, SF Weekly, and others.  She is a children's book author, designer and illustrator, with over 50 books in print. Also a choreographer, ballet master and teacher, she coaches professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U. S. and Canada.  Visit her website online at www.johnsonandfancher.com.

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