Great Barrington — Women’s suffrage seized the spotlight at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on June 10 as Close Encounters With Music concluded its 25th season. The evening’s program included CEWM-commissioned pieces by Thea Musgrave, Tamar Muskal and Judith Zaimont, along with several 19th- and 20th-century works by women who overcame centuries of gender bias to gain professional recognition in the male-dominated world of classical music. Titled “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman,” the program celebrated the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New York but included pieces that predate the American suffrage movement by many decades.
Saturday’s concert opened with works by two Austrian composers from the late Classic period, Marianna von Martinez (1744-1812) and Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824). These aren’t exactly household names, and that’s one reason CEWM artistic director Yehuda Hanani included them. Another reason is that he likes their music and wants everyone to hear it.
Neither Martinez nor von Paradis were composers of the first rank, but neither were most other composers of their day (the first rank being occupied by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and a scant handful of others). They nevertheless gained a measure of notoriety by practicing their art publicly at a time when women of polite society were expected to shun the spotlight and direct their creative energies toward home, hearth and nursery. Women of high social rank, however, could sometimes push the limits of social convention, and such was the case with with Marianna von Martinez and Maria Theresia von Paradis.
Renana Gutman performed Martinez’s Sonata in A Major from memory: She owned it and she meant it. Every nuance said so. This made her performance not only beautiful but convincing.
Cellist Yehuda Hanani and pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute delivered a beautifully heartfelt performance of von Paradis’ “Sicilienne.” This graceful, yearning, somewhat melancholic confection will be familiar to many listeners, even those who’ve never heard of von Paradis.
Among the 19th century’s leading female composers, Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn are probably the best known, and this is not merely because Clara’s husband and Fanny’s brother are themselves celebrated composers. The reason they’re so well known is because Clara and Fanny both produced work that is arguably superior to that of many of their male contemporaries. They were on par with the best, and the men close to them knew it. But because they happened to be women, Clara and Fanny received little recognition as composers from the men and women who controlled the classical music business. Clara Schumann’s Two Romances for Piano and Violin is accessible, unpredictable and immensely satisfying on the first hearing.
Augusta Holmès (introduced earlier in the CEWM season) made an appearance on Saturday with her lighthearted paean to the domestic cat, “La Chatte Blanche.” Holmès’ sometimes Lisztian, sometimes Wagner-infused music is agreeable enough on the first listen, and her work is skilfully crafted. But she’s not in the same league as Clara Schumann or Fanny Mendelssohn.
After intermission came CEWM-commissioned works from Thea Musgrave (“D.E.S. – In Celebration”), Tamar Muskal (“Sojourner”) and Judith Lang Zaimont (“Emma”). These pieces were grouped with Joan Tower’s “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 6” and Patricia Leonard’s ”Remember the Ladies” to represent what Hanani called a celebratory “quilt of miniatures,” a symbol of feminine cooperation and resourcefulness.
Contemporary classical music can be difficult to read and almost impossible to perform. But on the evening of June 10, violinist Peter Zazofsky, pianists Renana Gutman and Jokubaviciute, Metropolitan Opera soprano Danielle Talamantes, and cellist Hanani proved themselves amply capable of dispatching the most difficult pieces on Saturday’s program. In fact, the “quilt” pieces had a curious way of bringing out the best in these musicians. For example, Zazofsky’s playing, relaxed and easygoing early in the evening, became a study of hypervigilance following intermission: the harder it got, the better he played.
The Mahaiwe crowd rewarded all of the contemporary composers with prolonged, rambunctious applause. All except for Bard College professor Joan Tower, who got the rock-star treatment she deserved when she stood to take a bow. People went nuts.
Veteran soprano Talamantes made all of her parts look easy. In fact, none of them was easy and a few of them would be treacherously difficult for less experienced vocalists.
Amy Marcy Cheney Beach was a true pioneer. Highly respected as a concert pianist (soloed many times with the Boston Symphony Orchestra), Beach was the first American woman to compose large-scale works for orchestra and was the only female member of the Second New England School. Her catalogue ranges from songs to solo piano works to symphonies. Her Romance for Violin and Piano Op. 23 is exquisitely beautiful. Melodically simple but not simplistic, this piece demonstrates a sophisticated mastery of harmony that’s all the more remarkable when you consider that Beach was largely self-taught in harmony, counterpoint and composition.
Within the first several measures of her “D’un matin de printemps for Violin and Piano,” it becomes clear that Lili Boulanger is in a league of her own (or, at the very least, in the same league as Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann). Having studied with one of the 20th century’s most influential composition teachers, her own sister Nadia, Lili had been far ahead of her peers since the age of two.
When you go to a concert presented by Close Encounters With Music, you get both a musical performance and a lecture about the evening’s program from Hanani, a career educator and concert performer. His talks are always concise and packed with historical and musical information that’s important to understanding and enjoying the music. In fact, the program itself – the combination of composers and pieces – invariably tells its own story. That’s the way it’s been for 25 years, and there’s no better example of it than “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman!”