Bravo Chameleon! Scintillating sounds at the Third Annual Women Composers Concert

by LAWRENCE BUDMEN

Only in recent times have female composers begun to receive well deserved recognition from the musical establishment. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich has won a Pulitzer Prize for her First Symphony and has been an important advisor on contemporary music to Carnegie Hall's artistic administration. Thea Musgrave has won acclaim for her operas and instrumental works. Major orchestras have commissioned female creative artists from Russia, England, and France to write large scale orchestral scores. Yet for virtually all of the nineteenth century and most of the last century, women who composed serious music were largely ignored or operated at the fringes of the art form. Many women established performing careers to help perpetuate their creative work. Many musical gems by these pioneering composers have gathered dust on library shelves. To celebrate Women's History Month (in the USA), Chameleon Musicians presented a sparkling afternoon of works by female composers (both past and present) -- the Third Annual Women Composers Concert on 7 March 2004 at the Josephine S Leiser Opera Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA.

The scintillating sounds of the Spanish Quartet for Violin, Viola, Cello, and Piano by Louise Pauline Marie Héritte Viardot were quite irresistible. Viardot was the grand daughter of tenor Manuel Garcia (who sang the role of Count Almaviva at the première of Rossini's The Barber of Seville) and the daughter of the legendary contralto Pauline Viardot. Viardot attempted several operatic works with little success. She eventually ceased composing and traveled widely throughout Europe, Russia, and the Far East. On the basis of this score, she was a composer of considerable stature. The Latin-tinged melodies of this quartet's four movements are wonderfully inspired and the composer's sense of musical form is strong and well articulated. (One can easily sense the composer's operatic ambitions. Verdi or Puccini might have envied Viardot's melodic gifts.) The instrumental writing is always gracious and inventive with a particularly expressive and prominent viola part. The Chameleon group's performance had the lightness of a good French desert wine. Violist Richard Fleischman played with a vibrant, fruity tone that suited this music perfectly. The warm, resonant cello of Chameleon co-founder Iris van Eick was a real treat to jaded ears. (Appropriately Ms. Van Eick plays a French instrument made by Bernardel Pere -- an instrument with a rich, elegant sound.) Violinist Scott Flavin played with robust precision (on a violin made in Naples in 1780 by Tomaso Eberle). He produced a strikingly light, rounded tone. Pianist Anne Louise-Turgeon (a member of the Duo Turgeon) played with brightness and panache. A delightful musical soufflé in a magical performance!

The music of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) -- sister of Felix -- is steeped in the grand nineteenth century romantic tradition. Her Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano bears the strong influence of Beethoven. (That master's Third Piano Concerto and Archduke Trio are clearly felt in Fanny Mendelssohn's score.) There is passion and urgency in this music. The slow movement is grounded in a beautiful, flowing romantic melody -- inspiration worthy of Schumann. The stormy tempest of the finale anchors the music firmly in the romantic era. The melodic invention is always first rate. Fanny Mendelssohn's music deserves greater exposure. She was a composer of talent and real stature. Flavin, Van Eick, and Turgeon played this intense work con amore. Van Eick's elegant phrasing of the beautiful theme in the second movement held the audience spellbound in the elegant salon ballroom of the Leiser Center.

Amy Beach (1867-1944) was a prolific composer. Her Gaelic Symphony was admired by no less than Dvorák. She was also a highly regarded concert pianist and teacher. All of her music is marked by clarity, vibrant instrumental colors, and a French-tinged view of romanticism. Three of her many songs -- June, A Mirage and Stella Viatoris -- were spiked with impressionistic harmonies, wide vocal leaps, and surging melodic lines. Soprano Christina Pier revealed a large, strongly focused soprano voice. (Pier sings Donna Anna in Don Giovanni at Santa Fe Opera in Summer 2004.) She gave an animated, vocally lustrous performance of these marvelous Beach miniatures. Her diction, however, was not always clear. Turgeon's lightly shaded rendering of the piano line was a delight. (Beach's Piano Concerto is a virtuoso showpiece that awaits the attention of a supremely gifted pianist.)

The song Such be the thought (to a text by Walt Whitman) by composer Harriet Bolz (1909-1995) was written for the American Bicentennial in 1976. While the text is celebratory in tone (quite different from Whitman's war poems), the music is remarkably restrained and dissonant at times. This work was written in the wake of the Nixon-Watergate era and reveals the composer's ambivalence at a time when American democracy was threatened. This contradiction between music and text is highly effective. Bolz's subtly, lyrical idiom and uneasy musical pulse both deconstruct and illuminate the text. (Perhaps this is a musical parable for our present time as well.) Christina Pier's voluminous voice and coolly dispassionate approach to the text struck magic. The pristine flute of Christine Nield provided piquant commentary to the vocal part. The insistent chords in the piano line were presented commandingly by Turgeon.

The première performance of Three Dances for Flute by contemporary composer Stella Sung was a real discovery! Ms. Sung is an active composer and teacher in the Orlando, Florida area. The opening Andante and the Adagio, quasi improvisatory, tempo rubato that follows show the lyrical influence of Samuel Barber. Yet this shimmering music is the work of a composer with an original, personal voice. The final Allegretto is a light French pastry (à la Poulenc and Milhaud with spicier harmonic seasoning) that delights the listener. Sung's music embraces the past but could only have been composed in the 21st century! The audience gave this atmospheric score an ovation. Nield essayed the daunting, high lying solo flute line with brilliance and a lustrous tonal palette. A splendid work in a spectacular performance!

Stella Sung's marvelous score symbolized this fascinating concert's thematic purpose. Chameleon Musicians introduced the work of a brilliant creative artist and revived intoxicating scores by path breaking female composers. The outstanding, dedicated performances of the Chameleon group were a labor of love. A wonderful celebration of women in music and Women's History Month! Bravo Chameleon!



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