Boston Secession

Bay Windows Review

Venus Rising: Boston Secession devotes itself to a rare evening of music by women

by Liane Curtis
May 15, 2003

The Boston Secession presents 'Transitive Venus: Women's Perspectives in Music,' Jane Ring Frank, Artistic Director; Vytas Baksys, piano; at the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, May 10.?In a spring concert season overflowing with musical riches, the program of the Boston Secession caught my eye with its feature of women composers, and proved to satisfy my ear and intellect as well. The Boston Secession is a professional vocal ensemble, drawing from the wealth of freelance singers in the area, and provided with an innovative and thematic approach to programming. Every single piece in this program had its special power and presence, brought out by Jane Ring Frank's insightful leadership. There was no weak link; every moment was charged and resonant.

Amy Beach's Mass of 1890 was the young composer's first large scale work-prior to it she had written smaller pieces for piano, voice and other combinations. The completed work, premiered by the Handel and Haydn Society in 1892, brought the Boston-based composer national fame. Secession performed two movements. The Kyrie was sensitively sculpted, bringing out the clarity of the writing. The Agnus Dei pulsed with the drama and intensity of a Verdi operatic scena, building in an emotional crescendo, that broke like ebbing waves with the words "grant us peace," peace achieved here sublimely.

Fanny Mendelssohn's music for St. Cecilia's day was exuberant and rousing. It was here I felt the work might be well served by a chorus of 200 (instead of 24), perhaps to balance the sound and energy of powerhouse soloist Mary Sullivan. Hildegard of Bingen's chant, "O Viridissima Virga," was given a sensitive interpretation, bringing out its sensual, redolent qualities, by Melanie Germond and Carolann Buff. Janika Vandervelde (b. 1955) set Hildegard's same text in 1992. Vandervelde rose to fame when Susan McClary discussed her work in the controversial book "Feminine Endings." Yet, until this concert I hadn't heard a note of her music, so this performance was both a delight and a revelation. As opposed to Hildegard's own flowing, unbounded melody, Vandervelde provides lively clarity, a syncopated ostinato energized by castanets, and crisp phrases often beginning with a chant-like unison, but expanding to a refreshing spray of tones.

Lili Boulanger has status as a legendary figure (she was the first woman to win the coveted Prix-du Rome, and died at a tragically young age), but despite this fame, most of her music remains rarely performed. Her "Hymne au Soleil" (Hymn to the Sun) sets a text by Casimir Delavigne (a distinguished member of the Academie Française). Pianist Vytas Baksys effectively suggested the colors of an orchestra in this lush and dramatic work. Its ebullient text is evoked through stanzas of growing radiance, as the phrases and stanzas themselves ascend in pitch and build in florid energy. Baksys opened the second half of the program with a brilliant and virtuosic performance of Adeline Shepherd's "Pickles and Peppers Rag" (1906). The remarkable phenomenon of Midwestern women who in the early decades of the 20th century devoted themselves to Ragtime remains an obscure fact of the "Who Knew?" variety. The sparkle of this piece emphasized that its obscurity is undeserved.

Thea Musgrave was born in Scotland, but has lived in the United States for many years, and has a long fixation with American literature-and literature that deals with questions of memory and identity, as in this work, "My Grandmother's Love Letters," from "Black Tambourine" by Hart Crane. Katherine Fitzgibbon was the compelling soloist, joined by the women of the ensemble. Mary Sullivan was again showcased in a solo performance (with Ring Frank at the piano) in Florence Price's "Feet o' Jesus." Sullivan's powerful voice and dramatic conviction made her a worthy successor of Marian Anderson, who often sang Price's songs.

It is one of those conditions shared by many women composers, having had less recognition allotted to them than the quality of their work merited: they were themselves often insecure in recognizing its value-and thus they neglected to take steps to protect and make their music accessible after their deaths. Price, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Rebecca Clarke are three women on this program for which this observation holds. Thus Price and Crawford Seeger were represented by solo works, as their important choral music was impossible to obtain. The two works by Clarke on this program were perhaps receiving their U.S. premieres, having just been published weeks ago (although having been written in the early 20th century).

Seeger was represented by her beautiful song "White Moon," one of her many settings of Carl Sandburg. She knew him well in her Chicago period, teaching his children piano and even babysitting. Mary Gerbi was exquisite as the soloist in this precisely crafted work. With the delicate piano filigree in constant restless motion, it was the kind of piece that makes you hold your breath. Surely a few minutes of transition were needed after it-some walking on or off stage, or moving of furniture just so the spell it cast could be gently broken.??As it was, the move into the next piece, Ysaye Barnwell's "We Are...," was jarring. Its relaxed folklike melody and use of voices in a repetitive percussive accompaniment might better have followed the Vandervelde. Lisa Q. Wirtz was captivating as the dusky alto.

The two pieces by Ruth Lomon (b. 1930) are products of her serious and extended contemplation of the Holocaust. Lomon began with reading poetry by Survivors in Yad Vashem (Israel), and in the last eight years has been setting to music words engaging with that brutal chapter of human history. "Bore ad ana" was premiered at this concert, a setting of one of the most ancient Hebrew chants beginning "Creator, how long must thy snared dove endure trapped in the net." An alto flute (played expressively by Jill Dreeben) with a sinuous, undulating melody, drew on Lomon's study of the ancient music traditions of the Middle East. This contrasted with the choir's intensifying sound masses, building gradually in tension (to the final words, "Alone, crying out, 'Father, Father'"). Underneath it all was a stark drumbeat, like the lub-dub of the human heart, but (according to the composer) representing the slamming of doors that takes place in Orthodox Jewish services to commemorate the destruction of the Temple.

This was followed by Lomon's setting of "Chor der Waisen," (Chorus of Orphans) by Nelly Sachs, in which the orphaned reproach the world for the loss of their parents ("... O world, we accuse you!"). Lomon unfolds this text with two melodic lines, intertwining and unfolding, intermingled with rhapsodic solo passages (powerfully conveyed by Melanie Germond and Thomas Gregg) over a droned pitch exchanged within the choir. These two pieces worked together as a powerful and devastatingly effective expression. What could follow this? Pauline Oliveros' Sonic Meditations was perfect programming-we could all join in with some much needed deep breathing. I am usually skeptical about this type of "concept" piece-the musicians are given instructions, not music-but in this case, and with these skilled musicians the result was effective. The musicians are instructed to start singing any pitch, and then to gradually move to the same pitch (and then, predictably to return to their original pitch). The motion toward the "center," carried out in tiny increments, created a texture full of complex changing overtones. The thick, soothing sonority was a contemplative moment, needed after the searing intensity of the Lomon. The intelligent programming, brilliant interpretation, and powerful musicianship combined to make this evening remarkable, moving and memorable.

The flaws were only small details, such as the lack of information provided on the composers (which seemed odd since the ensemble describes itself as addressing "context"), and to have names of the text authors and dates of composition given only erratically.??The Boston Secession's 2003-2004 creative season is outlined on their web-site,

Copyright 2003 Bay Windows. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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