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FringeReview UK 2018

St George’s Church Vote 100 Celebrating Women Composers


Genre: Live Music, Music

Venue: St George’s Church, Brighton


Low Down

Music Of Our Time (MOOT) mounted a concert at St George’s Church. Celebrating women composers on the centenary of women winning the partial vote, Vote 100 Celebrating Women Composers was introduced by Caroline Lucas MP, featured Ethel Smyth, Thea Musgrave, Laura Shur, Norah Blaney, Shena Fraser, Augusta Holmes, Judith Weir, Lilian Elkington, Morfydd Owen, Tracey Chapman, Cecilia McDowall, Avril Coleridge-Taylor, Alma Schindler-Mahler, Rebecca Clarke, Ruth Crawford-Seeger, Litha Efthymiou, Polina Shepherd, and Lucy Pankhurst.


One of the greatest musical events of the year in the south east owes its inception to Music Of Our Time. It’s not just that so many of the women composers – some famous – are so gifted: but even now few are performed with any regularity. At least younger ones were able to in the audience, lending historical occasion. And Caroline Lucas MP was one of the performers.


Norman Jacobs is chair and prime mover of Music Of Our Time (MOOT) which mounted the concert at St George’s Church. He’d eschew limelight but deserves all credit for what follows. Maggie Grimsdell as co-producer and responsible for co-ordinating, discovering and developing parts of this programme, deserves praise too.


Celebrating women composers on the centenary of women winning the partial vote, Vote 100 Celebrating Women Composers was introduced by Caroline Lucas MP, after a procession in regalia (purple green and white) of Ethel Smyth’s March of the Women with the Choir Women of Note directed by Cara Barseghian with Zongora Piano Group with élan and gusto. And Lucas as one of the pianists. All ably choreographed by Kay Shepherd. It closed proceedings too.


Living from 1858-1944, Smyth’s Mass in D, operas like The Wreckers and The Boatswain’s Mate (mounted by Grimeborn Arcola Theatre this August), Violin and horn Concerto and much else is enjoying a revival. The March is always going to be her most-performed piece alongside the overture to The Wreckers.


It’s memorable – one of the most memorable from this period – and great fun. Smyth conducted it famously with a toothbrush from her prison cell window to fellow Suffragettes below in the prison courtyard. Her writing too is inimitable, particularly her Memoirs.


Thea Musgrave turned 90 this year, and at least gets far more coverage – slightly dimmed for a while when she went to live in the states in 1972. Famed for writing concertos where soloist theatrically wander around ad form liaisons with orchestral members. Her music is theatrically avant-garde with a melodic memorability that quite takes you by surprise. Her Phoenix Rising this year at the Proms demonstrates all this. The 1965 pieces here, though are for children, played here by Amelie and Benedict Wade. They demonstrate Musgrave’s wit and point, wholly different to her large-scale masterpieces, and rather bewitching. Three Excursions, The Road Hog, the evocative ‘Fog on the Motorway’, and the crash of ‘The Drunken Driver’.


Glaswegian Laura Shur (1931-2017) was famous for multiple piano works, particularly duets. Her 1989 collection from Concert Tunes for Three includes ‘Ragamatazz’ an engaging piece played again by Amelia Wade, with Yolanda Hein and Maria Copley. I wish we knew more of her.


we know a but more about Norah Blanry (1893-1983) who with her partner Gwen Farrar produced a comedy cabaret act that must have included more radcal pieces than the charming if very slightly creepy Mr Bear from 1913, when Blaney was just 19. Daisy Chute sang this wondrously with Ida Pelliccioli. Great – a tuneful highly talented work: just wish they’d pushed the envelope a bit.


Shena Fraser (1910-93) I should have known, Scottish, she wrote extensively ofcusing on younger performers and typically inherited that gifted Scottish comspoer syndrome of being an excellent administrator. It can curb creativity though Fraser made good use of it in writing material for tuition. Her 1954 Hornpipe and Jig performed by her son and grandson, Ivo and Stuart Neame, was memorable and charmingly comic – both were dressed as sailors. It’s good to know Fraser was able to pass on her gifts to her own family. It’s a fun spiky piece. Again, we need to know more.


Irish-descended French composer Augusta Homes (1847-1903), pupil of Caesar Frank who was obsessed with her, died quite young but not before she wrote many large scale works, including The Amazons. Always known about, never heard, she’s often cited as a faded reputation for the sinple rreasn that her works are leage scale and not revived.


So this four-person two piano piece is an exception. Les Cloches de Corneville from c. 1877 is a bit like the Quadrille Souvenirs de Bayreuth by Fauré and Messager from the same time. But less quoted-and-parody than a fine arrangement of songs refracted through an aural imagination of orchestral textures. Played here with panache by Jannet King, Maggie Grimsdell, Brian Simpson and Jonathan Wastie it afforded a rare glimpse into one of the most shrouded big reputations.


Judith Weir (b. 1954) is Master of the Queen’s Music and was here to thank the performers. Fanous for so much, including this choral piece on te visionary founder of western music, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Weir’s O Viridissima of 2015, is transcribed for piano trio, violinist Madheira de Saarum, cellist Natalie Rosario, Ruth Herbert piano. Intricate with a delicacy and point that made you want to hear it again, it played stratospherically. If it has any resemblances bar the two composers it comes from, it might be with say Aarvo Part. Weir though is a very different composer, though in her choral works also touching stillness.


De Saarum, and Herbert preformed the next piece too. Lilian Elkington is a somewhat tragic figure. Dying on holiday in Austria her husband and subsequent new wife ‘disposed of’ her music, some of which was rescued in a bookshop and recorded – a tone poem Out of the Mist, rather appropriate for her lost work – and recorded by the BBC. One song and two violin and pano pieces are the other survivors. Her Rhapsodie Op 3 from 1921 is early and evocative, with enough thew and point to make one want to hear more of Elkington’s quietly distinctive voice.


The same soloists with Rosario then performed another two pieces for Piano Trio only recently transcribed for performance. These from 1915 are by someone far more in the spotlight, Morfydd Owen (1891-1918) who clearly died tragically young from a reaction to chloroform when undergoing an operation. Owen’s life was spectacular enough, friends with D H Lawrence, Ezra Pound, marrying the first British Freud disciple Ernest Jones, but with women too, including confidante Ruth Lewis.


But her gifts were naturally more important, as the BBC Proms showed broadcasting her orchestral music, her Nocturne in D flat from 1913. A late-Romantic composer, touched by Impressionism but not full-blow modernism, Owen was still feeling her way through an individual response, and the war didn’t help. These two movements of the Piano Trio are labelled with wartime atrocities though. ‘The Cathedral at Liege’, and ‘The Cathedral at Rheims’, both bombed by the Germans. They’re different to much else: strident, explosive, rhythmically insistent like dead marches gone astray, interlaced with Owen’s lyricism and layered subtlety.


Returning Daisy Chute then teamed up with Cerian who made such an impact recently at St Nicholas. This was for Tracey Chapman (b. 1964) and her 1988 piece ‘Talkin’ Bout a revolution’ rendered hypnotically and with a magical vocal blend marking an ideal interval.


Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951) is renowned for choral and other music. Piano Forty (1997) was written for a four-strong group who named them selves after the piece – punning on forty fingers as much as forte.


Jannet King again, Naomi Grayburn, Kathy Palmer ad Joe Ward made this piece- typically deftly-textured and singing – underscores McDowall’s quiet brilliance. Known for stratospheric choral and some orchestral works in a fairly traditional idiom, it’s music that’s passed through the refractive late 20th century, and this piece in particular highlights McDowall’s wit and economy. The composer herself briefly shared the applause.


Avril Coleridge-Taylor’s name might sound familiar because of her great father, the Ghana/British born composer (1875-1912) famous for his Oratorio Hiawatha, Clarinet Quintet (chosen by Lenny Henry this week), Petite Suite and Violin Concerto. Because he sold the rights to Part One of Hiawatha outright, he remained poor as his publishers grew rich. A hero to black Americans, he was lauded in the UK till he died from overwork.


His daughter Avril (1903-98), as well as his son, became musicians but we know far less about them. Avril in particular was the first woman to conduct the Royal Marines Band, as well as the BBC SO and LSO.


Her own compositions have remained invisible. This Impromptu Op 4 for flute and Piano Op 33 dates from 1922 – so by 19 Avril had written a great deal. Rebecca Griffiths and Mishka Rasdie Momen make much of this wonderfully suggestive piece, floating on impressionism certainly, but with turns of phrase neither quite French or British ate Romantic. Avril Coleridge-Taylor is a composer awaiting discover; it’s a great pity her centenary was missed, coming so soon after her death.


Alma Schindler-Mahler (1879-1964) is famed for having taken lesson with Alexander Zemlinsky was a promising song composer, and thrown him over for Mahler who for a long time forbade composition, relenting when Schindler-Mahler had an affair with architect Walter Gropius. This song ‘Lonely Walk’ was only edited recently and dating from 1899 precedes studies with Zemlinsky. Her first teacher Josef Labor said it was quirky, but no matter, it was good. It is, in this performance by Rozanna Madylus and pianist Kristiina Rokashevich.


It’s a dark refracted work, hints of Wagner perhaps or Wolf, even the mahogany richness of Brahms, but none deeply. Schindler-Mahler’s own palate is more deft, lighter and iridescent – no wonder she went to Zemlinsky, but the same sensibility infused her own creative voice already. It’s an important addition to her growing catalogue and performances. Madylus enjoys an astoundingly powerful voice and Rokashevich gives her full support.


The same duo are paired for a revelatory performance of something several of us thought we knew. Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) enjoyed her one brief whiff of fame as she put it for her Viola Sonata of 1919, and Piano Trio of 1921, as well as other works familiar to us after the disguise of Anthony Trent was dropped, like her Morpheus of 1918 also for viola and piano. There’s genius in these works.


There’s more small-scale works from Clarke, a final burst of 1939-41; then stranded in wartime USA she married James Friskin an old college student from RCM days and virtually stopped composing, just as he had (he’s remembered for an early Phantasie Trio).


‘Tiger Tiger’ one of three Blake settings is dark, expressionist and fiery, modified over several years to accommodate the singer with whom she had a tangled long affair with: John Goss from 1929-33 when this setting was developed. This had the merit of long immersion and try-out, and the results here as performed are startling. I’d never thought of Clarke as a significant song composer, though songs make up a good proportion of her output. It’s the chamber works that gain most attention. On the evidence of this unremitting dark onyx gem, several afterwards were reconsidering their view of Clarke’s output.


Startling modernist Ruth Crawford-Seeger (1901-53) died young and after 1932 and a string of modernist works largely orchestral, sadly broke from composing during the Depression; bringing up children as well as working with husband Alan Seeger on many socialist projects. She returned to composing in the late 1940s writing in a more accessible style, but cancer claimed her tragically early.


Crawford-Seeger’s a celebrated modernist, the most significant between Ives and the long-lived and active Eliot Carter (1908-2012). Only serialist Roger Sessions (1896-1985) and possibly cussed Carl Ruggles (1876-1971) come anywhere near Crawford-Seeger ‘s eminence as well as the early Copland. Her work is distinctive, with unique ensemble choices, a voice as sophisticated and raucous as it is disciplined, witty and individually lyrical. By turns explosive and haunting she sounds like no-one else.


Crawford-Seeger’s Three Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg from 1930 are quite well-known but they’re far more deserving. ‘Rat Riddles’ the song performed here deploys Madylus again as singer, with Elen Morgan-Williams oboe, Pelliccoli again on piano, Miranda Davies on percussion for a particular comic part, all conducted by Gabriella Noble.


The percussion only underscores literally the quirky farce and sly fun Crawford-Seeger enjoys with tis three minute work. Madylus dominates the texture but the oboe and piano add point to the percussive games with off-centre melodic whoops and a post-expressionist irony like – as with al this composer – nothing else. There’s theatre too. Madylus stalks off the stage before the end. Granddaughter Peggy Seeger was in the audience.


Litha Efthymiou (b. 1980) also in the audience is a worthy modernist successor to Crawford-Seeger’s sound world, refracted here by her guitar piece atmospherically played by Brian Ashworth, States of Ice: Diamond Dust. It’s a haunting work, often quiet and ruminant deploying very little of the pinging tones sometimes heard with modern works performed in a church acoustic such as this. There’s a few quiet elements of guitar-rapping but this is a – forgive the pun –rapt piece worth hearing again almost straight after. A composer to watch out for.


Polina Shepherd (b.. 1973) is an astonishing performer who san and played the piano in her setting of Rosa Haming Lebensboim. Born in 1887 after settling in New York in 1913 Haming Lebensboim wrote some of the finest Yiddish poetry of the early century. This piece ‘With Half Shut Eyes’ is a powerful work of erotic longing: ‘my lips are redder now/And my half-shut eyes are smoky.’ Wow. And that’s what we receive from Shepherd with an idiomatic rendition, an additive melodic folk idiom and compelling line. Shepherd possesses a smoky powerful voice like no-one else’s as she simultaneously performs on the piano. Brought the house down. Or, piquantly, church. Jacobs commissioned this work as he did the next and final piece.


Lucy Pankhurst (b. 1981) is descended from that family of course. Lead On is a two piano four-person work with a rhythmic overlapping that sends not just the pianists on each piano to swap places but then follow each other round taking up positions as one or two others hold the rhythm. It’s a thrilling, funny but ultimately delightful political work, as theatrical as it is musical, as infectious as polemic.


Rokashevich returns, with Pelliccoli sand Momen, with Ana Szalucka memorably replacing the prodigious Helen Wilson who was sadly ill. It was an infectious rounding-out of the concert proper with rhythms held aloft as pianists moved round the two pianos in a hypnotic and ultimately moving affirmation.


Smyth’s March returned with the procession now inviting everyone to join in including the Choir Women of Note. Kay Shepherd’s choreography was naturally involved in both these events, maanged with aplomb in a snaky space.


An outstanding, rousing and moving concert. It should act as a springboard to discovering these women composers, as well as demonstrating the overwhelming creativity of women, particularly recalling those who had to struggle so long, so thanklessly, and whose works were often cruelly disregarded and even disposed of. Further turn-ups in bookshops aren’t unknown. Celebrating the composer we have and their available if shrouded work, is the first task though.