Monday, March 05, 2018

Whatever happened to...Rebecca Clarke?

This Thursday is International Women's Day and the music world is going gratifyingly bananas over it. Here at JDCMB we have already had posts about two of the events and there will be more during the course of this week (and no doubt beyond).

Today I would like to explore the fate of one of Britain's finest historical women composers, someone whose work remains underrated and deserves much better: Rebecca Clarke (pictured above).

Recently I was asked to write some programme notes about Clarke's Dumka, or Duo Concertante, which was being given at the Wigmore Hall by Henning Kraggerud, Natalie Clein and Christian Ihle Hadland, so I spent a little time reading about her. Please visit the Rebecca Clarke Society for more...

Briefly, here are 10 things that happened to her.

1. Born in Harrow to a German mother and American father, she studied violin at the Royal Academy of Music until her harmony teacher proposed marriage. She left.

2. She became a pupil of Charles Stanford at the Royal College of Music instead - his first female student. Unfortunately her father then threw her out of the house and cut off her financial support.

3. She therefore had to leave the RCM and began to earn her living as a professional violist, playing in Henry Wood's Queen's Hall Orchestra. She was one of its first female members.

4. In 1916 she moved - alone - to the USA, where she drew notice three years later when her Viola Sonata tied in first place at a competition at the Berkshire Festival of Chamber Music, sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. She termed this her "one little whiff of success". Coolidge commissioned her Rhapsody for Cello and Piano in 1923.

5. The Viola Sonata, still one of her best-known works, impressed people so much that they couldn't believe it was written by a woman. It was rumoured that 'Rebecca Clarke' must be a pseudonym for a man and it was even suggested that the piece was really by Ernest Bloch. Clarke did not speak up to refute those expressed doubts regarding her genuine authorship of the work until 1977.

6. By 1924 she was back in London and becoming a sought-after violist on the chamber music circuit. She worked a lot with our old friends Jelly d'Arányi and Adila Fachiri. She was a founder member in 1927 of the English Ensemble. However, her composition began to take a back seat.

7. World War II: she returned to America, lived with her brothers and took a post as a nanny. But - was her creativity drying up? Nope. The Duo Concertante dated from about 1941.

8. She married an old friend from her RCM days, the pianist James Friskin, who was on the faculty at the Juilliard School in New York.

9. As late as her nineties, she returned to some of her old pieces and reworked them. She died in 1979 aged 93.

10. Despite increasing recognition of her work at long last, much of her music remains unpublished. Several works were issued in 1998-9. More remains. In fact she wrote more than 100 compositions. In her lifetime, only 20 were published.

Here's hoping that more will emerge, sooner rather than later.

Here's the Viola Sonata played by no lesser team than Gerard Caussé and Katya Apekisheva at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford a couple of years ago. Enjoy.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Spilt champagne, burnt umber and words that have no sound...

In a special concert for International Women's Day at King's College London on Thursday, there's a chance to explore the music of Silvina Milstein and Effy Efthymiou, with Lontano under the baton of Odaline de la Martinez. Here's a guest post from Silvina telling us about some of the paintings, places and poetry that inspired her to create the works featured - from Argentinian night scenes to Vermeer's earth-toned interiors. Tickets for the concert are free, but please reserve a place via Eventbrite, here. JD

Guest post by composer Silvina Milstein

The Music Department of King's College London celebrates women's contributions to contemporary 'art' music with a concert conducted by Odaline de la Martinez. The programme features recent works by Effy Efthymiou (currently doing a doctorate under my supervision) and a selection of my chamber music written in the past 20 years. The post-concert discussion, chaired by musicologist Matthew Head, will explore what the category of 'woman composer' means to Effy and me. 

For me, preparing for this concert has been a powerful and mysterious experience, as it has involved revisiting works that go as far back as 1998 (as in the case of Book of Shadows, written for the Endellion String Quartet and a narrator). In those days I was fascinated by Borges's interpretations of Oriental literatures, mysticism and Edgar Allan Poe's macabre imagery. Book of Shadows is a montage of two Chinese tales and a fragment from a story by Poe. Motifs of magic, love and death cast shadows upon each other. In this concert we will hear its second movement (in the version without narrator), depicting Poe's accounts of the images that rush through the mind of a prisoner of the Inquisition as he hears "the dream-sentence of death". It was in this piece that most of the ingredients that make my current musical language emerged.

Approaching death is further explored in "and told her in words that had no sound" from The Undending Rose diptych for solo violin (1999), which takes its title from a poem by Borges, in which the Sufi poet Attar of Nishapur addresses a rose "in words that had no sound, as one who thinks rather than one who prays". Attar has reached old age; he is blind and admits to knowing nothing, but foresees that "there are more ways to go; and everything is an infinity of things". The Sufi images of eternity as experienced by Borges, himself old and blind, approaching the end of his days, reminded me of what Lukács calls "the touch of vertigo...the most profound meaning of form: to lead to the great moment of silence". So I attempted a piece that has the form of a sigh, a sort of exhalation, whose contrasting and precipitous final section, while aspiring to an "unending" quality, eventually turns out to be a sort of cadence.

Silvina Milstein
In the context of a concert to celebrate International Women's Day, I have been reflecting on the extent that female and male voices are reflected in my music. It seems that in the above two works my imaginings were triggered by voices of men articulating universal experiences. But in "cristales y susurros" ("crystals and whispers", for a mixed septet with harp), the source is more overtly erotic and mundane, springing from memories of what I heard as a young woman about the night districts of Buenos Aires. Here, evocative gestures and motives drawn from Buenos Aires vernacular continuously proliferate, echoing the ripples left by a magical night as it is forgotten to later resurface as torn lace, shimmering silk and split champagne.

Contrastingly while composing the other septet to be heard in this concert, "ochre umber and burnt sienna" (2012), the source of inspiration was further remote: I was preoccupied with Vermeer's depictions of women in their private spaces, in paintings that I saw at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. While composing this piece I attempted to enter the intimate world of those 17th-century women and became absorbed in a mode of looking at those portraits that involved focusing on how their expressive backgrounds - saturated with tiny strokes of earth pigments - invite us to enter domestic spaces, in which pensive women ponder and rest. H Parry Chapman commented that some of Vermeer's paintings "focus so closely on the solitary, thoughtful, absorbed woman as to create the possibility for self-identification on the part of a female viewer. Of course we can no more read what is inside these women's hearts and minds than we can read what it in their letters. Still we are drawn in by the suggestion of their inwardness. In short, the Dutch domestic interior becomes a metaphor for a kind of interiority that includes women."
Hear extracts of the music here:

Silvina Milstein was born in Buenos Aires in 1956. After the Argentinian military coup of 1976 she emigrated to Britain. At Glasgow University her composition teachers were Judith Weir and Lyell Cresswell, and at Cambridge University she studied with Alexander Goehr.  In the late eighties she held fellowships at Jesus College and King's College (Cambridge), and is currently a professor of music at King's College London.

In addition to composing Silvina has a distinguished career as a teacher and scholar.  Her book Arnold Schoenberg: notes, sets, forms was published by Cambridge University Press.

She has received commissions from leading ensembles and the BBC.  A selection of her chamber works has been recorded by Lontano conducted by Odaline de la Martinez and issued by lorelt.  Several of her most recent pieces for large chamber ensemble --tigres azules (London Sinfonietta and Ensemble Modern), surrounded by distance (London Sinfonietta) and de oro y sombra (Birmingham Contemporary Music Group)-- were premiered under Oliver Knussen.

Friday, March 02, 2018

14 today

JDCMB is 14 years old today.

It's being a bit teenagery, too. Unpredictable, periodically withdrawing for a sulk saying 'I'm busy, go away', other times Putting It All Out There All The Time, and now and then inviting a gang of friends home for tea and cake.

I couldn't have predicted back in March 2004 what's become of any of us, or the internet, or the UK, or heaven knows what else, and I wonder where we'll be in another 14 years, assuming we are still here at all, but one thing's certain: hold on to music and the things that really matter, come what may, and we can still have something worthwhile to sustain us.

It's chilly out there. Mind how you go.

Enjoy JDCMB? Make a birthday donation here!

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Next to Beethoven, Louise Farrenc

There's a plethora of terrific concerts on 8 March, International Women's Day. Actually we're splendidly spoilt for choice this year! In the Barbican's offering, Laurence Equilbey conducts her own Insula Orchestra - resident at La Seine Musicale in Paris - in the UK premiere of the Symphony No.3 by Louise Farrenc (1804-1875), with Beethoven's Triple Concerto in the first half starring Natalie Clein (cello), Alice Sara Ott (piano) and Alexandra Conunova (violin). I asked Laurence why she's putting Farrenc side by side with Beethoven, and plenty more besides...

Equilbey in action

Your London concert is on International Women’s Day. This annual event has gained prominence at an extraordinary speed over the past few years. Why do you think it’s important to mark it?

There is definitely a greater appetite from audiences to hear music from female composers of the past than there has been previously, and when is a greater opportunity to celebrate this than on International Women’s Day! However International Women’s Day is not the only day that Insula orchestra will be celebrating female composers. In upcoming programmes we will be performing Fanny Mendelssohn’s Hero et Leander, and Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and I would love to tackle the work of even more rarely performed female composers, like Clemence de Grandval.

 For those who haven’t yet heard of Louise Farrenc, please tell us a bit more about her. What appeals to you in her music? Why should we all come along and discover her?

I love to always keep an ear out for rare and undervalued works. I discovered the work of Louise Farrenc a few years ago, but I wanted to wait for the perfect moment to perform her Symphony no.3, as it is her finest work. This symphony has been immaculately constructed, and uses fascinating rhythmic motifs, very powerful orchestration, and has beautiful melodic themes which I think are evocative of Mendelssohn (Felix!). It definitely deserves to be a mainstay in the performance canon.

The concert has three female soloists in the Beethoven Triple Concerto and a symphony by Louise Farrenc. How did you decide on the pieces and the performers? 

Symphony no.3 was actually premiered alongside Beethoven’s 5th, so I wanted to be paired with Beethoven again. I think these works not only enhance each other, but help to complete a broader understanding of 19th century musical life in Paris. Farrenc and Beethoven are also linked in other ways, as they shared a teacher, Antoine Reicha.

Laurence Equilbey at La Seine Musicale
Photo: Julien Benhamou
It was not a case of gender with the three female soloists – Alexandra Conunova, Natalie Clein and Alice Sara Ott. All three are simply superb musicians who are at the top of their game.

 How and why did you start your own orchestra? What is its mission statement, and why?

Insula orchestra is resident at La Seine Musicale, and we performed the inaguaral concert there in 2017. The venue also provided the inspiration for the name ‘Insula’, the latin for ‘island’, as La Seine Musicale is located on Ile Seguin, just a few miles downstream from Paris. The Insula cortex is also the part of the brain linked to emotion.

Starting a new orchestra like Insula orchestra and having a fantastic new venue like La Seine Musicale gives us the perfect opportunity to approach classical music from a fresh perspective. We have the freedom to take risks, and our ethos is to preserve a place of artistic experimentation, innovation and openness. We have plans to incorporate visual arts, theatre, and technology in many exciting ways.

What are your views generally on the issues facing women in the music business, especially conductors and composers? Have we put up with sexism and discouragement on the grounds of gender for too long? Do you think the situation is improving now?

There are definitely prejudices against women in the music business that have existed for a long time, but we should celebrate that now we have some opportunities to finally enjoy the work of long neglected female composers, like Louise Farrenc. One must not forget however that there are many forgotten composers who were neglected due to racial bias or their social situation, not just due to their gender.

For performers, conductors, soloists, stage designers, the path is a hard one, and there is a need to take some specific measures for more inclusive programme ideas.

What further measures can be taken to aid this process? 

We can make amends to these women, and in turn benefit female composers of the future, by first and foremost exploring their music. For performers, the French government has proposed quota objectives to fill. I also read recently that UK festivals are taking actions to achieve greater gender equality on the stage. It is very important that culture opens itself up to women.

The new concert hall in Paris on the Seine is the second important music venue to open in the French capital in the past few years, the other obviously being the Philharmonie. But London is still struggling to build its first since the 1980s. Why do we need new, proper concert halls in this day and age? 

 At La Seine Musicale we have been very lucky to have the support and commitment of our local government, Departement des Hauts de Seine. In that area of Paris there was previously no big concert hall which could be used for staged projects, with all the modern technical equipment. La Seine Musicale was an unprecedented investment in the musical sector, so we can only hope that similar opportunities will arise in London. Having said this, the Barbican’s willingness to welcome Insula orchestra and our ethos is hugely encouraging.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Like Rachmaninoff? Try Metallica...

Now and then we need a quick reminder that the world we're in now is - in a good way - something we couldn't have dreamed of back in 1987. Ahead of Boris Giltburg's recital at St John's Smith Square tonight, I'd like to tell you about one of my favourite things that has ever happened on Twitter.

Some months ago I was listening to Boris's recording of the Rachmaninoff Etudes-Tableaux and Moments Musicaux, which I was writing about for Primephonic and had downloaded in high-resolution from their website onto my computer. Boris plays the piano as if it's a 120-piece orchestra, with a grand-scale emotional sweep that can leave you flat on the floor experiencing a kind of legal high, wanting to turn up the volume up as far as you possibly can without scaring the neighbours. Minutes after I put out a tweet about this, a friend made a quip about heavy metal - and then along came Boris himself, suggesting Prokofiev's War Sonatas next [yes indeed - highly recommended], and then admitting he's a bit of a metal-head himself and suggesting some tracks for me to try.

In other words: in today's world you can access the best recordings with the swipe of a mouse, chat about them with your friends, thank the pianist and receive his playlist of entry-level heavy metal recordings, all within moments.

I finished that week listening to Metallica's 'One' and wishing I were 30 years younger. Next thing I knew, other classical musicians started popping up in the Twittersphere asking what took me so long, to which all you can say is "Oh, the usual problems... not knowing where to start listening, scared of looking stupid for not knowing the music, nervous about wearing the wrong thing..."

So am I possibly becoming a metal-head too, at...the age I am...? But guess what? It turns out there's an entire genre for people with long curly hair, seeking extreme musical experiences.

And finally you can blog about it and show everyone what the fuss was about in the first place. Just listen to this. With the volume up. And if the snow permits, do come to SJSS tonight. He's playing this Rachmaninov, with a bunch of Liszt Transcendental Etudes thrown in for good measure...