Ensemble revives classics, noted female composer

You just don’t hear about that many women composers, even in modern times, whereas female authors, artists and popular musicians are now commonplace. Sure, we have Ellen Taafe Swilich, Julia Wolfe, Pauline Oliverios and Meredith Monk, but they are far less known than the most popular male composers of our time, like John Adams, Steve Reich and Eliot Carter. Before 1900, it’s hard to come up with any female composers at all; Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix, and Clara Schumann, wife of Robert, may be the only ones who easily come to mind. Looking back further, one might occasionally hear a piece by medieval composer Hildegard of Bingen, but outside of these few individuals, music composition has always been a male-dominated tradition.

On Friday night, the Williams Chamber Players, the faculty chamber music group, presented a concert in Brooks-Rogers featuring works by both sexes, from Mozart’s Duo in G Major for Violin and Viola to Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet in D Minor to English composer Rebecca Clarke’s Piano Trio. Clarke, who was born in 1896 and composed a handful of chamber works in the early 20th century, remained largely unknown to the classical community until the late 1970s. Continuously mistreated by the men in her life, she suffered from depression and constantly felt unsure about the propriety of her compositional career.  

Clarke’s Trio for violin, cello and piano was originally written for a composition competition as part of the 1921 Berkshire Festival, held in Pittsfield and sponsored by famous chamber music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. She won second place for the piece, just like she had two years earlier for her violin sonata. The piece opens with a mysterious and atmospheric first movement, full of deep, bell-like piano notes, twinkling arpeggios and highly Romantic, yearning melodies in the violin and cello. The harmonic language is not unlike Messiaen, with traces of whole tone and octatonic scales, and above all, the music shows a fantastic ear for color. 

The second movement was particularly lovely, with an oscillating violin and cello arpeggio under a nostalgic, caressing piano melody. The cellist, Nathaniel Parke, and violinist Joana Genova gave the repeating figures a sensuous, lingering appeal, and as a listener one appreciated the space of the quietly beautiful moments. But here and in the third movement, gentle, evocative endings are seriously undercut by the addition of banging, pasted-on cadences. This, along with Clarke’s tendency to repeat her themes often and without development, demonstrates a lack of structural sophistication. Her music can feel more like a collection of moments rather than a developing narrative arc. One can’t help but wonder what more practice and support could have done for her music, and how time, experience and a more encouraging society could have birthed a whole slew of great chamber music.

The other works on this program were performed to the same high standard as the Clarke. The Mozart Duo in G Major for Violin and Viola was an alternately lighthearted and sweetly delicate work, played nimbly by Genova and violist Scott Woolweaver. The attention paid to contrasting sections and the deftly handled interplay between instruments made for an exciting and appealing performance, and both players had a clear and easy tone well suited to Mozart’s music. 

The second half was devoted entirely to Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet in D minor, “Souvenir de Florence,” conceived while the Russian composer was vacationing in the Italian city near the end of his life. The sextet, for which the concert was named, is a stunningly athletic piece that makes large demands upon both individual players and the group. The Chamber Players were more than prepared for the challenge, with a thick, full sound and spot-on ensemble playing, displaying an attuned awareness to Tchaikovsky’s momentum-building structures. The second movement was especially striking, with a yearning cello melody building up into a blooming, powerful chordal section, balanced beautifully and played with powerful intent and precision. The fourth movement breaks into strident counterpoint, eventually settling into a forceful and wild fugue before returning to a more homophonic texture and building to a vigorous conclusion.

While I wholeheartedly support the inclusion of a piece by an overlooked female composer on the program, the Chamber Players made no effort to present these three works in a larger context, and I can’t help but wonder if a more carefully chosen program could have illuminated some of these pieces in more evocative ways. Regardless, the overall performance ended with as energetic and thrilling a conclusion to a Chamber Players concert as I can remember, and the audience responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation.