A Celebration of Women: a chamber music concert

Review by Mark Morris
Mar 23, 2024 
Muttart Hall
Alberta College Campus MacEwan University

Laura Veeze, violin | Nora Bumanis, harp | Alissa Cheung, composition/violin
Meran Currie-Roberts, cello | Julianne Scott, clarinet | Sarah Ho, piano

The concerts put on by the Edmonton Recital Society are always of interest, but their fourth concert of the current season, in the Muttart Hall on Sunday, March 10, 2024, was particularly felicitous.

For it celebrated International Women’s Day (March 8) by not only having a concert of music composed entirely by women, but also played entirely by women, and, indeed, played entirely by Edmonton women.

The works were well selected, too, because although a couple of the composers may have been familiar by name, I doubt if many of the audience had heard many pieces by them before – so it was also a concert of discovery.

After initial remarks by the musicologist D.T. Baker, it opened with the violinist Laura Veeze lovingly playing a Caprice for Solo Violin by Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté. We don’t hear enough of her music these days, though she was one of the most influential Canadian composers after World War Two, and a fierce supporter of contemporary music.

The Caprice that Veese played is the first in a set of 10 Caprices for solo violin, written over a decade from 1924 to 1934 – all of which have titles evoking some aspect of Eckhardt-Gramatté’s life. ‘Die Kranke und die Uhr’ (The sick woman and the clock) reflected her experience being at the bedside of a sick friend, and being aware of time ticking away. It has something of a gentle wistful dance, with elements of a European lark ascending – a most attractive and thoughtful way to start the concert.

The violinist and composer Alissa Cheung is these days a violinist with the famed Bozzini String Quartet, working internationally and across Canada from its base in Montréal. But she is also very active as a composer, and almost invariably brings a performance of one of her works when she makes a welcome return to Edmonton.

The two-movement, 10-minute Analogia is a relatively early work. The first movement, ‘Riflettare’ (meaning to ponder), flowed well from the wistfulness of the Eckhardt-Gramatté, the slow lines of the two instruments lapping in constant metrical steps around each other, with a suggestion of tonal potentials that don’t quite lead to resolution. After a more dissonant moment, the music gets sparer and sparer, eventually, rather like a late Shostakovich work, fading away.

It would be interesting to know what the inspiration was for the second movement which carries the title ‘Il Passo Falso’. This can mean a false step in Italian, or the equivalent of ‘faux pas’. The false step would seem to be more plausible, because it is a quirky, 3-minute little dance, with some little false steps in it, a kind of Soldier’s Tale dance in Dr Martens boots. It was authoritatively played by the composer and Veese (a stronger performance than that premiere on YouTube).

The first half ended with a performance by that wonderful colossus of a character, the composer Dame Ethel Smyth. She was the first woman composer to be created a Dame (the equivalent of a knighthood), she was a suffragette, she spent two months in prison for her activities, she was an avid golfer, and she had a number of affairs, mostly with women (those with whom she fell in love with included the chief suffragette Mrs. Pankhurst and Virginia Woolf). She studied at the Leipzig Conservatory, and was encouraged in her composition by Arthur Sullivan.

It was thus a most welcome opportunity to hear her three-movement Cello Sonata in A Minor, Op.5, written in 1887 when she was a student in Leipzig.

After its lovely flowing Romantic opening, what was striking in both the first and the last movements was how effectively and unexpectedly the two instruments switched roles, and the cello provided bass support for the piano.

The Brahmsian middle movement (she had met the German composer in Leipzig) seems the most conventional, until it takes flight in a middle section. The final movement starts with a suggestion of the hunt (Smyth was an avid horse-woman), and ends in high and joyful energy. Meran Currie-Roberts and pianist Sarah Ho gave a persuasive and lyrical performance, which will, I hope, have encouraged the audience to discover more of the music of this major woman composer.

The work (Every Lover Is A Warrior by Kati Agócs) opened the second half of the concert and was played by harpist (and President of the Edmonton Recital Society) Nora Bumanis. She played it with the skill and dedication she has always shown, both as the Principal Harpist of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and as a soloist.

Every Lover Is A Warrior was written in 2006, and is a cycle of three short works for harp, inspired by different cultures and ostensibly reflecting themes of lovers and war. The cycle was perfectly pleasant, but its limitations were exemplified by the first piece, based on the Appalachian tune John Riley, which tells of a soldier who returns after eight years of war, to find his sweetheart still faithful. Agócs claims she has created a Bluegrass piece, but I couldn’t hear anything Bluegrass at all, nor could I discern any musical rendering of the story.

The final piece was by a much better-known American composer, Pulitzer Prize-winning Jennifer Higdon, who was born in Brooklyn, and has won three Grammys (all for concertos). Light Refracted, composed in 2002, is a two-movement work for string trio, clarinet and piano. The material came from an orchestral work, blue cathedral.

“After it was premiered,” she has written, “several individuals pointed out to me Monet’s cathedral paintings, one of which is completely in blues. I became fascinated with the idea that painters often paint a particular subject in varying degrees of light (as Monet did). I wondered if composers could do the same thing. So when I started Light Refracted, I decided to take the musical elements used in blue cathedral, and recast them in a different light. It was extremely difficult, but also an interesting challenge. Like Monet, I tried to examine the melodies, rhythms, harmonies, and orchestration in a new context. So the first movement reflects that “artistic” study and manipulation.”

That first movement, titled ‘Inward’ reflects “on our inner light, and how we take that light in”, and the second movement ‘Outward’ is “the opposite, our projection of light out to the world.” In style, the work is neo-Romantic, opening with a low, slow clarinet solo, and that first movement is initially rather rhapsodic, with beautifully judged entries of the different instruments. Agitation grows, with a very strong sense of the different instruments as individual voices, tangling around each other, until a rather lovely gentle close.

The second movement, Outward, as one might expect, is in complete contrast, with buzzing scoops against a scurrying piano – fast, furious, and fun. It somewhat loses its way in the middle, but returns to the opening ideas in a kind of frolic of light.

It can’t be that easy to play, but Cheung, Veese, Currie-Roberts, Julianne Scott, and Ho pulled it off with aplomb, ending a fine, inventive concert.

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