nokuthula ngwenyama

Chamber Music Northwest reviews: defying limits

Concerts and conversations offer insights into contemporary music by female composers

In 1985, Pennsylvanian cartoonist Alison Bechdel inadvertently invented the trope that bears her name: The Bechdel-Wallace Test. (You can look at the original comic here.) Not that the test is a perfect indicator of either gender equality or cinematic worth: your average slasher flick passes, and your average Coen Brothers movie does not. Star Wars: Rogue One passes, but just barely. Gravity famously failed it, for rather specific reasons having nothing to do with gender. But as a way of calling attention to the nature of (and reasons for) gender inequality, The Bechdel-Wallace test still serves a useful, perspective-broadening diagnostic purpose.

One thing the Bechdel-Wallace tends to demonstrate: including only one woman in a movie (or a conversation, or a chamber music concert, etc.) inevitably puts all the weight of female representation onto that one character. Tokenism collapses representation into a single vector, a phenomenon best understood as The Smurfette Principle (first noted in 1991 by Katha Pollitt.) The other smurfs, all male, get to be The Nerdy One, The Funny One, The Fat One, The Jock, and so on; the girl smurf is just The Girl. Smurfette doesn’t get to do anything or have any of her own interests and pursuits. She has to be The Girl.

Composer Gabriella Smith discussed ‘Carrot Revolution,’ performed by Tomas Cotik, Becky Anderson and Nokuthula Ngwenyama at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

None of the composers on Chamber Music Northwest’s July 15 program at Reed College had to be The Woman Composer. After a lovely afternoon exploring the trails around Reed’s campus, I was treated to a concert of not only all women composers, but almost all Pulitzer winners and finalists: Tower’s Violin Concerto was a finalist in 1993, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich won in 1983 for her Symphony No. 1 (Three Movements for Orchestra), and Caroline Shaw won in 2013 for her Partita for 8 Voices. After spending the week with Gabriella Smith and her wonderful music, I’d say she’s in good company.

Smith’s Carrot Revolution opened the concert, performed by an ad hoc string quartet made up of violist-composer Nokuthula Ngwenyama, PSU violin professor Tomas Cotik, Fear No Music / Oregon Symphony cellist Nancy Ives, and Smith’s fellow Curtis Institute of Music alum and erstwhile Oregonian Rebecca Anderson. I’d had the chance to observe this quartet in rehearsal a few days earlier, and I was impressed not only with how much they improved but with how well they handled Smith’s peculiar, energetic, post-modern idiom.

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Chamber Music Northwest reviews: independent women

Festival’s concerts and conversations with female composers highlights rich diversity of their approaches and their music 

“It’s so nice to see you all!” said Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Director and clarinetist David Shifrin, introducing the July 13 concert at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium with a warm smile. “I’m possibly the only man on stage tonight!”

He was indeed, unless you count The Ghost of Ravel: four CMNW concerts at Reed College and Portland State University July 13-16 featured compositions written and performed by women. Later that evening, Shifrin would join composer and harpist Hannah Lash on her composition Form and Postlude and the piece to which it nods in both instrumentation and style, the Introduction et Allegro by man composer Maurice Ravel.

The Claremont Trio performed a piano trio by Fanny Mendelssohn and the world premiere of Kati Agócs’s ‘Queen of Hearts’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Night One paired: Kati Agócspiano trio Queen of Hearts with Fanny Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 11, and Lash’s Form and Postlude for harp, flute, clarinet, and string quartet with Ravel’s Introduction et Allegro. The Claremont Trio, in their premiere season as CMNW Protégé Project Artists, tore their way through Mendelssohn’s liedisch final major work, violinist Emily Bruskin hopping out of her seat at especially dramatic moments, twin sister Julia agile and confident at her cello, while pianist Andrea Lam immersed herself in all the pianistic luxuriance. Agócs’ trio was considerably more modern, with roots in and nods to the musical heritage that comes with writing for piano trio.

Queen of Hearts Meets Queen of Harp

If the 20th-century classical world was about carving up the last of the dissonance and starting radical new schools of composition, the 21st-century classical world seems to be all about synthesis and syncretism, taking up the messy mantle of competing traditions and making something new and personal and beautiful out of it.

Kati Agócs fits right in there: her polystylism has been making waves all over the world for the last decade or so, from 2005’s Hymn for saxophone quartet and 2008’s Requiem Fragments to 2011’s Vessel, 2015’s Debrecen Passion, and last year’s Tantric Variations for string quartet. It would be easy enough to pigeonhole Agócs as yet another post-modern more-is-more composer, but what I hear is an artist with ravenous taste and the skills to match. Compared to her other work, which often includes texts in multiple languages, quotations from earlier composers, grand gestures for percussion, and so on, Queen of Hearts, performed at Chamber Music Northwest, seems positively conservative in its simple neo-Romantic splendour.

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