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Music sans Gender

New York
Symphony Space
09/06/2023 -  
Victoria Bond: Jasmine Flower
Missy Mazzoli: Tooth and Nail
Jeffrey Mumford: ...becoming clear – fleeting cycles of layered air
Ileana Perez Velazquez: The Road Not Taken
Nina Barzegar: Vulnerable
Mina Arissian: Cello Sonata (World Premiere)

Miranda Cuckson (Violin), Eliesha Nelson (Viola), Brian Thornton (Cello)

J. Mumford, E. Nelson, M. Cuckson, N. Barzegar, B. Thornton, V. Bond (© Gail Wein/Classical Communications)

Do not be friends with women musicians. You may be taken in by their snares.
Shimon ben Yeshua ben Eliezer ben Sira (180 A.D.)

I feel I must fight for [my music] because I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs, not just to go on hugging the shore, afraid to put out to sea.
Dame Ethel Smyth (Composer March of the Women 1910 A.D.)

The most preposterous movie I ever saw about Beethoven was a low‑budget black-and-white Hungarian biopic. Told from the viewpoint of his indispensable lady assistant. (Sic! True!) In my favorite scene, Beethoven comes back from sloshing wine in the White Swan Tavern to his apartment, seeing to his horror, that his assistant has not only re‑arranged his desk–but re‑written a few measures of his latest piece.

“Vatt is this?” he bellows at her in badly dubbed English, “how can you dare to touch my music?”

“Herr Beethoven,” she cringes, “I only thought...”

“Ha!” he snorts, “I do not pay you, a mere woman, to think.”

Then he peers down to the score, puts on his glasses, and says (this is indelible in my brain), “Vaite! You have changed my A flat chord to an E Flat chord?? Hmmm, that does make the music better. Perhaps I was wrong in judging you so badly. Are there any other women who compose music?”

He avuncularly smiles, she girlishly blushes, I flee to the toilet for a healthy, er, Barf‑thoven.

True enough, from Hildegarde to Clara to Cécile (Chaminade), no woman has yet reached halcyon status. But last night’s Cutting Edge production produced five female composer, all of whom would hate to be classified as “female composers.”

Two of them–Victoria Bond and Missy Mazzoli–are international phenomena. The other three produced works which were intriguing, worth many a plaudit.

The challenge last night was that all seven works were written for solo string instruments. The solution was that three soloists were so dynamic that one rarely looked for a piano or orchestra.

In fact, the Cleveland Orchestra’s Eliesha Nelson hardly needed her “amplified viola” for Ms. Mazzoli’s Tooth and Nail. Her instrument, which Wagner labelled “the orchestra’s hermaphrodite”, would have been called “masterfully masculine” in another era. Here, she played Ms. Mazzoli’s work with increasing intensity, as the galloping electronic sounds morphed into the sample sounds of the viola itself, with an almost antique pairing and tripling for Ms. Nelson.

This followed Jasmine Flower, by the evening’s compeer, Victoria Bond. Elegant take‑apart put‑together echt‑variations on the Chinese folksong. Ms. Nelsons took different measures of the song, twisting them around, finishing with a jaunty cheerful Chinese dance.

The one male composer last night was the legendary Jeffrey Mumford, who pranced up and down the stage to explain his works, and pay tribute to each artist. Mr. Mumford, a student of Elliott Carter, uses both visual titles and visual influences for his works. Truth to tell, his mentor’s convolutions, difficulty and almost atonal ventures were far too complex for a single hearing. The two artists played with shimmering sureness, but a repetition would have helped.

The Cuban-American Ileana Perez Velazquez was frankly daring in giving a work engendering Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. The entire poem was printed in the program, but whether that startling fiddler Miranda Cuckson was offering music for each verse was difficult to decipher at first hearing.

The last piece, Mina Arissian’s Cello Sonata, was pithy, terse, close to dance‑like, played with spark by Cleveland Orchestra’s Brian Thornton.

But it was the penultimate Vulnerable by Nina Barzegar which was most fascinating for this listener. Both Ms. Arissian and Barzegar are members of the Californian-based Iranian Female Composers Association, but this august group rarely takes on music of their homeland.

The closest I previously heard Henry Cowell’s Persian Set coming close to imitating the microtones, the canons, the sweeping melodies. The modal melody started with Mr. Thornton (each section interrupted by pizzicatos), and proceeded with microtonal, fluttering music which was evidently “Western” but was constantly on the cusp of Persian delights.

Far be it from me to advise others from the Iranian Female Composers Association, but Persian music is by far the least known, the most interesting, the most delicate, almost astral style east of Istanbul. And–thanks to Iran’s present f–––ing leaders, it is being extinguished. Whether as a simulacrum or literal reproduction, may they create, evolve or simply preserve the music of their ancient and eternal homeland.

Harry Rolnick



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