Women composers lifted from obscurity by Ars Choralis

Joyce Yang

Barbara Pickhardt, music director of Ars Choralis, has a knack for presenting ambitious theme programs which often really teach us something as they entertain us. That was my experience of “Into the Light: Music of Women Composers Lifted from Centuries of Obscurity,” which introduced me to several women composers of the past whose work I didn’t know. Princess Friederike Sophie Wilhelmine (1709-1758) was represented by an enjoyable choral overture. Rafaella Aleotti (circa 1575-after 1646) wrote a splendid motet. Wiliametta Spencer (1932- ) gave us a lovely John Donne setting, while Maddalena Casulana (1544-1590) wrote a typical Renaissance madrigal of high quality. And these were only four of the first five composers presented. (I skipped Hildegard von Bingen, who is no longer obscure.) I also enjoyed music of Lori Leitman (1955- ) and Emma Lou Diemer (1927- ). I’ve long thought Fanny Mendelssohn overrated, but Clara Schumann wrote quite worthwhile music.

From a reviewer’s standpoint the problem with a concert like this is that it’s too complex to cover thoroughly. So, leaving out numerous comments I could have made, I’ll just make these:

If you want me to love a concert, all you have to do is include music of Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), whose music I discovered more than half a century ago. Despite her brief lifetime she left us some great music, including the violin Nocturne affectingly played by Elizabeth Silver and the gorgeous “Hymn to the Sun.” When Ars Choralis ventures into folk music I usually find the arrangements and performances stiff and unswinging, as I did in this program. Otherwise the choral singing was typically excellent under Pickhardt’s knowing direction. Pianist Karen Bittman and the small instrumental ensemble did their usual excellent work. And I must mention the gorgeous solo singing of Maria Bedo, whose name belongs in lights. I understand why Pickhardt likes to have little spoken interludes but they were largely unintelligible in the resonant acoustics of the Church of the Holy Cross in Kingston, where I heard the concert on March 25; it was repeated in Woodstock the following afternoon. Ars Choralis returns in June with works of Haydn and Copland at the Maverick Concert Hall; check www.arschoralis.org for details.


Alas I couldn’t hear the Woodstock Chamber Orchestra’s March concert, last of the Conductor Search series, because I was performing myself. We’ll get to hear the new conductor with the WCO on May 14 at the Woodstock Playhouse but I’m sure you’ll find news of the winner long before that at www.wco-online.com. I did get to hear the Hudson Valley Philharmonic under Randall Craig Fleisher at the Bardavon in Poughkeepsie on March 11. That concert opened with two overtures, the little “War and Peace” Overture of Prokofiev (which begins an extremely long opera) and the brilliant “Revelry” by Richard Wilson, both played with panache.

Joyce Yang won the Silver Medal at the 12th Van Cliburn Piano Competition and has been touring ever since. She gave a charming pre-concert talk. Yang’s technical facility is spectacular, as I would have expected, and she zipped through the enormous difficulties of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto with ease. I like weightier playing, like the composer’s own, in this work, but Yang’s brilliance was hard to resist.

Fleisher and the orchestra backed her up extremely well, and then gave an amazingly fine performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. I’m really psyched about the HVP’s next concert, April 8 at the Bardavon. Aside from the Brahms Violin Concerto, which I love, played by the winner of the HVP’s String Competition I-Jung Huang, and a recent piece by Tan Dun which has the audience playing along on smart phones, this program includes “Become Ocean” by John Luther Adams, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Music. I’ve been following Adams’s music for years and it will be a thrill to hear this gorgeous piece in person. More info at www.bardavon.org.

Cellist Ani Kalayjian and Friends (violinist Siwoo Kim and pianist David Fung) gave us a gratifying concert at Saugerties Pro Musica on March 19 at Saugerties United Methodist Church. Fung, as appropriate, took the lead in Haydn’s Trio No. 27, in C, but didn’t overbalance his colleagues in this sprightly, alert and responsive performance. I noticed the spicy sforzandi (sudden accents) in the second movement and the overall grand but not exaggerated style. Schubert’s Notturno was so beautiful it almost did away with my disappointment at not hearing the originally scheduled piece, Suk’s “Elegie.” (Later this season Leon Botstein is conducting Suk’s towering “Asrael” Symphony at Bard.) Dvorák’s Trio No. 3, in F Minor, Op. 65 got another splendid performance, full of romance and zest. These friends would make a good permanent ensemble, and in fact they may become one. Aside from the quality of their playing, I was pleased that they didn’t choose the most popular Haydn and Dvorák Trios, which get played often enough. SPM continues on April 30 at 3 p.m. with a jazz vocal concert by Terry Blaine and Mark Shane, whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past. Info at www.saugertiespromusica.org.

I was sorry to see the end of the Mozart Project, at Bard, curated by Peter Serkin, at the concert on March 5. I hope Serkin comes up with another project for next season. Serkin played a prominent role in this concert, performing the piano part in the Trio in B Flat, K. 254 (with very well-balanced contributions from violinist Zhen Liu and cellist Robert Martin) and accompanying soprano Rachel Doehring in three Mozart songs. Her voice was beautiful and very expressive. Serkin also arranged Mozart’s Andante & Variations in G, K. 501, originally piano four-hands, for an instrumental sextet, which sounded convincing. An octet of Bard wind players filled the second half of the concert with Mozart’s great Serenade in E Flat, K. 375, not quite the best playing of the afternoon as the clarinets’ articulation wasn’t always clear and the two Minuets were just too fast, as was the Finale. Still a lovely afternoon, fortunately held at Olin Auditorium as the usual venue at Bitó would have been overwhelmed by the audience. Among worthwhile events at Bard in April are a 9-hour chamber music marathon at Bitó (free admission) on the 29th; a concert by The Orchestra Now under Leon Botstein including Bartók’s “Miraculous Mandarin” and Ligeti’s Violin Concerto (Sosnoff Theater, 22nd and 23rd, tickets required); and Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes,” written when he was still composing music, on the 12th at Blum Hall, wherever that is (free admission). Loads of listings at www.bard.edu/news/events.

Alas, I was disappointed in the opening of the Piano Plus! Series at the Olive Free Library on March 4. When pianist Manon Hutton-DeWys began Ravel’s “Un barque sur l’océan” (pretty much the same in English) she immediately demonstrated her plush sound, fluent technique, and placid temperament. The same temperament, exhibited in restricted dynamics, nullified the drama of Brahms’s Four Ballades, Op. 10. When cellist Paul Wolfram joined Hutton-DeWys for the “plus” part of the program, in Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 3, in A, Op. 69, the combination exhibited somewhat more spark but the music still didn’t have the fire of middle-period Beethoven. The rest of the audience obviously enjoyed this concert more than I did.

I’m still looking forward to the remainder of this usually gratifying series. Coming next, on April 1 (no joke!), pianist Wei Zhou takes on one of the great challenges of the piano repertoire, Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata. The “plus” here is another pianist, as Tomoki Park plays Janácek’s wonderful “In the Mist.” More info at www.olivefreelibrary.org.

Elsewhere in April, the Poné Ensemble, great favorites of mine, returns to its usual venue in New Paltz, the United Methodist Church at 1 Grove St., on April 2 at 3 p.m. with a typical program of attractive 20th and 21st century music. Composers represented this time will be Max Duykers, Jacob Goodman, Hubert Howe, Susan Fischer, Kevin McCarter, Debra Kaye, John de Clef Pineiro, and Katherine Hoover (the same delightful work for two flutes which Poné members played in Kingston recently). These musicians are members of the SUNY New Paltz faculty or the Hudson Valley Philharmonic or both, so you know the performances will be excellent. Check out www.poneensemble.org.

The lunchtime recital series at the Old Dutch Church, 272 Wall St., Kingston, begins on April 6 at 12:15 p.m. Soprano Randi Fater and pianist Andrea Shaut are the first performers; others in the series, which runs weekly until May 25, include Shaut as soloist on April 13 and pianist Adelaide Roberts on May 25. There’s no admission charge for these half-hour concerts and you can even bring your lunch. Info at www.olddutchchurch.org. Go out and have a good time, everyone!