The Women Composers Orchestra exists for an important but what one hopes is a short-lived purpose: To expose the public to music written by women that might otherwise not be performed. This is too short a space to examine the reasons and the effects of the inequities of gender discrimination in music, but (in this opinion) it has been more pervasive than discrimination of any other kind, whether based on religion, race or class.
With that said, the WCO and its music director, Antonia Joy Wilson, provided a doubly valuable service in its concert Saturday evening in Shriver Hall at Johns Hopkins University: It presented not only neglected music but also the world premiere of a new piece commissioned by the orchestra.
The latter was "Symphonic Reflections," a fine piece by Wee Kee Brody, a 36-year-old composer who teaches at the University of New Orleans. There's an obvious debt to the music of Bartok in Brody's uses of arch form, of night music sections with hushed, high-pitched strings with muted brass ejaculations and of episodes of scurrying string passages that sound a lot like those in the Hungarian master's "Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste." But these are intelligent homages, and the composer also has a fine sense of the orchestra's coloristic capacities. Many of the timbral effects were exquisite, and the soloistic writing for the principal string players was impressive.
From listening to one piece, it's hard to know what to make of Brody's musical personality -- thorny martial outbursts alternated with aching, almost Samuel Barber-like, episodes of lyricism -- except to say that she has one.
The problem with the piece is that it says everything it has to say at least five minutes before it ends. In this 20-minute-plus work, one senses that the composer either did not know how to conclude or procrastinated doing so. The performance was vigorous -- much the best of the evening -- but I'd still like to hear "Symphonic Reflections" played by an orchestra with more strings and more strong players.
The most obscure work on the program was a Sinfonia in C by Marianne Martinez, a Viennese of Spanish-Italian descent. Although she knew Mozart and Haydn (from whom, according to Sam di Bonaventura's program note, she took some lessons), her Sinfonia doesn't betray their influence. Its bravura, melodious grace and relatively uncomplicated harmonies sound closer to such earlier composers of the Italian School as Galuppi.
Scarcely obscure was the Concertino for Flute by Cecile Chaminade: This is a piece in the competition arsenal of every young flutist. Still, it's always something of a shock to realize how good -- beautifully and economically crafted, sizzlingly virtuosic and witty -- Chaminade's music is. Apart from a somewhat nervous beginning, Nancy Stagnitta played it with brilliance and beauty of tone.
This otherwise fine concert concluded with Mary Howe's "American Piece (What Price Glory?)," a grab bag of cliches and suffocatingly sincere Americana.