Welcome attention to women composers

A concert will address shameful oversight

Stage: theater, music, drama

February 26, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Quick - name five women composers.

OK, try three.

Still too tough? Then consider taking what might be considered a crash course in the criminally under-appreciated subject of women composers, presented by the Jezic Ensemble Sunday at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

You'll get to hear the talents of remarkable French composer Lili Boulanger, first woman to win one of the most coveted prizes for composers, the Prix de Rome, in 1913. And Libby Larsen, one of the most distinctive voices in American contemporary music today. And Rebecca Clarke, a very gifted 20th-century British composer whose two-line entry in the 1980 Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians directed readers to the biography of her composer-husband. (That dreadful slight was corrected in the 2001 edition of the dictionary, which accorded Clarke nearly two pages by herself.)

The Jezic Ensemble, named for musician and inspirational Towson University professor Diane Peacock Jezic, who died in 1989 at the age of 47, is a women's choir of about 40 voices. Directed by Margie Farmer, the ensemble draws from the Baltimore and Washington areas, with some members from Virginia and Pennsylvania.

From its inception in 1998, the group has been committed to covering a wide range of musical possibilities. Past concerts have taken the singers into Celtic, fusion, jazz, gospel and world music, as well as classical.

Part of the group's mission is to collaborate with contemporary composers in general, women composers in particular.

"We've always featured a woman composer or two on our programs," Farmer says. Sunday's focus will be entirely on women. The program ranges from a rare performance of Rebecca Clarke's Piano Trio from 1921 (performed by a recently formed chamber group, the Ravel Trio) to choral music very much of our time by Ysaye Barnwell (a member of the noted group Sweet Honey in the Rock) and Vermont composer Gwyneth Walker.

Last year, the Jezic Ensemble established an annual competition for women composers; a work by the first winner will be featured Sunday.

Although women have been composing at least since Hildegard of Bingen, a mystical German abbess who wrote some of the most sublime music of the Middle Ages, the public can be forgiven for not being aware of this. Most performing organizations confine women composers to the edges of the repertoire.

"When I asked some women composers what they would like for a competition prize, they said the biggest help would be to get their works performed, to help get their names known," Farmer says. "We have heard from so many people saying, `Thank you for listening to my work. There is so little support for women composers.'"

There were more than 30 entries into the Jezic Ensemble's inaugural competition - "Some known composers, some not known; some fabulous works, some not so fabulous," Farmer says. In addition to receiving a modest cash award, the winning composer will be included on a compact-disc recording the ensemble will produce for release in 2006. That winner is New York-based Joelle Wallach, who submitted a 7 1/2 -minute score called Why the Caged Bird Sings - "a lovely, lovely piece," Farmer says. "We're really happy to sing it."

The 19th-century text is by Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first African-American poets to be published in this country.

"The poem is a plea for freedom," Wallach says, "using the image of a caged bird. It's about being trapped."

The piece is written for women's or children's voices, horn and piano.

"There is a sweetness to the voices," the composer says, "and it's very interesting to have that sound juxtaposed against the horn, which is more heroic and represents, in a weird way, the metallic cage."

A composition about unjust restrictions - and "the craving of the caged bird in each of us," as Wallach puts it - seems doubly appropriate for a program devoted to women composers. Although Wallach, who is busy working on three commissions these days, has had considerable success breaking through the barriers in the profession, she's well aware of the skepticism out there. "Actually, people think it's strange to have living composers," Wallach says, "let alone women composers."

For Wallach, like composers of either sex, the primary goal is always the same. "The way you really learn to be a composer is hearing your music performed, seeing people struggle with what you've written," she says.

And for Farmer, the primary goal is to provide that opportunity. "I feel a responsibility to showcase a variety of women composers and as much range as possible in our concerts," Farmer says. "On Sunday, in addition to Joelle's work, we'll perform five of the pieces that were submitted for the competition. I feel we should support these other composers even though they didn't win."

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 34.

Celebrating Women Composers

Where: College of Notre Dame, Marikle Chapel, 4701 N. Charles St.

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $25 (students and seniors $17). Call 410-374-9059.

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