Monday, January 18, 2021

Portland Chamber Orchestra celebrates women composers in livestreamed concert

The music of Louise Farrenc, Nadia Boulanger, Florence Price, and Maria Theresia von Paradis highlighted a livestreamed concert (January 16) presented by Portland Chamber Orchestra at Nordia House. Because of their gender and/or race, these composers have long been overlooked and neglected. So, it was refreshing to hear a number of rare pieces expertly played as part of the PCO’s “Shared Horizons” program.

Two movements from Farrenc’s Quintet No. 1 bookended the concert, opening with the second and closing with the first. Farrenc (1804-1875) was an acclaimed concert pianist and taught at the Paris Conservatory for 30 years, but her works have been languishing in obscurity until the interest in women composers over the last couple of decades.

The PCO ensemble, featuring violinists Lily Burton, violist Shauna Keyes, cellist Katherine Schultz, bass violinist Marc Bescond, and pianist Maria Garcia, performed the two movements from the Quintet with great sensitivity, delivering a very balanced sound across all instruments. Schultz’s warm cello added a lot of character to the lovely melodic lines, which were exchanged at times between the players. Garcia deftly ran over her fingers all over the keyboard in the exciting finale.

Boulanger (1887-1979) earned international acclaim as the teacher of a long list of great composers of the Twentieth Century. But early in her career she wrote number of gems, including “Trois pièces” (“Three pieces”), which received an outstanding performance by Schultz and Garcia. They created dance-like textures, then built up tension that resolved into an ethereal stream before returning to the dance-like theme at the beginning of the piece.

Schultz and Garcia also collaborated wonderfully in the “Sicilienne” of von Paradis, establishing a calm yet refined mood. Von Paradis (1759-1824) was a brilliant pianist who lost her eyesight at an early age but stlll was able to learn 60 concertos and other works because of her accurate hearing and exceptional memory. Among her many compositions, the “Sicilienne” is probably the best known.

In 1993, the Chicago Symphony premiered the Symphony in E minor by Florence Price (1887-1953), making her the first African-American woman to have a work played by a major orchestra. Yet, although she had successes, her work was totally forgot and almost eliminated until a trove of manuscripts were found in a run-down house in rural Illinois. Garcia teamed up with Bescond to deliver a soothing interpretation of Price’s “Adoration.”

Garcia spoke about her time in Norway when she gave a recital on Edvard Grieg’s piano at his summer home. She also mentioned the piano that she used in this concert, a refurbished grand that had belonged to Boris Sirpo, the founder of the PCO. This introduction nicely segued to her playing a selection of Grieg’s “Lyric Pieces.” Garcia excelled with a dreamy “Arietta,” followed by a lively folk melody, then a fluttering “Sommerfugl” (“Butterfly”), and ending with an enchanting “Notturno.”

Keyes and Schultz reached back to the Baroque era to give an evocative sarabande and aria by Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco. With Bescond, they then switched things up with an expressive “La Vie en rose” in tribute to French chanteuse Édith Piaf.

With a nod to heritage of Nordia House, we got a dose of Scandinavian fiddle music. Burton, Keyes, and Bescond performed a “walking tune” in which musicians would walk from town to town to bring people together almost like a pied piper. They also played the toe-tapping polka number.

Each musician took turns introducing at least one piece on the program. Their commentary contained a lot of valuable and entertaining information that added context and a bit of personal flair.

The chat window provided an excellent way for the audience to communicate applause for the performers and for listeners to communicate with each other.

Overall, the sound quality was very good, which speaks well of the technical staff and the quality of the room in Nordia House. I have to admit that I would like to hear a concert there in person – after the pandemic is gone.

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