The Women's Day, which falls on March 8, is a great opportunity to take a closer look at the artistic achievements of outstanding women composers active in the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st century. The opportunity is even better because these are varied and extremely original works.
The composer Grażyna Pstrokońska-Nawratil, living in Wrocław, is the author of numerous instrumental compositions. They include the ICE-LAND, a work for strings and amplified harp, written in 2011. The inspiration for its creation was the artist's visit to Dettifoss, the powerful Icelandic waterfall that also inspired Ridley Scott. The director decided to film the first scene of his Prometheus at the waterfall.
Sofia Gubaidulina is a Russian composer of Tatar origin. The inspiration to write the Reflection on B-A-C-H in 2002 was for her a four-note title motif representing the author of the Brandenburg Concertos. The Scottish composer Thea Musgrave eagerly reaches back to ancient tradition. This also happens in the moving work Lamenting with Ariadne, in which the title heroine is symbolized by a musical theme performed by a solo viola. The protagonist's sorrow and anger over the sudden departure of Theseus cannot be soothed by her friends. The change of tempo and mood occurs only when the procession of Dionysus, represented by the sound of the trumpet, appears. Even Ariadne is carried away, and the culmination of the work is the ecstatic duo of two solo instruments.
Grażyna Bacewicz's work belongs to the Neoclassical current. The Concerto for String Orchestra was created in 1948. This is a concise, three-movement piece in which the expressive, lively rhythm comes to the fore, pointing also to folk as a source of inspiration. The Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho was born and educated in Helsinki, but she was greatly influenced by French representatives of spectral music. Her Nocturne is a short, expressive composition dedicated to the memory of Witold Lutosławski. Saariaho used the threads from this work in the Graal Théâtre violin concerto written at the same time. Eleanor Alberga was born in Jamaica. For a long time, she has been known mainly as a pianist, but later decided that she wanted to devote herself entirely to composing. One of the composer's most valued works is the Violin Concerto, completed in 2001. The Wrocław audience will have the honour to take part in the premiere of Alberga’s Violin Concerto No. 2.
It was 1911 in Copenhagen, Denmark where the 8th of March was formally proclaimed International Women’s Day! The musicians of the Leopoldinum Orchestra and I proudly commemorate this important event with a program of works by 6 of the world’s great composers, all of whom happen to be women! The remarkable works presented here are all born of our modern post-war era. It is nevertheless a great pity that we have so few examples of compositions by women from the times of Bach, Mozart or Wagner. It is simply absurd to me that composing music should have ever been considered inappropriate for a woman.
In my opinion, the very first truly great female composer was Grażyna Bacewicz (1909–1969). I can’t imagine our present world, so full with fascinating, life-changing music written by women if it wasn’t for Bacewicz and her inspiration. The Concerto for String Orchestra (1948), her most often played work is often described as neo-classical. To me, this label is demeaning. It is no mere imitation of an older style. It’s a philosophical ideal, a vision to integrate and harmonize the past with the present. Sofia Gubaidulina wrote Reflections on the theme B-A-C-H in 2002 for the tenth anniversary celebration of America’s wonderful Brentano String Quartet. It is inspired by JS Bach’s monumental work: The Art of the Fugue. Both Grazyna Pstrokonska’s Ice-land (2011) and Kaija Saariaho’s Nocturne (1994) are what I would call Nature Pieces. Inspired by not only the wondrous beauty but also the passionate violence of Mother Nature, depicted in pure sound.
The remaining works on the program turn to ancient Greek Mythology as their source.
Thea Musgrave’s Lamentations of Ariadne (1999) is one of my favorite pieces by a contemporary Scottish composer. The Solo Viola plays the role of the goddess Ariadne in her emotional trials and tribulations with the gods Theseus and Dionysus (Dionysus is unsurprisingly represented by the Trumpet.) Eleanor Alberga’s brand new Violin Concerto #2 (2020), is inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphosis, specifically his story of Narcissus. Eleanor describes the story as ‘extremely relevant to the present day’ and that it is for her ‘a story about karma...inspiring both empathy and abhorrence’. She has chosen to give the role of Narcissus in the tale’s musical telling, to the Violin Soloist who in this case, also happens to be her husband. I have had the infinite pleasure of collaborating with Thomas Bowes and Eleanor Alberga in a multitude of ways for more than a quarter of a century. They have become a genuine source of artistic and personal joy for me and my wife (the Hornist, Victoria Eisen) and we are thrilled that Eleanor’s work has become so widely celebrated, especially in recent years with prestigious commissions from both Covent Garden and The Proms!
Tom and Eleanor have also created a heavenly Chamber Music Festival (in which Vicki, my son Jonathan and I have all participated). It takes place in the bucolic English countryside near their home. and is appropriately named, Arcadia.
All the composers works presented here are either inspired by art works of the past or by Mother Nature herself. This exemplifies something quintessentially feminine to me: a cyclical, inclusive relationship with the passage of time and a profound respect for our planet Earth and its variety of inhabitants.
It seems to me that the world needs its women now more than ever.
Joseph Swensen, February 2020