Symphony Digital Review: 'Equal Play' puts three contemporary women composers in the spotlight
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's season may have ended back in June, but the orchestra's digital concert series continues at their web site. The latest addition to the series is "Equal Play," a program honoring women composers that has been an annual SLSO tradition since 2017. It went live on July 29th and will be available through August 28th.
Assembled from a previously released SLSO digital concert and one live concert that has yet to appear on video, "Equal Play" features works by Jessie Montgomery, Caroline Shaw, and Gabriela Lena Frank. I reviewed the original concerts when they were first performed live at Powell Hall last fall as well as when they first came out on video. This article is assembled from what I wrote back then, with some nips and tucks here and there.
|L-R: Xiaoxiao Qiang, Andrea Jarrett,
Jennifer Humphreys, Jonathan Chu in "Strum"
The concert begins with "Strum" by Jessie Montgomery, a violinist and composer whose colorful "Starburst" was the first piece to be played on the stage at Powell when it re-opened briefly on October 15th, 2020. Like that earlier work, "Strum" bubbles over with exuberance. It's quick to engage your interest with what the composer calls "a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration."
It achieves that by employing a wide variety of techniques, as the string players pluck, strum, and bow in ways that call to mind everything from Appalachian folk tunes to guitar rock. As performed by violinists Xiaoxiao Qiang and Andrea Jarrett, violist Jonathan Chu, and cellist Jennifer Humphreys, it dances its way merrily and expertly off the stage and into the hearts of the physically distanced audience.
Next is Caroline Shaw's "Ent'racte" (from 2011), which is essentially a virtuoso study in just how much sonic variety a person can get out of a string quartet. There are some eerie harmonics, creative use of pizzicato, an almost-inaudible brushing of the strings with bows and, at one point, something that sounded rather like an amiable conversation among a quartet of cats. On her publications web site, Shaw says "Ent'racte" "was written in 2011 after hearing the Brentano Quartet play Haydn’s Op. 77 No. 2 — with their spare and soulful shift to the D-flat major trio in the minuet. It is structured like a minuet and trio, riffing on that classical form but taking it a little further." I'd say it takes the idea quite a bit further, and with intriguing results.
"Ent'racte" asks a lot from the players, but the quartet of violinists Alison Harney and Angie Smart, violist Christian Tantillo, and cellist Jennifer Humphreys are more than an equal for the challenges of this fascinating twists and turns of this music. It's gets a lot of mileage out of a short theme that, to my ears, calls to mind the work of 16th-century British composer Thomas Tallis. That gives it a kind of timeless quality—both ancient and modern at the same time.
This is, as far as I know, the first time the SLSO performance of the work has appeared on video.
|L-R: Jessica Cheng, Asako Kuboki,
Andrew Francois, Alvin McCall in "Leyendas"
The program concludes with three of the six movements of "Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout" by Gabriela Lena Frank, Composer-in-Residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra and a graduate of my alma mater, Rice University. Each movement is a kind of mini tone poem reflecting some aspect of Peruvian history or culture. "Chasqui" represents the titular Incan messenger runners with rapid runs and pizzicati suggesting fleet-footed speed. "Toyos" uses gliding melodic lines interspersed with plucked strings to evoke the Andean panpipe. And "Coqueteos" pays homage to Peruvian troubadours known as "romanceros" with grand, sweeping gestures that suggested the open sensuality of the Argentinian tango. It made me think of the songs of Carlos Gardel or the bandoneón music of Astor Piazzolla, even though neither of them are Peruvian.
This time the quartet consists of violinists Jessica Cheng and Asako Kuboki, violist Andrew Francois, and cellist Alvin McCall. Fine players all, they bring out all of the many moods of this music. I was sorry I couldn't hear them perform the entire piece.
As I have noted in reviews of previous SLSO digital video programs, the format actually improves the concert experience in some ways by providing a sense of intimacy that isn't available in the vastness of Powell Hall. A brief introduction by flutist Jennifer Nitchman adds a personal note to it all.
The video runs around a half hour and is available through August 28th. More information is available at the SLSO web site.