Written by Women, Performed by Women

United StatesUnited States Here and Now Labor Day Festival: Jennifer Choi (violin), Yoko Reikano Kimura (shamisen), Nancy Allen Lundy (soprano), Ursula Oppens, Kathleen Supové, and Dalit Warshaw (piano), Bargemusic, New York City. 30.8.2017, 1-2.9.2017. (KG)

Alexandra du Bois – Fjord
Marti Epstein – ‘Tremolos’ from American Etudes
Whitney George – New work from The Extinction Series
Laura Kaminsky – Fantasy
Miya Masaoka – The Greenland Fjords
Paula Matthusen – AEG III
Missy Mazzoli – A Thousand Tongues
Milica Paranosic – Meeting Jessica
Paola Prestini – The Phoenix
Gity Razaz Light
Yoko Sato – The Road
Augusta Read Thomas – Toft Serenade
Dalit Warshaw – selections from But Not Forgotten

In July, National Public Radio published a list of the best 150 albums made by women. Setting aside the fact that there was no place for Hildegard von Bingen, Clara Schumann, or Kaija Saariaho on the list of post-1964 singers and songwriters, the list presented another problem. As Lisa MacKinney of the Australian experimental drone band Tai Pan Tiger Girls said in response to the list, ‘”women” is not a genre.’

The notion, then, of a holiday weekend of music composed by and performed by women is not unwelcome even if, in 2017, it might be a bit quaint. The annual Here and Now Labor Day Festival, held on Bargemusic’s waterbound stage moored on the Brooklyn side of the East River, offered multiple rewards under the subheading “A Celebration of Contemporary Women Composers by Women Performers.” The strength of those artists easily outweighed any concerns.

Of the 13 pieces presented over the three nights, five were played just once and three were played each night. Works by Alexandre du Bois, Whitney George, Miya Masaoka, Paula Matthusen, Missy Mazzoli, Milica Paranosic, Gity Razaz, and Dalit Warshaw received their world premieres, while many others were heard for the first time in New York. (Sadly, a promised Nina C. Young piece disappeared from the program.)

Among those that received two performances was du Bois’ Fjord for solo piano, a welcome encore that hadn’t been listed on the program for the second night. A wonderful basso profundo with unexpectedly fragile passages, Kathleen Supové lplayed it like an introverted Beethoven unconcerned with impressing others. Paola Prestini’s The Phoenix made a wonderful rejoinder to the du Bois, a sweet and contained piece for a singing and crying violin played by Jennifer Choi.

Each night opened with the wonderful Ursula Oppens – who has recorded Rzewski, Carter, and Derek Bailey improvisations – in Laura Kaminsky’s Fantasy. As the longest piece (about 20 minutes), it grew more interesting over repeat listens: stark pointillism grew more fluid and cohesive over the three readings. Throughout, Kaminsky’s gentle, cascading dissonances and subtle dynamic shifts found counterpoint in the rocking motions of the barge.

After Kaminsky’s piece each night came Yoko Sato’s soulful The Road, for solo shamisen. In contrast to Oppens, Yoko Reikano Kimura gave three readings rigid in their exactitude, barely moving anything but her hands, navigating Sato’s shifting rhythms that gained force through repetition. Working the shamisen’s large plectrum against the strings, she reached a strident and percussive conclusion.

Each night also included two songs from a larger suite by Dalit Warshaw, sung with a beautiful, understated expressiveness by soprano Nancy Allen Lundy with the composer at the piano. While the suite also includes settings of Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Christina Rosetti – and it would have been nice to hear some of those – Warshaw presented two with texts by Dorothy Parker and Muriel Rukeyser. Lundy deftly moved from a full vibrato for the love and lament in the Rukeyser, to a back-of-the-throat socialite songspiel for the Parker poems.

The first night also found Supové in a graphic score by Miya Masaoka, who used an early 20th-century map by cartographer Louise Boyd as a template. And hardworking Supové came off as an explorer; her hands moved across the strings inside the piano case, thumped along the open lid and along the support beam, before she discovered a solitary lower register key on which to set up camp. Drawing little, tonal circles around that home base, she quickly covered the terrain of the keyboard, before returning home. It was a quick and spirited journey.

Missy Mazzoli’s gorgeously atmospheric duet A Thousand Tongues, played by Choi and Supové, made a beautiful ending for the first night – eternal and deeply present. Later, a subtle, electronic track arrived, throbbing as if a false echo of the piano, and deepening the impression of profundity.

The second night featured an impressive suite Supové constructed from three short pieces played without a break. Gity Razaz’s Light was a nicely fluid introduction. An excerpt from Whitney George’s The Extinction provided a boldly whispered climax, melancholy while gasping for breath. And to pick up the pace, the trills-upon-trills of Marti Epstein’s Tremolos made a strong conclusion.

For a theatrical conclusion to the second night, Supové donned a hospital gown for composer Milica Paranosic’s Meeting Jessica, based on a recent experience undergoing an MRI. Prerecorded electronic rhythms, voices, and static were set against a piano track – at times comical, surreal, fretful and disorienting, but engaging throughout.

The final night included two pieces not heard earlier: Augusta Read Thomas’ Toft (played by Choi and Supové) and Paula Matthusen’s AEG III (Supové). Toft was a gorgeous monologue with phrases passed between the violin and the piano, each holding a sustained note when the narrative line shifted to the other. The overlap slowly became tighter and the interplay more pronounced. AEG III called for a piano case full of loose objects combined with prerecorded rumbles, glitched voices, and quick, upper-register keyboard progressions, to create a dense sound construction.

Though the festival might have presented a greater variety of works, and perhaps  two nights might have been sufficient, overall, there was plenty to ponder.

Kurt Gottschalk

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