Powerful Wolfe work highlights CSO program of women composers

Sat Jan 07, 2023 at 2:26 pm

By John von Rhein

Soloist Awadagin Pratt performed Jessie Montgomery’s Rounds with Marin Alsop and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Friday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Classical music lovers of a certain age will remember when it was rare to hear a single piece by a woman composer on a program of symphonic music. Entire programs devoted to works by women composers were relegated to specialist niches, if they occurred at all.

But the latter is precisely what conductor Marin Alsop put together for a fascinating all-contemporary program performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Friday night to mark its first concert of the new year.

What we had here were three pieces by living composers who happen to be women—pieces that, in their individual ways, illustrate how far women, and particularly women’s rights, have come since the early 20th century, and how far they have yet to go.

Heard in toto, these CSO premieres held up a revelatory mirror to historical, and more recent, social, political and gender-affirming events, at the same time rising above temporal politics to make powerful artistic statements on their own, stylistically diverse terms.

Two of the works, Anna Clyne’s This Midnight Hour and Jessie Montgomery’s Rounds, were by past and present CSO composers-in-residence, two of the six women to have held that post. The third, Her Story, is by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Julia Wolfe, a respected, fiercely independent trailblazer in American music who is perhaps best known as co-founder and co-director of the contemporary music ensemble Bang on a Can.

One might think of these musical components as a one-off, winter-season continuation of Alsop’s “Breaking Barriers” initiative at Ravinia, the second edition of which the festival’s chief conductor will lead this coming summer. In any case, she and an orchestra that sounded polished and refreshed after its holiday break, gave each score their fully committed attention. The composers were present to share in the enthusiastic applause of an audience that skewed on the youngish side.

The two-movement Her Story (2019-22), for orchestra and women’s vocal ensemble, is the latest in a series of Wolfe works that reexamine turbulent moments in American history—in this case, the perseverance of women inspiring and leading the fight for representation and equality. Part oratorio, part rousing theatrical experience, the 40-minute piece draws on words by Abigail Adams, wife of the U.S. President John Adams; and the 19th century suffragist and abolitionist Isabelle Baumfree, who changed her name to Sojourner Truth.

Wolfe’s text-setting is very much her own and very much of our time. Her idiosyncratic vocal writing, with its fragmentation of text into repetitive ostinatos and often overlapping lines for amplified singers over pile-driving chords in the enlarged orchestra (including electric and bass guitars), extends the grammar of post-minimalism in startling, endlessly inventive ways. The words are sometimes crystal-clear pitched declamation, sometimes unpitched shouts, sometimes pummeled into angry abstraction, fanning out over colorful, churning orchestral textures.

In the first part, “Foment,” Abigail Adams warns husband John, the future President, in 1776 (just months before he helped draft the Declaration of Independence) that “the ladies” could “foment a rebellion,” if ignored. Wolfe employs the 10-member chorus—collectively and, at one telling moment, individually—as a feminist protest movement in music. Arrayed in the terrace seating area, the women at one point put red-gloved hands to their mouths as if to suggest the societal oppression of that era.

In part two, “Raise,” they moved to positions inside and in front of the orchestra, holding up placards bearing the negative adjectives and insults of sexist anti-suffragists of Sojourner Truth’s era (“unruly,” “unbalanced” and “unrighteous”). 

The Lorelei Ensemble were featured in Julia Wolfe’s Her Story Friday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The ten vocal virtuosos of the Lorelei Ensemble immersed themselves in the words and music in a way that distinctions between the genres simply disappeared: polemic transformed into timeless art.

Anne Kauffman’s effective staging capitalized on the deftly balanced sound design of Andrew Cotton and costume designs by Marion Talan De La Rosa that morphed defiantly from the long black dresses of the suffragist era to colorfully emancipated contemporary attire. Her Story resonated powerfully with performers and audience members alike.

Composed in 2021, Montgomery’s Rounds proved one of the most accessible, immediately appealing of the scores heard by the CSO’s current resident composer heard here thus far. 

The composer says she was inspired by poetic imagery of T.S. Eliot though this 15-minute rondo for solo piano and strings is best appreciated as a sparky, post-neoclassical concertante piece that neatly displayed the bravura chops of the soloist, the composer’s friend and muse Awadagin Pratt. He dispatched the improvised cadenza with particular panache, even strumming the Steinway piano’s innards at one frisky moment. He was attentively supported by Alsop and the Chicago strings.   

Clyne’sThis Midnight Hour (2015) also takes inspiration from poetry, in this case poems by Charles Baudelaire and Juan Ramon Jimenez. The dark timbres of lower strings heard at the outset give way to angular waves of mass energy built on descending chromatic figures. Jimenez’s evocation of a naked woman running mad through a Spanish night inspires a sudden lurch into Spanish-flavored film-music romanticism. A thunderclap ends the 12-minute piece. 

One came away from the reading unconvinced by the jolting admixture of styles but admiring, as ever, of Clyne’s clean and canny craftsmanship and discerning sense of orchestral color.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Center. cso.org.      

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