Monday, April 27, 2009

American Voices

Reviewing the Stephanie Blythe and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

I admit it, I wrote a really, really bad review of a piece, complete with some snark. I did it only because the composer, Amy Beach, has been safely dead for some 65 years. (Spoiler: I liked Covered Wagon Woman, the Blythe vehicle that was the headliner for the program.)

Prior to this concert, I'd heard about ten minutes of Beach's piano concerto, which sounds vaguely like Tchaikowsky....but with less of his organizational abilities. The piano quintet is...well...slightly embarrassing. Fragment after fragment after fragment, with no shape to speak of.

I can't believe the CMSLC couldn't find a better American piano quintet, or a better chamber music piece by an American woman for their program. If they were looking for something older, little-known, and more conservative, how about music by Halsey Stevens? Henry Hadley? Walter Piston? Roy Harris? If by a woman, Miriam Gideon or Ruth Crawford (both atonalists, of course)?

Sigh.

8 comments:

Drew80 said...

Be glad you never had to study any of her numerous piano compositions.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I broke into a slight sweat, as of a bullet dodged, when I read your comment.

calimac said...

Beach (who actually preferred the byline "Mrs. H.H.A. Beach", but you sure won't find anybody calling her that today) was one of the more negligible Boston Classicists, whose renewed prominence appears to be due to her sex. This isn't doing the cause of promoting women composers any favors.

Compositional genius is rare; multiply that by the particular obstacles against women expressing it prior to the 20th century, and no wonder it's difficult to find good women composers from back then. There are some, but Beach (and Louise Farrenc) aren't it.

Lisa Hirsch said...

This program was in no way promoting women composers; it was promoting American composers. The music of the other Boston Classicists is not much performed, and I am seriously curious about how good the other composers are.

My problem, too, was that this piece didn't even seem competent; I can name a half dozen or so 19th and early 20th c. women who wrote better music. They're just not Americans.

calimac said...

I didn't think the program was designed to promote women composers. But why else pick Beach out of the morass of long-forgotten minors unless the programmer is either desirous of promoting a woman composer, or else has been influenced in selection by those who are?

Edward MacDowell, who used to be the best-known of the bunch, is a decent enough composer, a minor Grieg; Arthur Foote has his points; J.K. Paine pushes my buttons and I wish he did so more consistently and competently. None of them are neglected masters, though, and they all sound very much alike.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Why else? Somebody liked this piece and thought it was worth performing. Lots of people, not including you, think Carter is worth performing, too.

calimac said...

Obviously they thought the Beach work was worth playing, or they wouldn't have played it. But why did they pick this composer, as opposed to a lot of other equally, or more, worthwhile minor composers?

Considering the reasons that Beach has been pulled out from her fellows over the course of recent decades, the reason is obvious.

This has nothing whatever to do with tastes for Carter, whose work has always been especially well-regarded by those who have those particular tastes, irrespective of his sex, ethnicity, nationality, or other personal characteristics.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Your line of reasoning isn't necessarily what happened, of course.

I'll try one more tack: none of the music on this program is what I would call great. It remains to be seen whether Covered Wagon Woman will enter the repertory. It's effective and theatrical; it was well performed; it did not immediately strike me as great in the way that some new pieces have. I don't believe they were trying to program mediocrity, more "less known," hence the Antes piece and the okay-not-great Gershwin. Beach makes some sense in that context, as would other composers.