HERSTORY Program Notes

By Amelia LeClair, Artistic Director

March was dubbed Women’s History Month in 1980 by then President Jimmy Carter. It was meant to give us pause in our usual educational fare of nation building, wars, and kings to tell HERstory; not just the backstory of the women behind the scenes but to finally acknowledge the many and varied contributions women made, and to name the women who persisted in contributing to their fields despite so many obstacles.

 

Happily for us all, the list of women has gotten longer each year as we unearth more and more who invented, played, created, discovered, climbed, flew, ran, wrote, even built nations. No longer can anyone conclude – as so many did when I began this journey almost 20 years ago - that women’s accomplishments just can’t fill our libraries and schools and concert halls and theaters all the time. 

 

This program is chock full of 10 composers from 400 years, from east to west, from north to south. We know you’ll enjoy that fact while you’re listening to their unique contributions to the world of notated music we call classical. Beginning with ancient Byzantium and to the New World, from the UK to the US, you’ll hear the cultures and colors of the world’s people from the ears and pens of women.

 

We have invited some very special guests: Cappella Clausura’s first ever guest conductor, Dr. Ellen Gilson Voth, and the Güleç Lernis Project: vocalist Burcu Güleç and percussionist George Lernis

Ellen Voth (pronounced like “both”) and I serve on the Choral Arts New England board of directors. She leads an active career as a conductor, composer, educator, and keyboard artist. Currently, she is Artistic Director of the Farmington Valley Chorale based in Simsbury, CT, a large symphonic chorale of 80-100 members.

 

Voth has served as Artistic Director of Novi Cantori, a semi-professional chamber choir based in greater Springfield, MA, and is a well-established composer whose works frequently appear at conferences of the College Music Society and the American Choral Directors Association. Voth was awarded the Cincinnati Camerata Composition Prize, the Michigan Choral Commission Consortium, and was a finalist in the 2020 ACDA Brock competition for professional composers. She received her doctoral degree (DMA) from The Hartt School, Univ. of Hartford (CT), where she was the recipient of the Regents’ Honor Award for graduate students. 

Burcu Güleç, a 2021 Boston Foundation grantee, graduated from Berklee College of Music and completed her Master's  degree in Contemporary Improvisation at the New England Conservatory. Burcu's vocal journey began at the age of five, discovering that singing came naturally to her. Since then, her greatest joy has been making discoveries through improvisation, and sharing it with her audience.

 

Growing up in the hub of Ankara, Turkey, Burcu was exposed to Turkish folk, traditional, and varied Turkish music. She performed live over Turkish National Radio Television and many international Jazz festivals, spreading her voice all across Turkey. By drawing from the vast experiences of her life, Burcu's use of music seeks not just to entertain, but to educate, challenge, and spread diversity. This will be Burcu’s first appearance with Cappella Clausura.

Born and raised in Nicosia, Cyprus, George Lernisbecame interested in hand percussion at a very young age. He currently plays a number of percussion instruments: Tablas, Hadjira, Kanjira, Bendir’s (Frame drums), Davul, Darbuka, Riq, Pandeiro, Conga, Cajon, Timpani, Glockenspiel and Marimba. George holds a Bachelor’s from Berklee College of Music Global Jazz Institute, and a Master’s from Longy School of Music. He has recorded and collaborated with prominent figures such as John Patitucci, Antonio Sanchez, Dave Liebman, Anat Cohen, Tiger Okoshi and A Far Cry String Orchestra, and has appeared with Cappella Clausura – we welcome him back.

The Güleç Lernis Project blends traditional and contemporary sound in diverse languages as well as diverse music. Their creations seek to tell all the stories of humanity. 

 

We begin our journey in 9th century Constantinople with Kassia (810-865). Until about 20 years ago, Kassia was only celebrated and renowned in Greece as a hymnologist (author of texts); no one ever considered her capable of also writing the music. Dr. Diane Touliatos was the first to fully research, understand, and then advocate for Kassia being the composer of her chants. That idea was new when we first performed her chant, and quite controversial.

 

Now we know that Kassia, a Byzantine nun, left behind at least 51 pieces (thus far). I have asked Burcu and George to begin our HERSTORY by taking Kassia’s “Augustus the Monarch” and performing it the way it is written, and then to improvise on it, since we who specialize in early music know how close chant– unmetered and written as rubric– is to jazz.

From Mexico comes Juana Inés de le Cruz (1648-1695), another nun. Renowned as a leading thinker, poet, mathematician, musician, and early feminist, she is commemorated on both bill and coin of the Mexican peso. “Madre la de los Primores,” her 4 part ode to the mother of God, is one of her few extant musical compositions. We are certain that scholars will find more! 

Moving at breakneck speed to the 19th century, we come to some 4 part choral pieces by two Romantic household names with surprising genders: our personal favorite Fanny Mendessohn Hensel (1805-1847), and her sister in lightening-fingered pianism, the inimitable Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896). Fanny and Clara both struggled to be acknowledged for their immense musicianship; Fanny more so because it was unseemly for a woman of her class to work and publish. Clara had no choice but to support herself and her children due to her husband’s illness, so teaching and performing were her bread and butter, but her own compositions never matched the renown of her husband’s.

 

Neither’s works were frequently performed after their deaths and ended up in the soul-crushing morgue of lost women’s compositions. That changed in the 1970’s when women scholars began to search for their own HERSTORY. We gratefully acknowledge them, and those still working to unearth, edit, and publish the works of woman composers who make up our programs.

Much sooner after her death than most, the amazing Florence Price (1887-1953) is getting her due now. She was prolific, composing 300 symphonies, dozens of chamber pieces, works for piano, organ, chorus, and art song. They too entered the morgue of women’s compositions after her death, due to change in fashion as well as gender bias. Fortunately, her cache of compositions was found: in 2009 a trove was discovered in her former summer home in St Anne, Illinois. Alex Ross of The New Yorker said at the time, "a large quantity of her music came perilously close to obliteration. That run-down house in St. Anne is a potent symbol of how a country can forget its cultural history."

 

“Resignation” is a deeply felt lament in 4 parts, in the classical spiritual style, with words and music both by Price. "Nod”, on words by English poet Walter de la Mare, is a sort of pastorale/spiritual. Price has set it for tenors and basses, that beautifully evocative sound of African men singing in harmony. The words liken Jesus to an old shepherd and his flock of sheep whom he has brought home to “rest, rest again, rest.”

 

Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) is another of our favorites whose many works inspire musical activism: the 12 choral pieces in particular are so perfectly crafted and minute, each almost serving as an example of a style she was attempting. The simple yet harmonically complex “My Spirit like a Charmed Bark”, words by a favorite poet Percy Bysshe Shelly, conjures the jostling of a boat on waves (bark means boat), taken down a river like a soul that has lost control of its destination.

 

Finally, “He That Dwelleth, Psalm #91”, here given a full Church of England treatment with thick choral texture and solo sections, is a monument to the composers with whom Clarke studied: she was Charles Villiers Stanford’s first female student at the Royal College of England, and sang in a choral group directed by Ralph Vaughn Williams.

Dorothy Crawford (b. 1938) made her mark as a writer of books on music, one on Hitler’s emigrés to California. She came to me some years ago as a friend with some pieces in her pocket, and we loved this one. “Naushon” (2011) on the stunning poetry of Robert Pitney (1907-1944), written for a trio of women, is a brief moment of painted words on the sea, with the sounds of waves lapping and a strong vision of the island it’s named after.

Hilary Tann (b. 1946), Welsh born resident of upstate New York, writes haiku and is one of our favorite composers. Our mutual affection will continue this summer with a new recording of Tann’s choral oeuvre with Parma Recordings. “Contemplations 21, 22” is written on a remarkable text by Anne Bradstreet, America’s first poet. Bradstreet arrived on these shores in 1630, and managed to build a body of poetic work despite the hardships she faced as a young mother in a strange land.

 

Tann evokes the coursing of a river bound to meet its ocean, relentless in pursuit of it, as Anne stands by and can only watch and admire, and be a little bit jealous that the river is so sure of its path. Tann captures the duality of longing and sureness perfectly by interspersing words from the Psalms.

Joan Tower (b. 1938) is one of the US’s pre-eminent composers of symphonic works, fully recognized now for her genius and garnering much praise– including a Grammy- and many performances. She is perhaps best known for her “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman”, an answer, a sort of antiphon, to the Copland work. She admits to being an instrumental composer, with little to offer in the vocal realm.

 

She wrote “Descending” in memory of her sister. It is a simple goodbye, unencumbered by too many words, with a thin texture like that of a grief that is unable to speak. Tower says “in Descending, the words are kept to a bare minimum. They are directed towards loss and grief, and the surrounding vowels are used to place more emphasis on the pure expression of those feelings.”

Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972) is perhaps our most well-known and youngest composer, with many ensembles, instrumental and choral, performing her work. Born in Berkeley, California to a mother of Peruvian and Chinese descent, and a father of Lithuanian Jewish decent, she explores and bestows the gifts of her multicultual heritage through her music. “Hechicera” (sorceress) is the 3rd myth from “Tres Mitos de mi Terra” (Three Myths from my Land), written for the Kings Singers, a sextet of men.

 

Frank wrote both the words and the music, drawing inspiration, she says, from the Andean “singing mountaineers” of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Frank goes on to say “The rhythms suggest traditional dance, while the melodies evoke tunings of panpipes and guitar.” “Tres Mitos” evokes the clouds and high altitudes, the mists and deserts, and of course the dances of her land.