All Classical Radio James Depreist

‘Something so elastic that it will embrace anything’: Hannah Penn and Maria Garcia with Third Angle New Music

The singer and pianist presented an intimate evening of songs and poetry.

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Pianist Maria Garcia and singer Hannah Penn at Curious Comedy Theatre for Third Angle New Music's "Slipping Off the Petticoat" concert. Photo by Sara Wright.
Pianist Maria Garcia and singer Hannah Penn at Curious Comedy Theatre for Third Angle New Music’s “Slipping Off the Petticoat” concert. Photo by Sara Wright.

Third Angle New Music’s concert Slipping off the Petticoat was intended “to celebrate Queer love, joy, and empowerment.” It consisted of songs sung by mezzo Hannah Penn with Maria Garcia accompanying on piano; recitations by Penn accompanied by piano; a recitation by Garcia; and a solo piano work by Genevieve Muir. The laid-back atmosphere of the Curious Comedy Theatre lent itself to the atmospherics of the performance: Penn’s costumes were very much Lost Generation chic as she took the stage in a stylish black flapper dress. Simple stuff: it was Penn, Garcia, a piano and some simple props in front of a red velvet curtain. It wasn’t about the staging, it was about the music, the poetry, and the queer joy.

It all felt very intimate, and yet at times almost as if there weren’t an audience. There was a fourth wall there, but it was a selectively permeable membrane: there were moments where Penn drew us in, and others where we seemed to be just watching a slice of someone’s life, of a woman’s life from a different era, only a century and yet a million years ago. Slipping off the petticoat. Revealing the woman underneath. What would happen if women and others hadn’t been stifled by a suffocating patriarchy?

Reams have been written rightfully praising Penn’s singing over the years, but I found myself suddenly very curious to see if I could become as immersed in her recitations as I knew I could be in her singing.

Pianist Maria Garcia and singer Hannah Penn at Curious Comedy Theatre for Third Angle New Music's "Slipping Off the Petticoat" concert. Photo by Sara Wright.
Photo by Sara Wright.

The show was divided into six “Chapters”–the opening, Chapter 1: Chronicles, consisted of one work for piano and voice by Dominick Argento from From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. As Penn took the stage my heart beat a bit faster–perhaps our pre-eminent Oregonian songstress, but I had yet to witness a concert where she was the sole singer for the whole evening. “What sort of diary should I like mine to be?” Penn sang, in a powerful, mid-voice, the melody sirenic over a strange and disjunct slow piano that suddenly became sweet and consonant as the verse ended. “Something so elastic that it will embrace anything,” she went on, which felt like it was a metaphor for the evening.

Chapter Two: Liaisons, began with a recitation of Only Until this Cigarette is Ended by Edna St. Vincent Millay. A sad work: a woman recalling a memory of her lover but only allowing herself to dwell in sadness for a moment. “And then adieu—farewell!—the dream is done,” Penn said softly, as if to herself, over a soft bop piano. Dreaming of Lesbos by Tatiana de la Tierra was an ode to love and lust between women. “Just like that, nude and wet, we mount each other’s bodies. Our desire is a whale that searches for calm in the depths of the sea,” Penn recited huskily, as Garcia played a jazzy sort of gymnopedie. Penn milked all the eroticism out of the simple act of removing a shoe as she said, “I smell sex in my hair when I awaken.”

Pianist Maria Garcia and singer Hannah Penn at Curious Comedy Theatre for Third Angle New Music's "Slipping Off the Petticoat" concert. Photo by Sara Wright.
Photo by Sara Wright.

“Our planet of women is nothing more than a dream,” she went on sadly, as she slipped out of her dress, unself-conscious in a full white slip. The odd little tune tried to resolve itself into a more straightforward love ballad, but somehow didn’t quite get there as Penn repeated de la Tierra’s powerful words: “I smell sex in my hair when I awaken,” she said again, and then was tacet.

Chapter Three: Quests, opened with a recital of another work by Millay, The Courage that my mother had. Millay laments that the one thing she needed most from her mother was the courage that went with her into her grave. This was a bittersweet work for me, but in a way perhaps the poet did not intend, as Penn intoned it in a voice not heavy with grief, but one of love compounded with regret. I reflected on the regret that many of us queer folx have for other things our mothers took with them into their graves, only things stillborn and never given us in life: acceptance of the the courage it takes to live our lives as the persons we were born to be, pride in the good things we have done with those lives. Although that was not the substance of this poem, there was some of that in the recital; Penn was nuanced, thoughtful. I almost felt that there was a certain purposeful ambiguity here; there was much more than was said by the words alone. Or maybe that was just me.

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After intermission, Chapter Four: Innovation opened with Fancy, another song by Argento from his cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. Mind-bending stuff: “Why not invent a new kind of play: as for instance: Woman thinks: He does. Organ plays.” With a ringing forte, Penn sang with an affectation of curiosity: possessed of a voice fully capable of blowing us to the rafters, her control and her adjustment to the intimacy of the performance space were judicious. Even so, she sang at times with an abandon like the Dark Phoenix, her voice a primordial power, the power of a woman to destroy and to remake worlds with a word.

Pianist Maria Garcia and singer Hannah Penn at Curious Comedy Theatre for Third Angle New Music's "Slipping Off the Petticoat" concert. Photo by Sara Wright.
Photo by Sara Wright.

Later Penn talked for a moment about the countless women composers whose works have been “repressed, destroyed or discouraged” over the centuries, and introduced her daughter: young composer/pianist Genevieve Muir, who played her piano solo work Impossible to Invent New Words. It was a brief, interesting work. Block chords moved in the left hand, yet not without purpose as a peripatetic right hand wandered to and fro, occasionally discordant. There was real emotion here–a feeling as when one reaches for something that is not quite found, yet not out of reach.

It’s long been in my mind to wonder about the countless works by women and others who were not men over the years, those who faced the prejudice and eradication Penn mentioned, works that never made it past the doors of a brilliant mind, works that perhaps saw pen and paper but were never heard, artistic works of unknown power, some undoubtedly works of genius, and yet victims–victims of an unspoken cultural and artistic gendercide. It’s refreshing that Portland has outlets for young composers to put their works out there, hopefully without facing those gender barriers.

Composer-pianist Genevieve Muir at Curious Comedy Theatre for Third Angle New Music's "Slipping Off the Petticoat" concert. Photo by Sara Wright.
Composer-pianist Genevieve Muir. Photo by Sara Wright.

The evening closed with the final chapter: Legacy. Last Entry was another work from Argento’s Woolf cycle that formed the backbone of the evening. This seemed to focus on the simultaneous drudgery and “pleasure” of cooking meat for dinner, a paradox of sorts: “I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down,” sang Penn. This struck me as hilarious. Penn sang with a certain abandon, marvelously applicable to this sort of stream of consciousness diary entry of Woolf’s, her voice ranging between a positively brawny contralto and a ringing, substantive soprano range, with a mezzo in between that was redolent with sincerity.

As a musician, and not specifically a ‘poetry guy’ (I know, cringe if you must), I didn’t expect to be as affected as I was by the selections that were recited and not sung. I tried to keep up with the beautiful Spanish as Garcia recited When I say I AM in its native tongue, but my skills were insufficient, and so I failed. And yet I was glad to hear it.

Pianist Maria Garcia and singer Hannah Penn at Curious Comedy Theatre for Third Angle New Music's "Slipping Off the Petticoat" concert. Photo by Sara Wright.
Photo by Sara Wright.

This celebration of “Queer love, joy, and empowerment” should rightfully have been reviewed by a queer woman or other femme person, but for whatever reasons it fell to me, a queer man, to put down my thoughts about the performance. So here they are: Queer joy seldom exists without its constant companions sadness and rejection. So always, for me at least, there is something there of those dark twins when I contemplate joy. I believe Penn and Garcia understood this. Certainly Woolf, Millay, de la Tierra, Stein and the others understood this.

That’s not to say that queer joy doesn’t exist: it certainly does, and in fact it can be dizzying, full of a powerful energy, pulses of love for ourselves, for our community and our allies and for these damned fascinating lives we lead. For me this night was a continuation of a few weeks now of celebrating queer joy through music: I’ve seen the divine Janelle Monáe put on a stadium show, a paradise of positivity, radiating an innate strength and a joy that refuses to be bridled; I’ve reveled in the sheer fun of blistering queerpunk at a small show by Gaytheist and Pansy Division. And now this, this intimate and introspective celebration of femme queerness. It makes me feel fortunate, like I was lucky enough to be invited just a little bit into a world that I may understand in part, but can never really be a part of. And that’s ok. The vision was enough.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

A lifelong musician and writer, Lorin Wilkerson has been a part of the Portland classical music scene as a performer, writer, and non-profit board member for over 15 years. He has performed with the Portland Symphonic Choir, Bach Cantata Choir, and Classical Revolution PDX, and served on the boards of the Bach Cantata Choir and Musica Maestrale. He has written for Willamette Week, Hollywood Star, Oregon Music News and other publications. An avid birder, he is the Field Notes Editor of Oregon Birds, the journal of the Oregon Birding Association.

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