Kati Agócs

Northwest Art Song, Susan Graham reviews: women in and out of love

The Ensemble and Friends of Chamber Music present two vocal concerts featuring old and new songs about the female experience of love

by JEFF WINSLOW

Of all the ways composers scoop up gulps of whatever universal river of music flows through the human soul and shape them into works, my favorite is probably the art song. At its best, an art song is a miraculous thing, a happy ménage à trois of compelling soundscape, absorbing lyrics – and not least, beautiful singing, something that depends on the composer and all the other musicians in on the game as well as the singer. (This does not in any way exclude the work of people who prefer to think of themselves as songwriters. A hit doesn’t need much art, and art doesn’t need to be a hit, but at wonderful times they do indeed come in the same package.)

In recent years, Portland has attracted a welcome stream of excellent singers, who fill the ranks of, and even direct, organizations devoted to art song as well as choral music. Two singers who recently commanded my delighted attention, soprano Arwen Myers and mezzo Laura Beckel Thoreson, happen to be the artistic directors of Northwest Art Song. They also perform regularly with top local vocal groups such as The Ensemble of Oregon. For the opening concert of The Ensemble’s season, “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” which I caught two weeks ago last Sunday afternoon at downtown Portland’s First Christian Church (repeated from the previous evening in Eugene), they put together an absorbing show exploring many kinds of love, exclusively from a woman’s point of view: all music and lyrics were written and performed entirely by women. Not only that, the music was utterly of our time, mostly written in the last two years, the oldest written at the cusp of the millennium.

Northwest Art Song performed women’s music in Eugene and Portland. Photo: Cory Niedfeldt.

Naturally with any collection of new work, there were misses as well as hits, but they opened with a stunner, Hyacinth Curl by Kati Agócs, who visited Portland last summer when her piano trio Queen of Hearts was performed at Chamber Music Northwest. Agócs put the lyrics together from Sufi devotional poetry (possibly written around 1830) by early 19th century Iranian noblewoman and mystic Bibi Hayati. As with claims that the Song of Solomon expresses religious devotion, you could have fooled me. Myers’s and Thoreson’s sinuous lines wrapped around each other, aptly expressing the lyrics’ barely concealed eroticism, with only an occasional handbell for punctuation. At the most charged moments, the women’s duet trailed off into silence, and after almost unbearable anticipation, the next stroke of the handbell was perfectly placed (that is, pitched) for maximum (aural) pleasure.

There was probably no way Abbie Betinis’s The Clan of the Lichens, on the equally mystical but almost asexual nature-loving texts of Opal Whiteley, could keep up this kind of interest, but the five-song set showed off Myers’s abilities to great advantage, and at their best were engaging and effective. “All Things Live” was one standout, with Myers ripping out fast, digitally precise scales and other vocal fireworks, popping off a couple of high D’s as if they were the easiest thing in the world. Even more attractive was the off-kilter, halting waltz “A Tale for Children and Taller Ones,” which dusted the cleverest lyrics and most colorful piano writing of the set with another dash of delicious musical acrobatics from Myers.

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Chamber Music Northwest reviews: defying limits

Concerts and conversations offer insights into contemporary music by female composers

In 1985, Pennsylvanian cartoonist Alison Bechdel inadvertently invented the trope that bears her name: The Bechdel-Wallace Test. (You can look at the original comic here.) Not that the test is a perfect indicator of either gender equality or cinematic worth: your average slasher flick passes, and your average Coen Brothers movie does not. Star Wars: Rogue One passes, but just barely. Gravity famously failed it, for rather specific reasons having nothing to do with gender. But as a way of calling attention to the nature of (and reasons for) gender inequality, The Bechdel-Wallace test still serves a useful, perspective-broadening diagnostic purpose.

One thing the Bechdel-Wallace tends to demonstrate: including only one woman in a movie (or a conversation, or a chamber music concert, etc.) inevitably puts all the weight of female representation onto that one character. Tokenism collapses representation into a single vector, a phenomenon best understood as The Smurfette Principle (first noted in 1991 by Katha Pollitt.) The other smurfs, all male, get to be The Nerdy One, The Funny One, The Fat One, The Jock, and so on; the girl smurf is just The Girl. Smurfette doesn’t get to do anything or have any of her own interests and pursuits. She has to be The Girl.

Composer Gabriella Smith discussed ‘Carrot Revolution,’ performed by Tomas Cotik, Becky Anderson and Nokuthula Ngwenyama at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

None of the composers on Chamber Music Northwest’s July 15 program at Reed College had to be The Woman Composer. After a lovely afternoon exploring the trails around Reed’s campus, I was treated to a concert of not only all women composers, but almost all Pulitzer winners and finalists: Tower’s Violin Concerto was a finalist in 1993, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich won in 1983 for her Symphony No. 1 (Three Movements for Orchestra), and Caroline Shaw won in 2013 for her Partita for 8 Voices. After spending the week with Gabriella Smith and her wonderful music, I’d say she’s in good company.

Smith’s Carrot Revolution opened the concert, performed by an ad hoc string quartet made up of violist-composer Nokuthula Ngwenyama, PSU violin professor Tomas Cotik, Fear No Music / Oregon Symphony cellist Nancy Ives, and Smith’s fellow Curtis Institute of Music alum and erstwhile Oregonian Rebecca Anderson. I’d had the chance to observe this quartet in rehearsal a few days earlier, and I was impressed not only with how much they improved but with how well they handled Smith’s peculiar, energetic, post-modern idiom.

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Chamber Music Northwest reviews: independent women

Festival’s concerts and conversations with female composers highlights rich diversity of their approaches and their music 

“It’s so nice to see you all!” said Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Director and clarinetist David Shifrin, introducing the July 13 concert at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium with a warm smile. “I’m possibly the only man on stage tonight!”

He was indeed, unless you count The Ghost of Ravel: four CMNW concerts at Reed College and Portland State University July 13-16 featured compositions written and performed by women. Later that evening, Shifrin would join composer and harpist Hannah Lash on her composition Form and Postlude and the piece to which it nods in both instrumentation and style, the Introduction et Allegro by man composer Maurice Ravel.

The Claremont Trio performed a piano trio by Fanny Mendelssohn and the world premiere of Kati Agócs’s ‘Queen of Hearts’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Night One paired: Kati Agócspiano trio Queen of Hearts with Fanny Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 11, and Lash’s Form and Postlude for harp, flute, clarinet, and string quartet with Ravel’s Introduction et Allegro. The Claremont Trio, in their premiere season as CMNW Protégé Project Artists, tore their way through Mendelssohn’s liedisch final major work, violinist Emily Bruskin hopping out of her seat at especially dramatic moments, twin sister Julia agile and confident at her cello, while pianist Andrea Lam immersed herself in all the pianistic luxuriance. Agócs’ trio was considerably more modern, with roots in and nods to the musical heritage that comes with writing for piano trio.

Queen of Hearts Meets Queen of Harp

If the 20th-century classical world was about carving up the last of the dissonance and starting radical new schools of composition, the 21st-century classical world seems to be all about synthesis and syncretism, taking up the messy mantle of competing traditions and making something new and personal and beautiful out of it.

Kati Agócs fits right in there: her polystylism has been making waves all over the world for the last decade or so, from 2005’s Hymn for saxophone quartet and 2008’s Requiem Fragments to 2011’s Vessel, 2015’s Debrecen Passion, and last year’s Tantric Variations for string quartet. It would be easy enough to pigeonhole Agócs as yet another post-modern more-is-more composer, but what I hear is an artist with ravenous taste and the skills to match. Compared to her other work, which often includes texts in multiple languages, quotations from earlier composers, grand gestures for percussion, and so on, Queen of Hearts, performed at Chamber Music Northwest, seems positively conservative in its simple neo-Romantic splendour.

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Chamber Music Northwest preview: women’s work

Portland's annual summer classical music festival throws the spotlight on female composers past and present

by ANGELA ALLEN

Since 1971, Chamber Music Northwest has brought world-class musicians and a deep (mostly) classical repertoire to Portland’s summer-hungry listeners. This year marks the first that women composers take center stage during the five-week festival from June 26 through July 30.

It’s about time. About a quarter of the programing, including lectures, rehearsals and concerts, is devoted to women composers.

There is “a fairly equal number of men and women composing great music today,” said longtime CMNW artistic director David Shifrin. Over the years, CMNW has occasionally presented pieces by leading female composers including Chen Yi, Joan Tower, Ellen Zwilich, Valerie Coleman and Portland State University’s Bonnie Miksch. But this season, artists will play works by more than a handful of women.

Composer Kati Agócs.

Women composers from the 12th century (Hildegard von Bingen) through today headline concerts and lectures. This summer’s program includes 19th and early 20th century music by Clara Schumann, Fannie Mendelssohn and Amy Beach, while Hannah Lash, Tower, Zwilich, Coleman, Gabriella Smith, Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Caroline Shaw, Portland’s own Bonnie Miksch, Gabriela Lena Frank and Kati Agócs fill out the contemporary roster. Some will speak on a 2 p.m. panel July 15 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium where they’ll discuss their works and the challenges involved in gaining attention and respect in today’s music world.

“It will take another generation or two before we establish something analogous to literary women’s canon in music composition,” Agócs emailed from Boston where she lives and teaches composition at New England Conservatory of Music. “There are many fierce women working now, but it will be a long road. Commissioning new works and mentoring young women are ways to bring about a female canon in music.”

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