Women in Music Festival celebrates historic, contemporary female virtuosos

In its ninth consecutive year, Eastman School of Music's Women in Music Festival celebrated its first visit to Geneseo on Wednesday March 27 with a night of music by female composers and performers.

Featuring music stretching from the 12th century vocal pieces of Hildegard von Bingen to the very modern Libby Larsen, the concert sought to make the statement that, though underrepresented, women have been providing vital contributions to music performance for centuries.

The all-female Spectrum Ensemble spilled out of the wings to open the night, more than filling the stage as the group performed von Bingen's “O Frondens Virga.” They mastered the piece's medieval chants, producing ghostly harmonies that split the fading melody.

Lecturer of music James Kirkwood and professor of music and Chair of the Department of Music Jonathan Gonder followed with Nadia Boulanger's “Trois Pièces,” on cello and piano. The piece moved through three movements, in and out of dissonance, with the third in particular featuring a jazzy rhythm plucked on the cello.

Senior Katelyn Hearfield was one of two student vocalists in the spotlight for the evening, and she projected her voice beautifully; her high notes came without a hint of shrillness in a trio of pieces by Amy Beach. Later in the evening, senior Shelly Massachi covered similar ground in several compositions by Cécile Chaminade. Massachi was required to perform several impressive vocal leaps, which her rich voice skillfully achieved.

Adjunct lecturer of music Pamela Kurau helped organize the concert in conjunction with Eastman, bringing the festival to Geneseo. She also performed a suite by Larsen titled “Songs from Letters (text by Calamity Jane),” which takes its words from letters written by American frontierswoman Martha Jane Canary to her estranged daughter, who lived with another family.

Kurau read an introduction by Larsen in which the composer said she felt moved by the “rough toughness” of the compilation of letters between the historical figure and her daughter.

The text to the piece was more moving than the music itself, sharing the story of a woman who lashed out at a world that marginalized and judged her for choices she was forced to make.

The piece changed those words by torturing them under burdensome melodies that remove the emotion from the text. Though promising, it was unfortunately the one disappointment on the program for the night.

Pairs of Eastman students performed the remaining pieces, with violist Christiana Reader and pianist Wenny Chandra performing Margaret Brouwer's “Rhapsodic Sonata for Viola.” Brothers John and Joseph Irrera ended the night with the swooning melodies of “Three Romances for Violin and Piano Op. 22” by German composer Clara Schumann. 

Women have always been a dynamic force in composition, even though music courses often fail to acknowledge them. This night of music more than proved that.