Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Chicago Sinfonietta's Project W brings to the fore women's compositions

The historical suppression of female potential in the arts continues to be rolled back. No one can say how much greatness was thwarted by the subjugation of women. It's more to the point to acknowledge that at last their achievements are receiving more exposure, allowing posterity to have the last word. In the meantime, the injustice of unequal treatment can be mitigated by correcting the gender imbalance in musical creation and performance.

Mei-Ann Chen, music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta
"Works by diverse women composers" is the subtitle of "Project W," a new release on Cedille by the Chicago Sinfonietta under the baton of Mei-Ann Chen. All are first recorded performances, and all new commissions except for William Grant Still's arrangement of Florence Price's charming "Dances in the Canebrakes."

Most out of the shadows of the five women represented is Jennifer Higdon, whose "Dance Card" concludes the program. In five movements, with their titles evoking the larky informality of Benjamin Britten's "Simple Symphony," Higdon displays her familiar amalgam of sophistication and insouciance. The next-to-last movement, "Celestial Blue," touches on the elegiac mood of her most-performed piece, "blue cathedral." Otherwise, the hints of vernacular styles color each exuberant movement, from "Raucous Rumpus" through "Machina Rockus."

The nod to diversity in the subtitle is no empty gesture. Reena Esmail embraces her Indian heritage explicitly in "Charukeshi Bandish," which includes her solo singing in the idiom of her ancestral homeland, and in "#MeToo," in which at one point the women musicians of the Sinfonietta sing in the order of their having joined the orchestra.

That compositional gesture thus explicitly celebrates the entry of women into the cultural mainstream, both in the microcosm of the Chicago Sinfonietta and in the larger world in which they must find independent, dignified ways to proceed. The structure of the piece derives from a Hindustani form called a bandish. This work strikes me as a successful bridging of two disparate cultures as well as a powerful personal statement.

Jessie Montgomery's "Coincident Dances" takes a superficially less exotic approach. But its roots lie deep in several traditions brought together through a contemporary African-American spirituality. Thus it amounts to an advance on and repurposing of the respectful folk-dance evocations in Price's work.

Finally, there's Brazilian-American composer Clarice Assad's stimulating macrocosmic view of multiculturalism in "Sin Fronteras," in which dissonant elements coalesce around harmonious interaction that's consistent with the composer's vision of amity across cultural barriers.

All the performances are brightly and warmly recorded, and the program booklet is exemplary about the composers and their works as well as about the orchestra and its maestra.

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