Fin-de-Siècle Sounds Will Be Brought Back to Life at Curtis

“Women Pioneers of American Music” will give attendees an opportunity to explore early American concert music by focusing on three female composers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Mimi Stillman may have started playing the flute at the tender age of 6, but even today, at age 33, there is still repertoire she hasn’t learned or performed.
That is one of the reasons she is excited for “Women Pioneers of American Music,” a program put on by Dolce Suono Ensemble, for which she serves as artistic and executive director.
The program, on Jan. 24 at 3 p.m. at Field Concert Hall at the Curtis Institute of Music, will give those in attendance an opportunity to explore early American concert music by focusing on three female composers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries — Amy Beach, Marion Bauer and Ruth Crawford Seeger — who were considered pioneers of American music.
It will also feature works by contemporary composers Jennifer Higdon and Andrea Clearfield, including a world premiere.
Higdon, who will have a new composition performed, and Clearfield are both Philadelphia-based.
Stillman, who founded Dolce Suono Ensemble in 2005, relishes incorporating specific themes into her work, like her previous musical explorations of her Jewish heritage in her new CD, Freedom: Works by Weinberg, Finko & Danielpour, featuring works by three Jewish composers.
The idea to focus on these women came about in a conversation with her co-curator and longtime pianist, Charles Abramovic, with whom Stillman has worked for 14 years.
“Charlie suggested, ‘Hey, let’s look at these really important American women composers who were pioneers,’ ” Stillman recalled “not just of music, but in terms of the careers they were able to have.”
The music of these women — Beach, Bauer and Crawford Seeger — may not be immediately familiar to classical music aficionados today, Stillman readily acknowledged. But that is exactly why she was eager to explore and perform it as part of a cello, piano and flute trio with Sarah Shafer, soprano; Nathan Vickery, cellist; and Abramovic, pianist.
It was also important for Stillman to note that just because she is a female musician, that is not the reason why this program focuses on other women musicians. Rather, it is the accomplishments of these composers that inspired her.
“Some people might assume just because I’m a female musician, I’m particularly interested in finding music by women composers,” Stillman said. “But it’s really not that way; I’m just really interested in performing great music. But what’s interesting is that they had interconnected lives and they were really true pioneers as women in music in the country.”
Beach was the first woman to become a concert composer — and to make a career of composing — in America. Crawford Seeger was a modernist composer who was particularly interested in folk music and incorporating those themes into her music for the concert stage. Bauer was the first female professor of music at New York University.
All three women were part of the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ colony in New Hampshire, which Stillman said is still an important place for composers today.
The many “firsts” these women accomplished and their backgrounds provided a source of fascination for Stillman, but their music was key.
Stillman completed her master’s in history at the University of Pennsylvania, so exploring the history of the times in which these women lived was a natural enticement for her.
“What’s stimulating,” Stillman said, “is the learning and research process from having an idea such as, ‘let’s look at these pioneering American women composers,’ and then learning more about their work and their lives and then choosing pieces and
choosing the artists.”
Partnering with Higdon and Clearfield was a way to pair the early, leading composers with contemporary ones.
Stillman met Higdon when she started at Curtis — where Stillman was accepted when she was 12 — and said with a laugh that Higdon probably knew she was waiting to be asked to write something for Stillman to perform.
The program includes a world premiere of Higdon’s new trio for flute, piano and cello, American Canvas, inspired by three very different painters: Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock and Andrew Wyeth. Canvas, which was commissioned by Dolce Suono for this program, will be presented in conjunction of the East Coast premiere of her opera, Cold Mountain.
Clearfield, a member of Beth David who has been conducting her own salon series at Main Line Reform Temple for the past five years, will not be able to attend the performance, but she is excited for the musicians to perform her work, Spirit Island.
The piece was inspired by a canoe trip she took on Maligne Lake in the Canadian Rockies in 1995 where she observed the titular ait in different light and times.
“I decided to write a loose fantasia based on a theme and variation form wherein a short musical motif is developed and transformed,” Clearfield wrote via email.
Clearfield added she did not have a context for women composers when she began studying music. Instead, she learned about the famous 18th- and 19th-century male composers in school.
“When I was fortunate to have met my mentor in my late teens, Margaret Garwood (who sadly passed last spring),” Clearfield wrote, “I showed her my earliest works and she strongly encouraged me to pursue composition. She became a model for me of a woman pioneer — in her generation, there fewer women composers whose works were known (she lived from 1927-2015).”
Even today, she added, women’s music makes up a small percentage of concert programming. But she believes there are more “excellent women composers” writing today than perhaps ever before.
“I celebrate the pioneers such as my own mentor, who paved the way for women in composition today,” she wrote. “All that being said, I do not describe myself as a ‘woman composer,’ as I do not believe that music is gender-based.”
Stillman echoed that idea. “If you listen to a great piece of music, you really can’t tell the gender of the person writing it. It’s more about the artistic quality that attracts me,” she explained. “At the same time, though, I think it’s really interesting how today being a woman and being a classical musician, it’s — in America — it’s so egalitarian.”
Still, recognizing the women who paved the way through this program was an exciting opportunity to pay homage to them, Stillman said.
It also gives the audience a chance to hear music that it might not be familiar with, a glimpse into what American life looked — or sounded — like at that time.
“For me, it’s not only a window into what American women composers were doing, but on American musical life more generally,” Stillman said.
They will introduce the pieces and give a little bit of background information about each composer during the performance, and Higdon will talk about her piece.
Stillman is looking forward to performing with her fellow musicians and providing the “intellectually high protein” and fun, dynamic performances her ensemble has become known for.
“I think the other thing, too, is that I’m playing with great musicians who — as I do — love performing,” she said, “and I think that when audiences see people having a lot of fun on stage, it’s infectious.”
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