Jessica Horsley / Basel Sinfonietta
Bacewicz / Gipps / Marti / Howell / Price
Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2021-06-07
2020-06-15 — Original posting
Die Basel Sinfonietta am Festival “frauenkomponiert” — Zusammenfassung
Das Festival “frauenkomponiert” wurde auf Initiative der Gambistin und Dirigentin Jessica Horsley 2015 erstmals durchgeführt. Nach 2016, 2018, und 2020 feiert das Festival 2021 nicht nur komponierende Frauen, sondern auch den zaghaften Wiederbeginn des Konzertlebens nach der Pandemie. Aus diesem Anlass engagierte das Festival mit der Basel Sinfonietta ein erfahrenes, bewährtes Ensemble im Bereich neuer und neuester Orchestermusik. Pandemiebedingt unterlag das Festival strengen Einschränkungen in der Anzahl Besucher. Das Konzert wurde deshalb gleich dreimal durchgeführt: am 6.6. in Basel, das hier besprochene am 7.6. in Zürich (je mit live-Videostreaming), sowie am 8.6. in Bern, aufgenommen für zeitverschobene Ausstrahlung durch Radio SRF 2 Kultur. Jedem Konzert ging eine Podiumsdiskussion voraus, auf welche ich hier nicht weiter eingehe.
Ein Blick auf das Programm
Für dieses Konzert wählte die Dirigentin Werke von fünf zumeist wenig bekannten Komponistinnen aus einem Zeitraum von 90 Jahren, zwischen 1921 und 2011:
- Grażyna Bacewicz (1909 – 1969): Uwertura na Orkiestrę (1943), eine romantisch- / spätromantische Ouvertüre. Virtuos, interessant, zugleich eine Herausforderung an die Koordination zwischen Dirigentin und Orchester, aber auch zwischen den und innerhalb der Instrumentalgruppen. Zumal in der anspruchsvollen, analytischen Akustik der Tonhalle Maag in Zürich.
- Ruth Dorothy Louisa Gipps (1921 – 1999): Sinfonie Nr.2 in H-dur, op.30 (1945). Eine kurze Sinfonie, formal in einem Satz, doch mit erkennbaren Segmenten. Diese entsprechen dem Schema Schnell – Scherzo – Langsam – Finale. Zusammen etwas über 22 Minuten Musik, stilistisch (nach meinem Empfinden) in der Nähe von Rachmaninoff und Prokofiev, mit Momenten, die an Dvořák erinnern.
- Für mich persönlich der klare Höhepunkt des Abends: “Wave trip” (2011) der Schweizer Komponistin Cécile Marti (*1973). Imaginative, farbenreiche Musik, atmosphärisch, hochinteressant—ein Erlebnis!
- Dorothy Gertrude Howell (1898 – 1982): Ballettmusik “Koong Shee“ (1921). Das Libretto basiert auf einer alten chinesischen Erzählung. Die Musik hält sich im Stil der Spätromantik, zwischen Dvořák und Prokofievs neoklassizistischer Periode.
- Ethiopia’s Shadow in America (1932) der Afroamerikanerin Florence Beatrice Price (1887 – 1953) beschreibt die Sklaverei in den Vereinigten Staaten am Beispiel eines Schwarzen, von der Gefangennahme und Verschleppung über Resignation und Glauben, hin zu Akzeptanz und Versöhnung.
In Zürich war das Publikumsaufkommen sehr bescheiden. Die Organisatoren mögen den Aufwand mit dem Videostreaming rechtfertigen. Doch wurde dies bereits im Konzert vom Vortag realisiert. Ich habe Teile davon miterlebt und kann nur sagen: bei dieser Musik ist Streaming weit davon entfernt, einen adäquaten Ersatz für ein reales Konzerterlebnis zu bieten.
Table of Contents
- Concert & Review
- Preparations / Preamble
- Grażyna Bacewicz: Uwertura na Orkiestrę (1943)
- Ruth Gipps: Symphony No.2 in B major, op.30 (1945)
- Cécile Marti: Wave Trip (2011)
- Dorothy Gertrude Howell: Koong Shee (Ballet, 1921)
- Florence Beatrice Price: Ethiopia’s Shadow in America (1932)
|Venue, Date & Time||Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2021-06-07 19:30|
|Series / Title||5th Festival “frauenkomponiert” —|
Pionierinnen eines Jahrhunderts (Women Pioneers of a Century)
|Reviews from related events||Concerts with the Basel Sinfonietta|
Jessica Horsley, Conductor and Initiator
In her youth, the British musician Jessica Horsley covered a broad field of activities, performing on the organ, the piano (on which she graduated from the Royal College of Music in London). She obtained a BA as Choral Scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, which led her into the field of early music. So, she went on to study the viol (viola da gamba). Finally, she also completed a master’s degree in Modern History with Russian at the University of London.
After all this, Jessica Horsley went on to complete her education on the viol, working with Paolo Pandolfo (*1964) at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, thereafter performing on the viol and the Baryton, as soloist, as well as with notable artists and ensembles, all over Europe.
In 2010, Jessica Horsley decided to switch from baroque string instruments to conducting. 2012, she completed her post-graduate studies at the Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana in Lugano. Henceforth, she specialized in modern and contemporary music, but of course also covering the classic and romantic repertoire. Jessica Horsley has since performed with orchestras in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, France, and Switzerland.
The Project “frauenkomponiert”
The idea for the project “frauenkomponiert” emerged in 2013, initiated by Jessica Horsley. On the festival Website, the conductor states “In 2013, somewhere between Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony and Beethoven’s 6th, I thought to myself that it would be nice to conduct something written by a woman. Whether there was any repertoire?“. I’m sure she was aware of renowned composers such as Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn (1805 – 1847), Clara Schumann (1819 – 1896), the sisters Nadia Boulanger (1887 – 1979) and Lily Boulanger (1893 – 1918), and Germaine Tailleferre (1892 – 1983). However, I suspect she was looking for female composers that had an even lesser presence in today’s concert life.
The discoveries that she made while looking for female composers and their works led to the project “frauenkomponiert”. That name is a word creation with the meaning “composed by women” (or is it derived from an imperative “Frauen, komponiert!“, i.e., “Compose, ye women!”?). To realize her idea, Jessica Horsley gathered a circle of friends. Under the patronage of the City of Basel, the project has since organized festivals in 2015, 2016, 2018, 2020, and now 2021. These festivals involved numerous soloists, chamber music ensembles, and orchestras. Since 2015, the Tatar-Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina (*1933) is honorary president for the project “frauenkomponiert”.
The Orchestra: Basel Sinfonietta
The one part in this concert that doesn’t require an introduction is the orchestra. Starting in 2015, I have attended and reviewed nearly 20 concerts with the Basel Sinfonietta. Most of these concerts were organized by the orchestra itself. In at least three instances, the ensemble was hired as accompaniment to choral / oratorio performances.
Also the concert in this festival counts as a “guest performance” for the orchestra. The ensemble appeared in slightly reduced size. Notable roles in the performance were those of the first desks. Primarily concertmaster Daniela Müller and the solo cellist, Martina Brodbeck. The orchestra’s reputation is that of an excellent ensemble for contemporary (late 20th century and newest) repertoire. My reviews confirm this. Here, the ensemble was led by Jessica Horsley, while its Principal Conductor, Baldur Brönnimann (*1968) is currently conducting in Spain and Portugal.
This year’s festival “frauenkomponiert” ran under the title “Pionierinnen eines Jahrhunderts” (Women Pioneers of a Century). Jessica Horsley selected five works created 1921 and 2011. Of course, all works were by women composers:
- Grażyna Bacewicz (1909 – 1969): Uwertura na Orkiestrę (Overture for Orchestra, 1943)
- Ruth Gipps (1921 – 1999): Symphony No.2 in B major, in One Movement (1945)
- Cécile Marti (*1973): Wave Trip (2011)
- Dorothy Gertrude Howell (1898 – 1982): Koong Shee (Ballet, 1921)
- Florence Beatrice Price (1887 – 1953): Ethiopia’s Shadow in America (1932)
The above program was performed in three locations, each preceded by a public podium discussion:
- 2021-06-06, 17:00h: Stadtcasino in Basel, public podium discussion @ 16:00h
- 2021-06-07, 19:30h: Tonhalle Maag in Zurich, public podium discussion @ 17:45h
- 2021-06-08, 19:30h: Casino in Bern, public podium discussion @ 18:45h
The first two of these concerts were performed with live video streaming, the last one was recorded by the Swiss Radio SRF 2 Kultur, for subsequent broadcasting on 2021-09-02. In Basel, Jessica Horsley took the microphone to introduce each of the compositions. Here in Zurich, that task was performed by the music journalist Susanne Kübler, while in Bern, this was done by another music journalist, Sigfried Schibli (*1951).
I counted less than 20 actual visitors in the hall. There were definitely more people involved for the live transmission, operating the numerous cameras in the hall and on the balconies, at the sound engineer’s desk. And the podium had more musicians than the above two groups combined. One might argue that this is justified with the live streaming. However, that was done already with the concert in Basel (which also had more audience). Moreover, there was the recording for the radio on the following day. One may question the economic viability of this concept. More on that at the bottom of this report.
On a related note: in the concert, from my seat, I could not do a “gender analysis” on the orchestra. However, a look at the orchestra’s Website reveals that among 79 musicians in the ensemble, there are just 20 men. The fraction of males among the string instrument players is even below 12%. This is not only fitting for this occasion, but remarkable in general!
My seat was in the center of row 5 in the parquet seating. Only the presenter, Susanne Kübler, was sitting closer to the podium.
Unless noted otherwise (i.e., the one picture above), all concert photos labeled “Festival frauenkomponiert” are from the concert in the Stadtcasino Basel on 2021-06-06. The images were kindly provided by the Basel Sinfonietta and their photographer, Zlatko Mićić.
Concert & Review
Preparations / Preamble
I did not know any of the music in this concert beforehand. I did not try finding it on channels such as YouTube. Rather, I wanted to retain the chance for a fresh, unbiased impression. Actually, I managed to watch the live streaming of the podium discussion in Basel (I’m not discussing this here). And I did indeed watch the recorded stream of the second half of the concert in Basel. More on that below.
Grażyna Bacewicz: Uwertura na Orkiestrę (1943)
The Polish violinist Grażyna Bacewicz (1909 – 1969) was an amazingly prolific composer. Especially considering that her music is rarely ever played at all these days, at least outside of her native country. She grew up in Łódź, where she also received first lessons in piano and violin from her father. The latter actually identified as Lithuanian, as did her elder brother Vytautas Bacevičius (1905 – 1970), also a composer. After Maria Szymanowska (1789 – 1831), Grażyna Bacewicz was the second Polish composer gaining national and international recognition.
Grażyna Bacewicz studied violin and composition at the Warsaw Conservatory, graduating in 1932. Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860 – 1941) granted her a stipend that allowed her to study in Paris, at the École Normale de Musique, with Nadia Boulanger (1887 – 1979) as composition teacher. Later, Carl Flesh (1873 – 1944) was her violin teacher. 1936, she married and became principal violinist of the Polish Radio Orchestra. During WWII she lived in Warsaw. Most of the later years she spent teaching at the State Conservatoire of Music in Łódź.
Bacewicz’s oeuvre included a series of solo works (piano, and violin), a large amount of chamber music and orchestral works. The latter include four symphonies, 12 concertos. There are 7 concertos for violin, 1 for viola, 2 for cello, one for piano, one for two pianos. Plus, there is music for voice (with piano or orchestra), 3 ballets, one radio opera, incidental music, film scores, and music for radio broadcast.
The Uwertura na Orkiestrę (Overture for Orchestra) from 1943 is the first one of Grażyna Bacewicz’s orchestral works. It is preceded only by her first violin concerto from 1937.
The Performance — Seeking Coherence
The beginning is a crescendo of swirling figures in the violins that rapidly expand into the full orchestra. A challenging beginning for a conductor and an orchestra that are not very familiar with each other! The challenge is compounded by larger distances in the orchestra (given the pandemic). This makes it harder for the musicians to maintain contact. Given electronic enhancement, the acoustics weren’t as bone-dry as they used to be. However, they were still very analytical to the listener, so every detail came forward easily.
At the same time, this was the first piece of the performance. It felt as if the musicians needed to “get organized” first, by “establishing proper hierarchy”. Jessica Horsley’s conducting seemed sufficiently precise and clear. However, it was definitely more active than what the orchestra may be used to—too active even? I felt that gestures with focus more on the main beats than on the bar subdivisions might have made the communication with the orchestra easier and more direct.
I’m not talking of major problems here. After a while, things settled for good. The first desks (especially concertmaster Daniela Müller and cello soloist Martina Brodbeck) took up their vital role as mediators between conductor and other musicians. It was interesting to observe how the orchestra established this hierarchy over the course of the overture.
The Listening Experience
The swirling figures in the strings probably sounded more complex than the composer intended. In the first bars, I was indeed unsure whether this was meant to be polyphonic. Or whether the orchestra just needed to “get organized” first. As stated, that only lasted a few bars. At the end of the crescendo, the music became more rhythmic, gradually turned festive and march-like, with embedded fanfares. By the time the initial build-up reached its climax, the musicians largely had resolved the initial coordination issues.
Harmonically, the piece is romantic, with late-romantic influence and an occasional scent of impressionism, especially in the lyrical segments. For an overture, one does not expect thematic development. Rather, there are segments featuring a short, melodic themes. More in the sense of a Leitmotif, referring to an imagined stage piece. It does feel like an ultra-short version of a stage drama. There are build-ups in waves, full of drive and tension, often gripping, enthralling. There is also an intermittent lyrical segment, into which a trumpet fanfare signals the return of the final, lively part. A reminiscence of the trumpet signal in Beethoven opera “Fidelio”? In a way, the overture of course is open-ended, giving just a foretaste of a stage drama to follow. And these expectations naturally remain unresolved.
The performance of the opening piece wasn’t exactly brilliant. Apart from the initial coordination issues, I also felt that some of the tempo transitions weren’t always entirely coherent, compelling. I largely attribute this to a lack of control in the interaction between conductor and orchestra.
However, I really liked the music! It comes with its technical challenges, but still is an excellent overture and concert opening. One might even call the music brilliant…
Rating: ★★★★ (music) / ★★★ (performance)
Ruth Gipps: Symphony No.2 in B major, op.30 (1945)
Ruth Dorothy Louisa Gipps (1921 – 1999) was an English composer, oboist, pianist, conductor, and educator. Born a child prodigy, she studied at the Royal College of Music, London. There, one of her teachers was Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958). Throughout her career, she was very successful in all her activities. As conductor, she even founded two orchestras, the London Repertoire Orchestra (LRO) and the Chanticleer Orchestra. Still, Wikipedia quotes from her biography: “Her early career was affected strongly by discrimination against women in the male-dominated ranks of music (and particularly composition), by professors and judges as well as the world of music criticism. Because of it she developed a tough personality that many found off-putting, and a fierce determination to prove herself through her work.“.
Ruth Gipps composed a fair number of works. These range from piano to chamber music, orchestral works, concertos, and vocal / choral compositions. There are five symphonies (composed between 1942 and 1982). Among these, the Symphony No.2 in B major, op.30, from 1945, is the only one in a single movement.
The composer’s mother, Hélène Gipps (born Johner) was a Swiss pianist from Basel. As the moderator, Susanne Kübler, explained, this left traces in Ruth Gipps’ second symphony. She referred to passages with snare drums and piccolo flutes. These are references to the Basler Fasnacht, the Carnival of Basel.
Soundscape & Listening Experience
The soundscape of Ruth Gipps’ second symphony is distinctly different from Bacewicz’ overture. The latter is in the style of 19th century romantic (if not late-classical) music, somewhat retrospective. In contrast, Gipps’ symphony is definitely late- or rather post-romantic. The beginning reminded me of some film music. Or, maybe symphonic pieces by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) or Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)? And, of course, British composers from the first half of the 20th century. It appears to sway between expressive / slightly melancholic and momentarily playful, also somewhat carefree.
A drum roll and a brief, high-pitched violin solo, followed by expressive romanticism lead to a brassy, march-like segment. A build-up with the snare drums ends abruptly. The cor anglais then has a melancholic solo with harp accompaniment. The atmosphere remotely reminds of the slow movement in the Symphony No.9 by Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904). The tutti violins pick up this longing, melancholic mood, then joined by the brass instruments, later the solo flute. Brassy eruptions and fanfares complete the first part.
Out of silence, snare drums are approaching. A jolly tune on flutes and piccolo flutes follows—the reminiscence of the Basler Fasnacht. Does that tell much to British audiences? Probably not. Next, trumpets and trombones join the cortège. To people from Basel, they turn this into somewhat of a bombastic caricature of the original carnival tune. The cortège passes by, the snare drums appear to disappear around the next street corner—silence, end of the second part.
To me, this was the best part by far. A warm, elegiac and expressive melody in the strings, sentimental, reminding me of music by Edvard Grieg (1843 – 1907). At the climax, the horn takes over the cantilena. Too bad the “movement” is so short, though. This would have been an opportunity for more thematic work.
The final part is multi-faceted, feeling like Allegro moderato, initially more rhythmic again, with an intermittent, lyrical solo on the muted French horn. The music then accelerates, picks up rhythm and momentum, ending in an abrupt crescendo splash.
What remains of this music after the first encounter?
There are some nice melodic inventions. More motifs than cantilenas, though. I predominantly had the impression of somewhat carefree, fragmented music with little (if any) thematic work / evolution. And maybe a certain arbitrariness. Orchestration and textures are well-done. However, the music “does not stick”. Certainly not themes, melodies. Except maybe the overall structure with the carnival and the short slow movement.
Unlike in the overture, here, the performance of the orchestra left very little to wish for. It was compelling and coherent well beyond the composition!
Rating: ★★★½ (music) / ★★★★½ (performance)
Cécile Marti: Wave Trip (2011)
This is my second encounter with music by the Swiss composer Cécile Marti (*1973). A concert on 2019-11-02 featured an excellent, enthralling composition “Seeing Time 1”. This was also with the Basel Sinfonietta, but under its principal conductor, Baldur Brönnimann. For more information on the composer see that earlier concert report, or the artist’s Website. Cécile Marti’s oeuvre is listed at the artist’s Website, including also descriptions of the individual compositions.
Wave Trip from 2011 is the final composition in a four-piece cycle. This consists of a violin concerto and a piece for solo violin, surrounded by two orchestral works. I’m quoting from Cécile Marti’s own description: “Two orchestral pieces frame a violin concert and a piece for solo violin. Wave Trip refers on the one hand to the first orchestral work, from which mainly gestural elements are extracted and continued. The focus here is on the wave-like continuation gesture of the music. On the other hand, this piece attaches itself to the violin concert and the violin solo, from which sound elements are extracted and further developed…“
I was highly curious about this music! Already from my first encounter I was enthusiastic about her 2019 piece “Seeing Time 1”. My comment back then: “To me, this isn’t music (in the traditional sense) that compares to anything else. A very strong piece, so utterly enthralling, intense, seizing the listener by the neck…“. Similar comments result from this performance. As usual with such new works, my comments merely describe my impressions, my emotional reaction
A colorful, highly imaginative and atmospheric piece! It begins very softly, with microtonal clusters that expand and contract in glissando waves, gradually gaining volume. Shimmering sound planes, slowly changing colors, rising up, cascading down onto a frizzy water surface. The latter responds with large, rolling waves, depicted by brass sounds and machine timpani. Initially soft shapes gradually gain rhythmic contours. Highly pictorial—a fascinating sound painting, so rich in colors!
Myriads of shapes, textures and shades with gradual changes / alterations—an impressionist painting, glittering in colors. Referring to the title: I didn’t picture so much physical motion. Rather, a gentle journey through seascapes, often emote, almost tumultuous, but not threatening, peaceful overall.
The water surface appears to form vortexes, builds up to giant waves. Tumultuous scenes with huge depth and plasticity! Violin tremoli and glissandi at highest pitches contrast with the dark colors of the sea. As the music calms down, turns peaceful, the high and low spheres seem to interact, even unite (trombone glissandi). Subtle dissonances finally mutate into consoling harmonies, then move into the distance and up, into a world beyond. An open question, maybe, but not really seeking answers.
I don’t know the first three compositions in the four-part cycle. So, I cannot comment on the interrelations with the preceding pieces. Yet, there is not doubt in my mind that this was the highlight of the evening. Certainly as a composition (congrats to the composer!), but equally from the performance of the orchestra. Here, the ensemble definitely was fully living up to its reputation!
Dorothy Gertrude Howell: Koong Shee (Ballet, 1921)
The English composer and pianist Dorothy Gertrude Howell (1898 – 1982) was born in Birmingham. Apart from her studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London, she spent most of her life in the West Midlands. Wikipedia lists a selection of works only, composed between 1916 and 1955. These include a piano sonata, chamber music, a piano concerto, and orchestral works.
The title off the ballet composition Koong Shee (1921) refers to an ancient, Chinese fable about a wealthy Mandarin and his beautiful daughter, Koong-se. The latter had fallen in love with her father’s accounting assistant, Chang. However, her father dismissed his assistant and rather wanted Koong Shee to marry a powerful Duke, Ta-Jin. On the eve of the planned marriage, Chang slips into the palace. The lovers escape with the jewels. An alarm was raised, but the couple fled over a bridge. It eventually escaped on the Duke’s ship to a secure island, where they lived happily for years. When the father finally found them, the couple was captured and put to death. The gods were moved by their plight and transformed the lovers into a pair of doves. The source mentioned above tells different versions of the story.
Let me start with a brief note on performance. Here again, I noted a very slight degradation in the coordination between the left and right sides of the podium. The voices in themselves were just fine, though. This confirms that within the string voices, the first desks were successful in leading their team. Was the conductor not always 100% successful in coordinating the voices? The string sections indeed seemed to observe primarily their first desk and/or the concertmaster, more than the conductor. This may of course also confirm the challenges with the venue, the setup—see above.
Dorothy Howell’s music feels like a mix of late- and post-romantic stiles, mixed here with elements of Chinese music. Neo-classical music by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) also comes to mind, such as his ballets, or Peter and the Wolf, op.67. It’s music with a strong, narrative component. Interestingly, just like Ruth Gipps’ symphony, as well as the piece by Florence Price, there were moments that brought to mind the Symphony No.9 “From the New World”, by Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904). Is this real, or is it just these composer’s preference for the cor anglais? There are no quotes, though—I’m merely referring to atmosphere and melodic elements.
The beginning feels light-hearted, light and transparent in the textures. It turns more earnest and intense when the conflict with Koong-Shee‘s father breaks out. Menacing tones / passages alternate with gentle ones, featuring muted violins and beautiful cantilenas in the woodwinds (flute, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet).
Clearly, it’s a composition for the stage. It follows the plot of the ballet on the stage. The changes in tone / atmosphere reflect the sequence of “numbers”, the changes in scenery. That of course does not make it inferior to a symphony. To the contrary, it captures the listener’s mind, makes the audience follow the action on stage. Even if the latter is only imagined. Dorothy Howell is excellent at evoking tension, expectation, menace, anxiety, fear.
As the lovers’ fate takes its course, fire arrows cause their island to go up in flames. The music builds up to an intense climax. Drum rolls and brass depict the devastation. Then, a cello solo announces the resolution and peace. In the end, two pigeons (solo violins, supported by clarinet and cor anglais) ascend into the sky, in harmony.
Florence Beatrice Price: Ethiopia’s Shadow in America (1932)
The last work in this concert was by the American composer, pianist, organist, and music teacher Florence Beatrice Price (1887 – 1953). Wikipedia states that she was “the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Price composed numerous works: four symphonies, four concertos, as well as choral works, plus art songs, and music for chamber and solo instruments. (…) Her father was the only African American dentist in the city, and her mother was a music teacher who guided Florence’s early musical training.“. She was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, first performed in public at the piano at age 4. She was only 11 when her first composition was published.
Florence Beatrice Price studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, passing as Mexican, in order to avoid discrimination against African-Americans. She returned to Arkansas, later spent most of her life in Chicago, Illinois. Wikipedia states that “Price’s music consists of mostly the American idiom and reveals her Southern roots. Her compositions use material from the music of the African-American church (elements of spirituals, blues). However, Price is but also mixing in European Romantic styles and techniques. Florence Beatrice Price’s compositions fell “out of fashion” after her death. Most of her work appeared lost for a long time. Only in 2009, a substantial collection of Price’s oeuvre (including this piece) was discovered in an abandoned house in St. Anne, Illinois.
Ethiopia’s Shadow in America, from 1932, is one of Florence Beatrice Price’s earliest orchestral compositions. The work is in three parts and describes the fate of an African in American slavery. The titles of these “movements” are self-explanatory:
- The Arrival of the Negro in America when first brought here as a slave – (Introduction and Allegretto)
- His Resignation and Faith – (Andante)
- His Adaptation – (Allegro) – A fusion of his native and acquired impulses
I. The Arrival of the Negro in America when first brought here as a slave – (Introduction and Allegretto)
To me, the first movement seemed to bear resemblances to music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893). Big gestures depicting capture and suffering, darkness, violence, despair.
II. His Resignation and Faith – (Andante)
A movement full of longing, melancholy, the quest for consolation.
III. His Adaptation – (Allegro) – A fusion of his native and acquired impulses
The slave appears to have settled and accepted the situation in North America. Playful dancing, even joy (woodblock and pizzicato). A violin solo (Daniela Müller) gradually moves into a more slavonic tone. It (again!) reminded me of Dvořák’s Symphony No.9, “From the New World”. Atmospheric music in a segment with homesickness (clarinets, oboes). The dancing returns, full of swing and drive, with syncopated, jazzy rhythms. After a long general rest, an intense, pompous coda concludes the movement.
In the live experience, this appeared as an interesting, strong, gripping and colorful music. Interestingly, the experience from the streamed concert in Basel didn’t come anywhere near the live concert performance. I also felt that compared to the streamed experience, the excellent qualities of the orchestra (particularly the wind, brass and percussion sections) were far more manifest on-site.
Live vs. Streaming Experience
As mentioned above, I did manage to listen to the last two compositions. This was on the afternoon preceding the concert. I must concede that I was somewhat disappointed, even in danger of losing interest. That’s not due to deficiencies in the performance. Rather, it confirmed that live video streaming comes nowhere near a live concert experience. In other words: those who didn’t make it to the concert hall may have liked the music. However, their experience is simply not comparable to witnessing the concert from within the venue, where things happen. In particular, streaming defeats the intensity, the atmosphere, the “virtual stage presence” in Dorothy Howell’s ballet.
All this once more reassured me in my decision not to review concerts based on live streamed viewing.
In the end, some questions to the organizers remain. Given that there were fewer than 20 visitors, was this concert worth the effort? One could argue that the restrictions due to the pandemic didn’t allow for more than 100 attendees anyway. On top of that, one might justify the effort with the live streaming. However, as pointed out above, the concert in Basel on the day before was streamed already.
The truth is that Zurich has far more conservative music audiences in general. Audiences which prefer sticking to traditional, mainstream repertoire. Unlike Basel, it has no established scene for contemporary orchestral music. Plus, the Basel Sinfonietta does not have an established audience in Zurich that it can count on. Also, was Monday maybe a bad day for such a concert? Was the PR effort insufficient? Or, was just the weather too bad?