Sunday, February 18, 2018

Women Performing Women at C4NM

Hubbard Quartet players Jamie Roberts, Klaudia Szlachta, Hyun Min Lee, and Laura Manko Sahin (photograph by Sedar Sahin, used with permission of the photographer)

Emma Logan has been directing her curatorial responsibilities at the Center for New Music (C4NM) towards providing more platforms for contributions by women to the new music scene. Last night she presented a quartet, all of whose members were women, playing a program of four works, one a West Coast premiere, all by female composers. The performing ensemble was the Hubbard Quartet, consisting of Jamie Roberts on oboe, Klaudia Szlachta on violin, Laura Manko Sahin on viola, and Hyun Min Lee on cello. The composer whose music was being premiered was Devree Lewis. The other composers were Julie Barwick, based in the Bay Area, Marilyn Zupnik, and the late Vivian Fine, who lived through over three-quarters of the twentieth century, during which time she was known primarily (if at all) by name, rather than by experiences of listening to her music. (Last night was the first time I ever heard one of her pieces; and, somewhat curiously, she wrote it in the year in which I was born.)

The members of the Hubbard Quartet first met in the summer of 2015. They were all teaching at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, and they all shared a house in Lennox. The name of the quartet came from the location of the house on Hubbard Street. Since that time they have dispersed to Boston, the District of Columbia, and San Francisco, which clearly limits the amount of time they can put into working as a group.

Fortunately, they know each other well enough to know how to use that time to its best advantage. They have a well-blended sound, which gives the impression that each member knows how to listen attentively to the other three. This is particularly critical given that one of the instruments is an oboe, so listening involves much more than what is required for chamber music among string players. Over the course of last night’s concert, there was really only one moment when intonation seemed somewhat off base; and that could just as easily have been a reflection on the composer as on the players.

More problematic is the question of how they can schedule their time to involve the composers whose music they have chosen to perform. Clearly, this was not an issue where Fine was concerned. However, Fine was on the faculty at Bennington College in Vermont; and it is entirely conceivable that the Hubbard players learned about her through their connections to Boston or Tanglewood. (I first learned about Fine when I was a student in New England.) It would not surprise me to learn that last night’s Fine selection, a capriccio for oboe and strings, was one of the first pieces they prepared back when they were living on Hubbard Street.

On the other hand it was hard to get a sense of how much connection had been established with any of the living composers. Last night’s performance left a general impression that the players were still finding their way through at least major sections of the scores they were performing, if not the composition in its entirety. The Zupnik quartet seemed to reflect the most comprehensive understanding, perhaps because the piece consisted of a single movement in four well-defined sections.

The Barwick and Lewis pieces were based on literary foundations, and it was in these pieces that execution seemed to be the most problematic. Barwick’s piece was based on the episode in Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude when Death visits Amaranta and orders her to sew her own shroud. This is, to milk the metaphor, but a single thread from the vast tapestry of magical realism that García Márquez wove to fashion a text capable of eliciting belly laughs and gasps of amazement at the same time. It took a lot of courage for Barwick to try to pluck one episode out of context; and, ultimately, she got no further than having interleaving rhythms evoke the process of sewing. However, this was the one piece in the evening that showed intonation problems, leaving me to wonder whether the author was more involved in the literary text than in the evocative potential of the string trio playing her music.

Lewis’ piece was actually an arrangement of a bandoneon solo by the Argentinian composer Emmanuel Trifilio. Trifilio called his piece “Luz de agosto,” naming it after William Faulkner’s novel Light in August. My guess is that he just liked the imagery and could have cared less about Faulkner’s surreal approach to melodrama set in the Deep South during the early twentieth century. One could definitely get a feel for the Argentinian rhetoric behind the music, but the Hubbard players left the impression that they were more wrapped up in the notes than in the raw sensuality of Trifilio’s music.

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