A curious musical adventure

12 August 2023

WAAPA provides a rare opportunity to hear the work of women composers from across the centuries. Will Yeoman is captivated.

Celebrating Women Composers, WAAPA Performance Program 
Richard Gill Auditorium, 10 August 2023 

“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice. We’ll hear more from that plucky adventurer in Wonderland anon. But right now, here we are at the beginning of our own wonderous adventure: through the land of women composers and their music, courtesy of the classical music students and staff of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. 

Music director Stewart Smith is our avuncular guide and occasional pianist for the evening, setting the stage with a familiar question (and I paraphrase): why is so much of the classical music we listen to written by dead white males? 

Fair point. Especially given the quality of the music on offer here. These women composers are by no means forgotten or silenced voices. But their works probably won’t appear in ABC Classic’s Top 100 any time in the future. 

Well, maybe that’s yet to be seen with young WAAPA student and composer Martha Bird. Certainly if her work for marimba and vibraphone, Subdue, is anything to go by. Bird (marimba) and fellow student Maddie Colvin (vibes) hit the groove not just with mallets but, in Colvin’s case, a bow, opening a shimmering sonic curtain for what’s to follow. 

What immediately follows is both ancient and freshly contemporary, with soprano Eleanor Edwards and Smith on piano taking us back to medieval France with a magical modern arrangement of trobairitz (female troubadour) Beatritz de Dia’s A chanter m’er de so qu’eu no volria (“I must sing of that which I do not want”). 

Why is so much of the classical music we listen to written by dead white males?

Schubert’s Erlkönig is the best-known setting of Goethe’s dark tale of the Erlking’s pursuit of a young boy and his father’s ultimately fruitless attempt to save him. Soprano Emily Davis and pianist Caleb Fanciulli, however, introduce us to a different if equally dramatic setting: that by Emillie Mayer (1821-1883). 

By contrast, Liebeszauber (Love’s Magi) and Ich hab’in deinem Auge (“I saw in your eyes) by Clara Schumann (1819-1096), sung by soprano Sarah Gannon and accompanied by Smith on piano, are more lyrical, rarified, redolent of Clara’s husband Robert’s song cycle Frauen-Liebe und Leben (A Woman’s Love and Life). 

Sophie Menter (1846-1918) was one of Franz Liszt’s greatest pupils and extraordinarily famous in her day. Not to mention prosperous: she was able to buy a castle (and, incidentally, fill its grounds with at least 50 cats!).  

Here, pianist and Liszt scholar Nicholas Williams gives us a taste of Menter’s style and virtuosity with two contrasting works: the Romance, Op.5 and Petite Walse, Op.7. Both exhibit the influence of Listz without being derivative. 

Like Liszt, Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) was a great teacher, and could boast having both Frank Zappa and David Tunley as students. Cellist Camille Lalande, with Smith on piano, performs Boulanger’s Trois Pièces, affording an insight into a refined musical language, at times recalling that of Ravel, Fauré and Cesar Franck. 

If pianist Jordan Proctor is asking a question with still-living composer Laurie Spiegel’s hypnotic piece for one hand, The Unquestioned Answer (a reference to composer Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question), it’s answered in the also very much alive Unsuk Chin’s wacky, delightful Who am I. This hugely entertaining work riffs off Lewis Carroll’s Alice and her encounter with a bottle labelled “Drink Me” and a jar of cookies labelled “Eat Me” and is performed with suitable theatricality by the outlandishly attired Charis Postmus (soprano), with Smith on piano. 

Ending our journey not in darkness but in light is the Symbiosis Quartet (Grace Kay, Andrea Jordan-Kean, Joshua Sumich, Blake Faulkner) performing part of From Darkness into Light by Barbara Thomson (1944-2022).  

The sound of four soprano saxophones is unusual but welcome: a fitting celebration, like this marvellous concert, of the female voice. 

For more WAAPA performances, see the academy’s 2023 program. 

Pictured top: The Symbiosis Quartet brings the celebration of female composers to a close. Photo supplied

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Author —
Will Yeoman

Will Yeoman was literary editor at The West Australian before moving into arts and travel, and is now CEO of Writing WA, as well as artistic director of York Festival. Previously he was artistic director of New Norcia Writers Festival and Perth Festival Writers Week. He is a regular music critic for Limelight and Gramophone magazines and a keen classical guitarist who enjoys collaborating on spoken word and music performances. He favours the flying fox.

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