Women Trailblazers in Music: Film to Premiere at RIC

Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky — when thinking of great composers, there is no shortage of household names. It is unlikely, however, that many, if any that come to mind are female. Dr. Judith Lynn Stillman is remedying that imbalance. 

Stillman is a professor of music and RIC’s artist-in-residence and has been producing prolifically through the pandemic. The film of her quarantine opera, “Essential Business” which she composed towards the beginning of COVID-19, won first prize in the international OperaVision #OperaHarmony competition, and featured Metropolitan Opera star baritone Will Liverman. The film was also presented earlier this year at RIC. 

Most recently, Stillman was inspired to create a film about talented and inventive yet often forgotten female composers of the past.

“My talented mother and grandmother’s musical careers never took off in the male-dominated societies,” she said. “This propelled me to champion women composers who were repressed, undervalued, discouraged, and forgotten due to the politics of their existence.”

Women Trailblazers in Music: Noteworthy Composers, which premiers November 4 at Rhode Island College, depicts the extraordinary lives of these female composers across a span of twelve centuries and features their revolutionary compositions. Stillman cites her inspiration to create the film as part of her ongoing dedication to giving voices to the voiceless. The incredible ways these women changed music should have earned them recognition and acclaim, but instead, their music has been routinely forgotten when it should be lauded. Previously, she has also created projects addressing the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, refugees, artists of color, and the climate crisis. 

The film begins in Constantinople with the 9th century Byzantine composer Kassia. “She became an abbess, and that ensured the longevity of her music for twelve centuries,” Stillman said. “Hers was a calculated career choice. Many of her hymns are used in the Orthodox Church liturgy to this day.” 

She added, “Women composers had to be quite clever. For example, several of the featured composers [in the film] married music publishers to secure the survival of their music. Some adopted male pseudonyms. It took a lot of ingenuity.” 

She also emphasized the importance of recognizing Florence Price, another composer featured,and the first Black woman to have her compositions performed by a major symphony orchestra.

 “In Western music history, women were permitted to be the interpreters, but not the creators,” Stillman said. “They were not encouraged to pursue music professionally. Gender inequality has been rampant throughout the industry.” 

The world is still not close to redressing this historic imbalance, but progress is slowly being made. “The climate for female composers is still problematic as the dominance of male composers remains strong, but the tide is shifting. Slowly,” Stillman explained. “Statistics confirm that only a handful of male composers comprise the majority of all programming. We need to encourage and empower women and women composers and make a concerted — pun intended — effort to redress the historic imbalance and harness momentum for change. Many [women] should have earned a crucial place in Western history and should be household names, but are merely in the process of being fully recognized and celebrated.”

While COVID-19 caused difficulties in made producing the film challenging, it also gave her opportunities to build connections resulted in opportunities for building connections for Stillman. “The pandemic created the necessity for a remote platform,” Stillman said, which afforded me the opportunity to work with artists from all over North America. Los Angeles, Montreal, New York City, Chicago, Vancouver, Hartford, in addition to Boston and Providence. ,” says Stillman. She adds, “I am filled with so much gratitude to all my amazing colleagues who joined forces with me to be a part of this groundbreaking film and help bring the project to fruition.”

The film will premiere for the public on November 4th at 7:30 PM in Sapinsley Hall. Presented by FirstWorks and Artists & Activists Productions, it will be followed by a live concert featuring the works of both historical composers featured in the film and contemporary women composers as well. Admission is free, but registering for tickets in advance is mandatory because of social distancing and contact tracing protocols. Unregistered guests will not be admitted. Tickets can be obtained through the box office at Rhode Island College, by emailing boxoffice@ric.edu or calling (401) 456-8144.

Twist on a Classic: ENSEMBLE/PARALLAX premieres video and music works in their fifth season

Providence dwellers Peyman Farzinpour and his wife Nara Shahbazyan are the quintessential 21st century musicians. In addition to managing very busy performing and teaching schedules, Farzinpour and Shahbazyan are the co-founders of ENSEMBLE/PARALLAX, a New England music ensemble now in its fifth season.  

In its first four seasons, ENSEMBLE/PARALLAX commissioned and premiered more than two dozen compositions and multimedia works, as well as numerous US and regional premieres of new compositions. The group is considered a champion of original composition and video art premieres on the regional and national stage.

For their upcoming season, ENSEMBLE/PARALLAX will present three distinct programs of new music and original video art. Starting on September 26 at Sapinsley Hall at Rhode Island College, they will perform “Le voci sottovetro” and “Infinito Nero,” two works by Italian contemporary composer Salvatore Sciarrino, and a work by Patricia Alessandrini titled “Nachtgewâchse.” 

“This is a particularly captivating program, which we are very excited about,” says Farzinpour. “It not only encompasses the themes of night, darkness, silence and madness, but also connects the music of the crazy and brilliant late 16th century Italian composer Gesualdo da Venosa, which Sciarrino has captured brilliantly in his resetting of some of his madrigals with the intense music of Sciarrino himself and Patricia Alessandrini, and the multimedia created by German artist Wolfgang Lehmann is incredibly beautiful.”

Each concert is an immersive and intimate experience, and each piece of music is accompanied by a work of video art. 

“As far as I know, we are the only new music group in the world that is actively commissioning video artists for every single piece of music we perform,” Farzinpour explains. “In addition to commissioning new musical works, we commission a video artist to create something for each piece of music for every concert. The process is the opposite than that of film music, where the film footage exists first and the music follows. In our case the music exists first, and the film follows the music.” ENSEMBLE / PARALLAX reviews submissions from video artists worldwide as it seeks an artistically appropriate match for the piece in question. Sometimes the artist is present at a performance, other times the work is submitted remotely and the performance coordinated by a local video artist.

The program nearest to Farzinpour’s heart is their spring offering, which will be performed April 24, 2020 at McVinney Auditorium in PVD. This program features the chamber opera Island of Peoples by composer and Berklee professor Gabriele Vanoni, and a work by Farzinpour entitled “Intolleranza” – an homage to composer Luigi Nono’s opera “Intolleranza 1960.” 

“We premiered Island of Peoples last year in New York City with great success,” says Farzinpour. “Vanoni fashions the libretto after three immigrants who went to Ellis Island: a Jewish Holocaust survivor, an Armenian Genocide survivor and an Italian immigrant. He received the recorded interviews of these immigrants from the archives of the Ellis Island Museum and incorporated their stories right into the libretto. We feel this a very appropriate time for this piece, with respect to what is happening not just in this country, but in so many places around the world. And yet, when Gabriele and I first spoke about this collaboration, we agreed that we didn’t want to project any political angle; we leave it up to the audience to take away what they will.” Video artist Malo Lacroix was chosen to create the multimedia for this program.

Highlights of E/P’s fifth season include residencies at Syracuse University and Middlesex Community College, as well as performances in Providence, Boston, Philadelphia and at Brooklyn’s premiere contemporary music and multimedia venue, National Sawdust. 

ENSEMBLE / PARALLAX performs Thu, Sep 26 at 7pm at Sapinsley Hall at Rhode Island College. For more information, ensembleparallax.com

Orchestral Underpinnings: A classic autumn soundtrack

Yefim Bronfman

Autumn is a great time for classical music in New England. Giving way to fanfare and season openers, the 2019-20 season offers many opportunities to hear unique performances of obscure works as well as a healthy serving of familiar favorites. Read on to discover what’s happening this fall.

The Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra has one more free outdoor concert on September 14 at Slater Park in Pawtucket. After that, keep an eye out for the official season opener on September 28, where world renowned soloist Yefim Bronfman plays “Piano Concerto No. 2” by Johannes Brahms. Later in the season, on October 19, the orchestra will perform “The Planets” by Gustav Holst, featuring the Providence Singers. On November 16, one can hear Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” featuring soloist Anne-Marie McDermott, and the dark and ominous “Tenth Symphony” by Dmitri Shostakovich. For more information visit riphil.com

The Boston Symphony Orchestra offers different classical programs weekly. Starting on September 19, Andris Nelsons leads the orchestra in a program of music by Poulenc and Beethoven, and features a new commission by composer Eric Nathan. Little needs to be said about the BSO’s world class status and commitment to classical excellence. Just one hour from PVD, hearing these incredible pieces performed by this orchestra in one of the most acoustically perfect concert halls in the USA is well worth the price of a ticket. For more information visit bso.org

On Saturday, September 21, Odyssey Opera of Boston performs “Henry VIII” by Camille Saint-Saëns. First premiered in Paris in 1883, this work tells the story of King Henry VIII’s divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon. Odyssey Opera is known for presenting obscure opera in concert format — minus the sets and lighting, with all the music. Performed in French with English supertitles, this concert takes place at Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory, one of the region’s finest acoustic venues. For more information, visit odysseyopera.org

On Saturday, October 5, the Springfield Symphony Orchestra opens its season with Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 1,” featuring soloist John Novacek, and Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 8.” This is a gala concert commemorating SSO’s 76th anniversary season. On November 5, another concert features the music of Tchaikovsky, Brahms and a new work by acclaimed composer Missy Mazzoli. It turns out there’s more to Springfield than the Basketball Hall of Fame. For more information, visit springfieldsymphony.org

ENSEMBLE / PARALLAX presents an evening of contemporary music and short experimental films on Thursday, September 26 at Sapinsley Hall at Rhode Island College. This concert will feature works composed by Salvatore Sciarrino and Patricia Alessandrini, and features video artist Wolfgang Lehmann. ensembleparallax.com

On October 5 and 6, the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Yaniv Dinur, opens its season with a concert titled “Mozart and Mahler,” featuring Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 4” and Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 20.” Dinur will serve as both conductor and soloist. This ambitious program may be well worth the trip out along route 195. nbsymphony.org

On October 11 through 13, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra opens its season with a program of American music, including George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Leonard Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide” and Aaron Copland’s “Symphony No. 3.” On November 2 they will perform the music of John Williams from the film Raiders of the Lost Ark as live accompaniment to the screened movie. All performances take place at the Bushnell Center in Hartford, Conn. hartfordsymphony.org

On Saturday, October 26, the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Toshi Shimada, performs Antonin Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” and Tchakovsky’s “Violin Concerto” with soloist Solomiya Ivakhiv. Performing at the Garde Arts Center in New London, this group is a cultural gem in the middle of nowhere. ectsymphony.com

In addition to their ongoing collaborations with the Rhode Island Philharmonic, The Providence Singers will present Gabriel Fauré’s “Requiem” and James Whitbourn’s “Luminosity” on November 9 at McVinney Auditorium. They are one of the finest choirs in all of New England, based right here in PVD. providencesingers.org

This Season’s a Classic!: Get a little culture in your life, will ya’?

For classical music lovers, there are some great events to look forward to over the next few months. Here’s what’s coming up for summer 2019:

The 2018 Music On The Hill festival presents seven concerts of chamber music from June 2-12 at various locations throughout the state, including Cranston, Warwick and Westerly. For more information:  musiconthehillri.org

The Chorus of Westerly presents its free summer pops concert on Saturday, June 22 in Wilcox Park at 8pm. This family-friendly concert is always a good time. For more information: chorusofwesterly.org

The Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra kicks of its summer pops concerts at Narragansett Town Beach on July 12. This free concert repeats two other times: September 1 at Independence Park in Bristol, and September 14 at Slater Park in Pawtucket. For more information visit riphilharmonic.org

The Newport Music Festival presents more than 40 concerts of chamber music from July 4 to 28. The wide variety in programming promises to keep any music fan coming back for more, not to mention the unique setting of chamber music in and around Newport’s historic mansions. For more information visit newportmusic.org

The 30th annual Kingston Chamber Music Festival presents a series of six concerts July 24 through August 4 at the University of Rhode Island. For more information visit kingstonchambermusic.org

To the north, The Boston Landmarks Orchestra presents free outdoor concerts at DCR Hatch Memorial Shell, Wednesday evenings starting on July 17. For more information: landmarksorchestra.org

Further north are two festivals worth considering in New Hampshire. The 54th Monadnock Music Festival generally runs mid-June through mid-August. The New Hampshire Music Festival runs July 11 through August 1. For anyone vacationing in New Hampshire, these festivals are a wonderful addition to your itinerary. For information on these festivals: monadnockmusic.org and nhmf.org

To the south, The Talcott Mountain Music Festival featuring the Hartford Symphony Orchestra performs outdoor concerts on Fridays, June 28 through July 26. For more information: hartfordsymphony.org/concerts-tickets/series/talcott-mountain-music-festival

For die-hard classical music fans, Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Mass, remains the epicenter of classical music in New England over the summer months. The season features regular concerts by the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops orchestras, the Festival of Contemporary Music, as well as various pop and jazz artists. This year’s guest artists include Emmanuel Ax, Renée Fleming, The Emerson String Quartet, Stefan Jackiw, Jeremy Denk, Paul Lewis, Lara Downes, Joshua Bell, Pinchas Zukerman, Amanda Forsyth and Yefim Bronfman. For more information, see the schedule at bso.org