Here's the review of the latest Women's Philharmonic concert from the San
Thwarted Composer's Intense Work
Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Monday, March 27, 2000
The history of music contains all too many cases of gifted women
thwarted by gender politics. But few are as complex and fascinating
as that of Amy Beach, whose Piano Concerto got a brilliant performance
Saturday night by JoAnne Polk and the Women's Philharmonic. A child
prodigy as a pianist and composer, the young Amy Marcy Cheney found
her musical life curtailed after her marriage at 18 to a conservative
and much older Boston doctor transformed her into Mrs. H.H.A. Beach.
She continued to compose, but married life restricted her contacts
with the musical world and cut her concert career almost to nil.
The Piano Concerto, which she premiered with the Boston Symphony
Orchestra in 1900, represented one of her rare public appearances,
and there's no mistaking the piece's emotional urgency or its air of
making up for lost time.
Its four movements are packed with incident -- beautifully shaped
melodies (several of them drawn from her songs), a forthright rhythmic
profile and a vivacious and sometimes contentious interplay between
soloist and orchestra. The piano part is as flashy and demanding as
a virtuoso vehicle calls for, but there is also an element of poignancy
about it -- a sense of constraint that seems to shadow even the work's
most extroverted passages.
For 1900, the concerto is a fairly conservative work stylistically
-- Beach's models are the midcentury showpieces of Chopin and Liszt,
as well as Tchaikovsky's First Concerto, which she would have heard
in Boston. But it is hard to resist the inventiveness or emotional
subtlety of her writing.
Polk, who is in the midst of recording Beach's complete piano works
for the Arabesque label, combined with music director Apo Hsu in an
enormously vital, imaginative reading. Her playing was expansive in
the opening movement, brittle and keen in the delightful scherzo.
She brought a light touch to the foreshortened slow movement and
fearless technical panache to the showy conclusion.
The concert at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts also featured two
works by the African American composer Florence Price, who died in
1953. "The Oak," a broad and wonderfully dark tone poem, and "The
Mississippi River Suite" both date from about 1934, although the
historical details of both are sketchy -- Saturday may even have
marked the world premiere of "The Oak."
It is, on first hearing, by far the more interesting of the two, a
gleaming and slow-moving stretch of music whose thick orchestration
may owe something to Price's career as an organist. Built around a
few distinctive melodies, the piece proceeds with unassailable grandeur
"The Mississippi River Suite" is what its title says -- a collection
of familiar tunes (including "Go Down Moses," "Deep River" and "Nobody
Knows de Trouble I've Seen") stitched into a sort of musical quilt.
The orchestration is often ingenious, and Price combines the melodies
in surprising ways, but the overall effect is still rather thin.
The most affecting moment was principal cellist Nina Flyer's lustrous
solo rendition of "Deep River," answered by concertmaster Iris Stone.
The world premiere of Jennifer Higdon's zippy, enchanting "Fanfare
Ritmico" started the concert off with a bang. Written for the
orchestra as one of a series of commissioned fanfares, Higdon's score
is a brisk, sharp-edged concoction, full of rhythmic pizzazz and
blunt orchestral writing (aside from one splendidly played solo for
the concertmaster). Hsu led the orchestra in a magnificent performance.
Five world premieres, including concertos by Nina Kotova and Chen Yi
and fanfares by Libby Larsen and Margaret Brouwer, are among the
highlights of the Women's Philharmonic's 2000-01 season.
The season under music director Apo Hsu begins September 30 with
Kotova as soloist in her Cello Concerto. Brouwer's Fanfare and her
Symphony No. 1, "Lake Voices," are also on the program.
The November 24 concert will feature Linda Tillery and the Cultural
Heritage Choir. Terrie Baune will be soloist for Yi's Violin Concerto
on March 10.
The season concludes May 13, 2001, with Melinda Wagner's Flute Concerto
(Bonita Boyd, soloist). Call (415) 437-0123 or visit