'The Sweetest in the Gale': The Oratorio Chorale Women sing in Falmouth, Brunswick
by Christopher Hyde
It is an article of faith among feminists that the reason there have been no women composers among the ranks of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, is because they were so severely limited by the mores of their times, some even having to resort to male pseudonyms to have their work published at all.
The recent concert of Emily Isaacson’s new women’s chorus, “Sweetest in the Gale,” at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, made a strong case for this view.
While every work on the program, in chronological order from Hildegard of Bingen to Gwyneth Walker, was written by a woman, and all were beautifully sung, the quality of the compositions seemed to improve as their writers began to shake off the shackles of male domination.
The final works on the program, “Three Heavens and Hells,” by Meredith Monk (b. 1942) and “Love is a Rain of Diamonds,” by Gwyneth Walker (b. 1947), are masterpieces that excel most of what I have heard from contemporary male composers of choral music.
The concert was led by assistant conductor Mark Rossnagel rather than Isaacson, who is expecting the birth of her second child this week.
None of the above implies that the earlier works were not masterpieces, although it was hard to tell about Clara Schumann’s Nocturne, Opus 6, No. 2, which accompanist Derek Herzer had to play on an electric piano. Having tried to do something similar, after being used to a real grand piano, I can testify that making anything at all of the score was a minor miracle.
Soprano Mary Sullivan was in rare form in three display pieces that I had not heard before, all of them works of high drama and fiendish difficulty. The first, like Bernini’s sculpture of St. Theresa in ecstasy, is enough to make a normal concert goer blush. It was written by Augusta Holmes (1847-1903), setting verses by St. Teresa of Avila, in which she “dramatically reimagines her intense and transporting encounter with God, which builds to a climax of ecstasy.” Shades of the Tantra.
The second, with members of the chorus, was “Les sirènes” by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), who might have rivaled Debussy had she lived longer. It is equally erotic, but in a more classical way. One can hear how the seductive immortals might have tempted Ulysses.
The obligatory Amy Beach (1867-1944) came in the form of a charming “Through the house give glimmering light,” Op. 39, No. 3, reminiscent of bird song, with some unusual and well-done sforzando stops.
Sullivan returned for a heart wrenching rendition of “Anne Boleyn,” from “Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII,” by Libby Larsen (b. 1950). Needless to say, in spite of her eloquent pleading, she does not get her wish and hopes that the executioner knows his job.
I have already mentioned the final works on a short but brilliant program. “Three heaven and hells” has everything a modern choral work should have, but usually doesn’t. A round is illustrated by a round dance of the singers. The words generate the music, instead of being accompanied by them, and the little details, such as a singer in a monotone totally off key, are both fitting and remarkable. The entire thing, based on a poem by an 11 year old boy, is delightful and make one ponder the corollary of Sartre’s dictum that “Hell is other people.”
“Love Is a Rain of Diamonds,” setting a poem by May Swensen, exudes sure joy, and resulted in a standing ovation from the capacity audience.
Sweetest in the Gale (from “Hope Is a Thing with Feathers,” by Emily Dickinson), is a group of 20 auditioned sopranos and altos formed by Emily Isaacson and the Oratorio Chorale last Fall. After Sunday’s concert one hopes to hear more from them.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.