Today was the first day of the Tenth Annual Festival of Women in Music at the Eastman School of Music (Rochester, NY).  The Festival was founded and is organized by pianist and Eastman Faculty member Sylvie Beaudette.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but to my knowledge, Eastman is the only major music conservatory to have such a festival.  There are other festivals that feature female composers, women in music, etc. etc. but they are not hosted by institutions as prominent or influential as Eastman.  It is all Beaudette’s doing, to make it happen, and to have it be such a positive presence at the School.  As the Dean of Eastman, Jamal J. Rossi, writes (in the festival program), the Festival “has turned into one of our major events.  It is a wonderful example of the impact that one person can have on an entire community, thanks to her vision, commitment, passion and expertise.”

The festival began not with fanfare or speeches, but rather with poetry, and poetry was woven into the program, leading to some unexpected connections and layers of meaning.  Yet, oddly, the poets of the sung works were not named, so it was only later that I learned that the first work, “This Morning,” by Gwyneth Walker, was to a text by Lucile Clifton.  Its opening words, “Hey, girl!” were a compelling opening (to the piece, concert, and festival).  Sung a cappella by the Women’s Chorus of Eastman and the Univ. of Rochester, it was full of jubilant exclamations and descriptions, and performed with precision and energy.

The choir’s next piece was composed by Eleanor Daley, to a poem by W.B. Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Innistree.”  Although Daley is a living composer, from its accessible, warm style we might guess it have been composed in Yeats’ lifetime.  The choir was mostly unison, supported by an accompanying piano.  These two contrasting works were both interesting selections, and the choir, conducted by Allison Thorpe (in the Walker) and Renata Dworak (the Daley) was outstanding.

While the printed program provided biographical notes on the composers, there were no program notes about the music. But of course it’s hard to coordinate all the details for a week’s worth of events.  Two works from Chen Yi’s China West Suite (for two pianos) followed.  “Meng Songs” was really not a good choice for the venue.  Lowry Hall is not a performance space, but a passageway and lobby, and all kinds of ambient noise competed for our attention, as the pensive, solemn chords descended, alternating with higher questioning gestures. On the other hand, “Miao Dances” were ideal as the propulsive bouncing rhythms and driving repeated chords grabbed our attention.  Yi-wen Chang and Shiyu Wang played with energy and precision.

The selections from the Finnish composer Tellu Turkka’s “Enkelit” were powerful; this is a work I want to hear in full and study in detail.  It was performed by the Eastman Vocal Chamber Ensemble, led by Dworak.  The text is cryptic and mythic: a mother whose twins have mysteriously died, and whose souls need to be released.  The vocal ensemble created a complex emotional landscape through all sorts of wordless accompaniments—throbbing single notes and longer ostinati that gradually layered with accompaniment patterns and developing melodic ideas. Expansive texted melodies were also layered, doubled at a two-octave distance.

The first soloist from within the ensemble was striking and expressive, I thought I should get her name so I could praise her.  But then the next soloist was also arresting, and the next, too.  As solos were exchanged, I realized the whole choir is made up of excellent solo voices (13 of them), but they blended beautifully as a choir—they were able to function in these different roles of soloist and choir member.  In one section, individual singers were required to laugh in different ways—chortling, cackling, guffawing—over the continuing backdrop of intricate repeating melodic ideas.  This was a unique effect, and part of the magical spell of the piece.

Jon Lin Chua’s “White Moon,” (for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano) was inspired by poems by Sylvia Plath.  In turn, poet Kathleen Nicastro wrote her poem that she read, inspired by the titles of Chua’s movements, 1.  The Night Dances, Dulling and Stilling, 2. The Warm Mist of your Sleep, and 3. Ariel.  Chua’s work can be heard on Soundcloud, here, with the same excellent performers; I recommend it.  The musical language ranges from stark, spare and hushed to lush, soaring chromaticism, to vigorous pentatonic arpeggios.  It builds to an exciting, percussive ending.

Margaret Bond’s settings of Three Dream Portraits by Langston Hughes are iconic portrayals of the African-American experience (or it seems to me they should be).   Stephan Hernandez (tenor) gave moving and memorable performances, with Jewon Jeong, piano.

Finally were two selections from a new work of musical theatre, Learning How to Drown with music by Amanda Jacobs, and lyrics by Jacobs and Patricia Noonan.  These were lovely songs, sung with real flair by Alicia Ault (soprano and Matthew Moisey (tenor), although I felt we needed more context of the story to understand the second one, “Drowning” (and if you didn’t know about the legend of the silkie/selkie you were really out of luck).

With a program of strong works by seven composers and a range of great ensembles, the festival was off to a thrilling and engaging start!