Luisi, Dallas Symphony fete a trio of neglected women composers

Sun Nov 06, 2022 at 1:24 pm
By Richard Sylvester Oliver
Lise de la Salle performed Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor with Fabio Luisi and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Friday night. Photo: Lynn Goldsmith

The threat of squall may have deterred a few attendees from the Meyerson Symphony Center Friday evening, but did little to hamper the Dallas Symphony Orchestra from presenting a gorgeous concert. Presented ahead of its fourth annual Women in Classical Music Symposium next week, the program featured three neglected works by women composers, led by DSO music director Fabio Luisi with guest pianist Lise de la Salle.

It is a powerful thing to experience Julia Perry’s Study for Orchestra, when one considers the daunting imposition of her social status—a black woman composer in the mid-20th-century United States. Though the breadth of her contributions to the canon has, until recently, been all but banished to obscurity, the truth of her talent is unassailable. Kudos to the DSO for bringing this work into its deserved relevance.

Composed in 1952, Perry’s seven-minute work utilizes a symmetrical structure, with a central theme that is vigorous in tempo and angsty in mood. Luisi’s stern direction drew tight, dissonant cohesion between strings, winds and horns with energetic punctuations by syncopated brass chords.

The contrasting material, carried predominantly by winds and French horn, was edgy yet lyrical. The ensemble effectively captured the alternation between the  raucous, pensive, and eerie temperaments before a return to the thunderous principal theme closed the piece.

Following Perry’s work in beautiful contrast was Clara Wieck Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. Another case of oft-overlooked prolificity, Clara Schumann was an incredible prodigy on par with Mozart. She reached international acclaim as a concert pianist before even reaching puberty, at a time when her future husband Robert was still struggling to achieve his own fame as a composer and critic. She remains one of few women composers from her time who managed to emancipate themselves from the sex discrimination of the field, despite enduring claims that her husband was the real composer behind her work. In fact, she would at one point prove to be the dominate provider for the Schumann household.

She began initial sketches of her Piano Concerto at the age of 13 and premiered the work three years later. It is structurally adventurous and technically virtuosic, suffused with through-composed melodic themes spread across three seamless movements.

De la Salle handled the improvisatory style demanded by the score ably. Her phrasing was poetic, waxing and waning in heft while maintaining a gorgeous balance of color. She answered the stately opening ensemble theme with deft flourishes and bold octaves before unfurling the first theme in full. Balance between the soloist and orchestra, though, was not always even, as de la Salle’s dynamic elasticity surprisingly covered accompanying strings.

The endearing second movement saw a sublime exchange between piano and solo cello, performed by DSO principal Christopher Adkins, before transitioning to the energetic final movement. Here, de la Salle’s elaborate filigree was met appropriately by the DSO, sometimes as foil, sometimes as filler.

The second half of the program offered Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3 in G minor. In addition to the inherent gender discriminations of the time, her path to prominence was hindered by the general systemic problems of French musical life. Orchestras for hire were scarce, to the point that most French composers focused their intentions away from symphonic works in favor of other genres, like opera. Still, Farrenc managed to obtain a prestigious professorship at the Paris Conservatoire, a position she would hold for 30 years as the only woman under its employ in the entire century.

Farrenc’s Third Symphony was her last completed orchestral work, premiering in 1849. It falls in the lineage of Beethoven, structured in the traditional sonata-aria-scherzo/trio-finale arrangement. After a slow and brief introduction, the DSO erupted into the Allegro with an overzealous tempo. Though rhythmic cohesion between sections was not always consistent, the earworm that is the powerful first theme was stated in unison strings, and abrupt metric shifts navigated capably. Luisi did well to pull out sophisticated harmonies through Farrenc’s inventive exploration of key areas that transitioned one theme to the next.

The second movement Arioso saw gorgeous passages traded between winds and strings. Clean, flittering trills in first violins provided the third movement scherzo a dancing, delicate touch, contrasted by a hypermetric trio.

The final movement was full of thematic material, opening with energetic dance-like rhythms. Luisi’s expressive gesturing yielded lovely dynamic swells and skillful precision on rapid descending phrases, bringing the work to a broad, dramatic close.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday.

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