She’s the First

To celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, Boston Landmarks Orchestra under conductor Christopher Wilkins invited Boston-born and Berklee-trained saxophonist Grace Kelly to join in last night’s outing of music composed by women.

Kelly’s own “Every Road I Walked” started things with her saxophone and the distanced, masked musicians (except for brass and winds) of the orchestra. This 2016 composition is a jazz inflected number incorporating various stylistic riffs, at times with the intimacy of a small jazz ensemble and at times the expansiveness of a cinematic score.

Ethel Smyth’s (1858 – 1944), “Two Interlinked French Melodies” excerpted from the British composer’s 1926 opera, Entente cordiale, here presented in an orchestra setting with Katherine Chan conducting, returned to more classical fare. A bouncing dance tune alternates with a lush, late Romantic melody; this excerpt bodes well for the entire opera, which I have not heard. Chan and the orchestra continued with Smyth, “The March of the Women,” a serious and inspiring anthem which is upbeat but not rousing and features a catchy theme.

From Britain we turned to Boston with Smyth’s coeval compatriot, Amy Beach (1867 – 1944) and her “Two Browning Songs.” Unlike the orchestral “Three Browning Songs,” op. 44, these had not been orchestrated until the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy Fund engaged Chris A. Trotman to do so. Soprano Brianna J. Robinson sang beautifully and expansively; I regret not having the texts at hand to elucidate Beach’s compositional genius, even as I greatly enjoyed Robinson’s singing.

In a 2003 Boston Landmarks Orchestra commission, composer Nkeiru Okoye wrote a narrated work for children, “The Journey of Phillis Wheatley.” With Wilkins holding the baton, we heard solely musical (i.e., non-narrated) excerpts from this work memorializing the early Boston poet. Writing in a more contemporary idiom (which I could characterize as 21st-century Samuel Barber, to invoke a point of comparison familiar to readers of this site), Okoye captures the range of influences which mark the poetic career of Phillis Wheatley, African rhythms and polyrhythms join European harmonies and the whole melds into a testament of the human spirit and its indomitable desire for self-expression.

Soprano Synthia Pullum pre-recorded the aria “I am Harriet Tubman, Free Woman” from Okoye’s opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed that Line to Freedom from her home in Japan and the orchestra performed live accompaniment. Pullum gave a strong and impassioned reading.

Florence Price’s ‘Calvary’ from Five Folksongs in Counterpoint is the first movement of a string quartet premièred at Carey Temple Church in 1951; the music languished in the University of Arkansas Public Library until found and transcribed by Apollo Chamber Players in 2015 (and that is, I believe, the version heard here). The orchestra gave an accomplished and assured reading of this Lenten-tide hymn, which managed to be both somber and uplifting. As with Price’s music more generally, we can all regret that she was neglected for so long.

Continuing the theme of Price, we heard from Francine Trester’s Florence Comes Home, an opera setting a biographical sketch written by Price: “Painter of Landscapes.” Robinson pre-recorded the vocal line and the orchestra once more live-synced; she was stellar in this song and I look forward to hearing more.

The scene at Futura

Two tunes from Valerie Coleman, “Portraits of Josephine” — “Ole St. Louis” and “Thank you Josephine” celebrated the divine Joesphine Baker. Albeit performed well, these songs gave a more staid portrait of Baker than we picture from her immortal performance clips. I wonder if a third song from Coleman might have given a more rounded portrait of the titulaire.

Grace Kelly’s song, “She’s the First,” with the composer singing, playing saxophone, and backed by the orchestra provided the closer. Written as the anthem for She’s the First — a nonprofit taking a holistic approach to centering and empowering girls the globe over it gave a rousing conclusion.

Unlike other virtual concerts of recent days, this one combined content from different locations. Filmed live from Futura Productions in Roslindale, the show interspliced clips pre-recorded at sites on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail and vivid historical narration from Kelly. This cut down on the dead time between pieces as musicians reset. I regret that the visuals for Pullum’s performance of “I am Harriet Tubman” cut back and forth; I would have preferred a split-screen approach here. While the pre-recorded vocals were unavoidable in several instances, I do miss the thrill of a locked-in live performance here. Bringing and electronic version of Pullum in from Japan makes for quite a perk of these quarantine times, as does my discovery of the fabulous Robinson, so thanks for these offerings to us all at home.

View on YouTube HERE.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra