5 Questions to Christina Petrowska Quilico (pianist)

Christina Petrowska Quilico has a career that is unparalleled among Canadian pianists. She has long been an authoritative interpreter of 20th and 21st century music, and an equally accomplished performer of common practice period repertoire, appearing at prestigious venues and with noted ensembles on four continents. She has premiered hundreds of new works including 20 piano concertos, and recorded more than 50 CDs, four of them nominated for Canada’s Juno Awards. Petrowska Quilico is a Juilliard graduate who was trained in the grand Russian and European traditions, studied at the Sorbonne, and with composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gyorgy Ligeti. She has also trained generations of pianists as a professor at York University in Toronto.

Throughout her career, Petrowska Quilico has championed the music of contemporary women composers, most notably Ann Southam (1937-2010), as well as other fellow Canadians Larysa Kuzmenko, Alexina Louie, Heather Schmidt, Kati Agócs and Ana Sokolovic. On November 16, Fleur de Son (Naxos) will release Global Sirens, a CD of works composed between the early 20th century and the present by women from eight different countries. On the album, Petrowska Quilico covers a broad spectrum of styles including romantic, impressionist, twelve-tone, minimalist, ragtime, folk and leading edge. We spoke to her about the forthcoming release.

Can you describe some of the process of selecting and preparing the program for Global Sirens, and how you brought together so many different periods and styles as a single listening experience?

Many younger women composers today are enjoying careers internationally. New music concerts and festivals are encouraging performances and world premieres. However, in the past, this has not been the case. Many women composers in the Romantic era and 20th century have been neglected. The collection of pieces in Global Sirens is a mere drop in the ocean of outstanding music by many forgotten composers.

I chose short works to include as many composers as possible in hopes that the music would inspire listeners to search for more repertoire by these women. I also wanted to present different styles to offer a range from twelve-tone music, romantic, ragtime, and contemporary. The order is intended to make the entire CD like one fluid piece. For example, I begin with a slow waltz by Ilse Fromm-Michaels and finish near the end of the CD with Meredith Monk’s St. Petersburg Waltz. I also play her Railroad (travel song) because the program has been a journey around the globe from Germany, South Africa, USA, Canada, Russia, Italy, Australia and France. The very last piece is a rag by Adaline Shepherd. One of her very popular rags, “Pickles and Peppers” was used by William Jennings Bryan for his 1908 presidential campaign. This rag sold 200,000 copies in 1908, but she retired from composing after her marriage. Scott Joplin wasn’t the only composer of rags at that time.

Some of the pieces in Global Sirens are aggressive, like the very quick piece by Barbara Heller. Others are melodious and emotional like Lili Boulanger’s Un vieux jardin. I selected Ada Gentile’s Preludio for Chopin, an atmospheric and unique “take” on the music of Chopin. Else Schmitz-Gohr’s Elegie for the Left Hand is a clever work, and people always ask whether I really play it with only the left hand. There is a certain intensity that comes with a performance with only one hand, and I wanted to remain true to the score. South Africa’s Priaulx Rainier’s Barbaric Dance reminded me of Bartok, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky. This is a contrast to the more nuanced and stylized French works by Germaine Tailleferre and Cécile Chaminade. Lotte Backes’ work Slow sounded like a movie from the 1940s that takes place on some tropical island, whereas Chilan by Susanne Erding is moody, atmospheric, and dark. Larysa Kuzmenko from Canada and Peggy Glanville-Hicks from Australia are represented by very melodic and wistful pieces. That leaves Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté from Canada, Russia and France, who wrote a beautiful and romantic Nocturne that connects musically with the Preludio for Chopin. The wonderful travel pieces to St. Petersburg and Paris by Meredith Monk reflect this Global journey.

Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk

The culture of classical music is undergoing an upheaval by way of addressing the inequities and mistreatment women have experienced in the workplace. What about Global Sirens might reflect how women in music have responded to these challenges through their art?

Several composers from Global Sirens had extreme difficulties in having their music performed, either for religious reasons during WWII or discrimination due to their gender. There have been so many women from the past who were stopped from having their works performed. For example, Fanny Mendelssohn wrote many works, but was discouraged by her father. The attention was on Felix, but who knows what Fanny may have written with more support? Clara Schumann also wrote many pieces, but felt insecure about her worth as a composer and became known for her performances of Robert Schumann’s pieces.

There are so many women composers of symphonies and operas in the Romantic era who are not performed as much as they should be. Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) wrote at least three symphonies, as did Alice Mary Smith, Emelie Meyer, Marie Jaell, Ethel Smyth, Amy Beach and Florence B. Price, an African American whose Symphony won an award. When I play these works for my classes without telling them the name of the composer, they always answer Brahms, Schumann, Liszt, or Chopin. What a surprise when they learn that it was a woman composer! A list of little-known women composers from only the Romantic era is below. There is a long list from earlier: Barbara Strozzi, Hildegard von Bingen, and countless others.

Compositions by women have been a constant in your repertoire, and your own work has directly contributed to improving the situation for women in your field. In what ways do you think the changing landscape might have influenced repertoire composed by women more recently?

I hope that in some small way, I have contributed to having students and audiences realize that there is an enormous repertoire by women composers from every era. I have tried to program women’s piano concertos as much as possible. I am happy to say that three of my Juno nominations were for women’s compositions. Larysa Kuzmenko’s piano concerto, which she wrote for me and I performed with the Toronto and Winnipeg Symphonies, was nominated for a Juno Award (Canadian equivalent of the Grammy). She is currently writing me another piano concerto, which will be a piano/violin duo concerto to be premiered in 2019. Heather Schmidt’s 2nd piano concerto, which I performed with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, was also a Juno nominee in a subsequent year. I encouraged several conductors and was delighted that I was able to perform her 3rd and 4th piano concertos with orchestra, as well.

I performed Alexina Louie’s piano concerto with the National Arts Centre and Esprit Orchestras. A CD of mine featuring Alexina Louie’s Star-filled Night was debuted in outer space on a voyage with Canadian astronaut Steve McLean who took it on board the Challenger. Violet Archer, one of the Grand Dames of Canadian music, had written a piano concerto, which I performed with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra, with conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner. The third of four Juno nominations went to my CD of Glass Houses Revisited by Ann Southam. I have been championing her work for 30 years. Last month, my seventh CD, Soundspinning by Ann Southam, was released. I had recorded her Rivers (2 CDs), Pond Life (2 CDs) and Glass Houses (2 CDs). In addition, I performed her works on many compilation CDs.

Composer Ann Southam

Composer Ann Southam (photo courtesy of Dance Collection Danse)

I believe that there is a change in the acceptance of women composers today. There is so much more to be done, but I am convinced that small steps that were taken are paying off. Twenty years ago, I recorded a CD of Romantic Gems and included Agathe Backer Grondahl, Amy Beach, Teresa Carreno, Wanda Landowska, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and Maria Szymanowska, along with Rachmaninoff and Liszt, among others. The nocturne by Szymanowska (1789-1831) is lovely and reminds us that Chopin and Field weren’t the only ones writing nocturnes at the time. I have performed many works by women composers today–Kati Agocs, Ana Sokolovic, Kelly-Marie Murphy, Diana McIntosh, Alexina Louie, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, to list only a few. I do hope my CDs that include women composers have influenced young pianists to research these works. I am very encouraged to say that in my classes today, the students have very little gender bias and listen with open ears and hearts only to the quality of works.

How have your audiences changed over the years in terms of their receptiveness to contemporary music by living composers?

I think I just answered that question. The younger audiences are very accepting and receptive to music. The question they ask is whether the music is good or bad. However, it is still difficult to program new music in mainstream venues as a pianist. New works are performed in new music venues or festivals. I like to mix 20th century music with new so that mainstream audiences can participate in the new creations. Much of the new music written today seems very romantic, tonal, or atmospheric. However, if I play Boulez, Stockhausen, Cowell, Cage, or other giants of the past, the music seems very edgy in comparison to many composers today. Edgard Varèse or the Italian futurists also seem quite modern. I believe that we need to include more variety in concerts and education so that performers, students, and young composers can learn from the past as well as the present.

Christina Petrowska Quilico

Christina Petrowska Quilico–Photo by Bo Huang

What key advice would you give to young composers who may not be pianists but want to write for the instrument?

Young composers who want to write for the piano should always consult a pianist. I have worked many times with composers, and it is an enriching experiencing for both composer and pianist. There are always issues of fingering, pedalling, and how the inside of the piano works. I remember so many times that a composer wrote something that needed plucking of strings, and I couldn’t get my hands under the bars. The composer had written the piece on his own piano, and the steel bars were differently placed. I have played with ping pong balls on the piano strings, weather stripping, guitar picks, paper clips, thimble, ebow, screws, metal chains, hammers, drum sticks, and many other oddities. Unusual and quirky ideas are wonderful, but unexpected sounds might not be in the best interest of the performance.

My best advice would be to work on the piece with a pianist so that the performance doesn’t include unexpected surprises for both pianist and composer. The music should always be first, and anything that helps us realize the composer’s intent is our number one priority.

List of little-known women composers from the Romantic era

Amersfoordt-Dyk (Dijk) Hermina Maria,  1821 – 1892
Arkwright,  Marian Ursula, 1863-1922
Barns,  Ethel, 1874-1948
Le Beau,  Louise Adolpha,  1850-1927
Blahetka,  Leopoldine Anne Marie,  1811-1887
Bright,  Dora Estella, 1862-1951
Bronsart,  Ingeborg von (nee Starck), 1840-1913
Bruckshaw,  Kathleen,  1877-1921 (AKA Catherine Mary)
Dixon,  Harriett Claiborne, 1880-1928
Eggar,  Katherine Emily, 1874-1961
Ellicott,  Rosalind Francis,  1887-1924
Erhart,  Dorothy, 1894-1971
Faltis,  Evelyn,  1877-1937
Fischer,  Emma Gabriele Marie Freiin von,  1878-1964
Halacsy, Irma von,  1889 – 1953
Hopekirk,  Helen,  1856-1945
Horrocks,  Amy Elise,  1867-1916
Hundt,  Aline,  1849-1872
Ingleton Evelyn,  1879-1952
Jaell,  Marie (Trautmann-Jaell),  1846-1925
Kapralova,  Vitezslava,  1915-1940
Korn,  Clara Anna,  1866-1940
de Lara,  Adelina,  1872-1961
Leginska,  Ethel,  1886-1970
Loder,  Kate Fanny,  1828-1904
More,  Margaret Elizabeth,  1903-1966
Mueller-Hermann,  Johanna,  1868-1919
Prescott,  Oliviera Louisa,  1842-1919
Reinagle,  Caroline  (nee Orger),  1818-1892
Ruta,  Gilda,  1856-1937
Scarborough,  Frances Ethel,  1880-1956
Sohy  Charlotte, 1887-1958
Spain-Dunk,  Susan,  1880-1962
Swepstone,  Edith Mary,  1862-1942
Troup, Emily Josephine,  1853-1912
Tyrrell,  Agnes  1846-1883
Verne-Bredt,  Alice Barbara,  1868-1958
Wurm,  Mary (Marie) Josephine Agnes,  1860-1938