Chicago Sinfonietta’s Project W Highlights Women Composers

Project W is an initiative by the Chicago Sinfonietta to help highlight and promote “contemporary, diverse, women composers.” Anybody who frequents orchestra concerts can pick up on the lack of diversity on the program. It is estimated that only 1.3% of all works programmed in the 2016-2017 season were written by women. The ratio of conductor positions is not much better landing at 4:1 men over women, and 10:1 when looking at just music directors positions. The Chicago Sinfonietta, with Mei-Ann Chen on the podium, is looking to help correct these numbers, and the resulting commissions on the Project W album are a testament to their hard work.

The first track is the only piece that is not a commission, but rather serves as a springboard for the project. Dances in the Canebrakes by Florence Price (the first known African-American woman acknowledged as a symphonic composer) was originally written as a solo piano piece and arranged for orchestra by William Grant Still after Price passed away in 1953. Dances in the Canebrakes is a beautiful work based on African-American melodies and captures the Southern sound. The ensemble handles tutti syncopated rhythms with ease and places appropriate stress on the upbeats. Though the movements are short, they balance each other out and don’t over extend themselves.

Florence Price

Florence Price

Sin Fronteras (“Without Borders”) by Clarice Assad takes the listener on a musical journey through the Americas. This Brazilian born singer, pianist, and composer expertly borrows bits of material from each stop on the way up north as she transforms it into her own voice. The dark and foreboding introduction is beautifully textured, creating a feeling of tension and ease that is hard to explain, but easy to feel. Once the woodwinds take flight, the piece becomes a wonderful ride with vibrant splashes of color, jolting rhythms, and pointed articulations stitched together by common themes that expand on each other. Chen and the ensemble take special care with stylistic accents and stresses like true experts–everything feels natural with nothing out of place or forced.

Jessie Montgomery’s Coincident Dances also borrows from her home, but in a different way. A native New Yorker, Montgomery focuses on how a simple walk through her city exudes many different sounds and experiences. Throughout the work, new layers stack, meld with, transform, and split apart from other layers. Quiet moments with passionately played solos give pause for reflection and help the listener catch their breath. Montgomery sonically produces the feel of being in the city in a very real way–there is an excitement about being in the middle of it all, experiencing all of these moments coming together.

Jessie Montgomery--Photo by Jiyang Chen

Jessie Montgomery–Photo by Jiyang Chen

The two tracks that follow, #metoo and Charukeshi Bandish, are both by Indian-American composer Reena Esmail. When Esmail started her commission #metoo, she wrote a melody in a traditional Hindustani form called a bandish: a short melodic composition that a musician would improvise on. Thus, Charukeshi Bandish presents this idea in its purest form with the composer singing a melody that teeters between darkness and light.

#metoo runs with this source material and pushes the listener’s ear in many different directions. A blending of Indian and Western sounds is pervasive and refreshing. Esmail captures the rage, frustration, and solidarity of the #MeToo movement and injects it into her sound. Just like emotions behind the movement, Esmail’s music has a lot of complexity. There are moments of agitated, fast gestures that suddenly turn on a dime, transforming into soft and elegant lines. Hard hitting brass chords are followed by moments of guilt cried forth by oboe and clarinet solos. One of the more poignant moments is when all of the women in the orchestra stop playing and, one by one, reenter singing in order of the year they entered the orchestra.

Reena Esmail--Photo by Rachel Garcia

Reena Esmail–Photo by Rachel Garcia

The albums final work, Dance Card, is a multi movement piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon. All five movements were written so that they could be performed as a complete set or as individual works. While all of the movements highlight the string section, each one is drastically different in character and style. “Breeze Serenade” and “Celestial Blue” are lyrical and often pastoral at times. Inversely, “Raucous Rumpus,” “Jumble Dance,” and “Machina Rockus” are short, wild, and full of whimsy.

Project W should be considered a great success and a large step forward for modern orchestral music. While there is still a long way to go, this album features fantastic works by composers who deserve to be heard in the concert halls. Their musical vocabulary and ideas are fresh, while their knowledge of orchestration and color palettes is just as informed and imaginative as their predecessors. I personally look forward to hearing these works played by my local orchestra, but until then, I guess this album will have to suffice.