Barbara Rearick could picture it: female student vocalists from the Princeton University Glee Club invoking the spirit of women’s suffrage, saturating Richardson Auditorium with the rousing lyrics to Dame Ethel Smyth’s 1911 anthem, “The March of the Women”:
Shout, shout, up with your song!
Cry with the wind, for the dawn is breaking;
March, march, swing you along,
Wide blows our banner, and hope is waking.
“I got so excited by the idea of the women…marching out onstage, singing this rather powerful piece about women,” says Rearick, a mezzo-soprano on faculty at Princeton and curator of the March 5 “March of the Women” concert in the university’s Romanesque Revival marvel, Alexander Hall.
The concert, spotlighting women composers from the mid-19th century to the present, features female members of the Richardson Chamber Players, Princeton University performance faculty who perform Sunday afternoon concerts of mixed chamber works.
Alexander Hall, Princeton University (Photo by Joey Scelza)
Consider the setting for “March of the Women”: Richardson Auditorium is a 19th-century concert hall dominated by gleaming mosaic depictions of Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” boasting columns carved with boldfaced names such as Shakespeare, Milton, Galileo and Aristotle, a veritable pantheon of Western male artists and scientists.
Rearick is marching her program of oft-overlooked women’s music into this space.
With input from her colleagues in the department of music, Rearick has managed to craft a wide-ranging program of songs and instrumental pieces stretching from the Romantics to contemporary-classical powerhouses, a group that includes Clara Wieck-Schumann (yes, that Schumann; she had a career as a concert pianist that spanned more than six decades), Marie Elisabeth von Sachsen-Meiningen and Smyth (the first female composer to be granted damehood), along with living composers such as Isabelle Aboulker, Jennifer Higdon, Valerie Coleman, Errolyn Wallen and New Jersey-based Amanda Harberg, on faculty at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts.
For all of “March of the Women’s” tonal variety, “there’s something very uplifting and colorful about the whole program,” Rearick says. “It’s in the strength of these female composers and the fieriness and passion in their music; that’s what I really responded to. There’s even a [piano trio] piece called ‘Pale Yellow/Fiery Red’ by Jennifer Higdon,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and flutist. “So, there you have it—colorful, fiery.… I wanted to put out as many composers as I could because, once I started, I realized there’s just so much out there.”
Performing works by living composers in particular “feels like a privilege,” says pianist Margaret Kampmeier. “They’re trusting us with this piece of art, and we’re going to convey the meaning.”
Sarah Shin (Photo by Oliva Moon)
Flutist Sarah Shin agrees. She’ll perform Harberg’s “Hall of Ghosts,” a haunting, lyrical piece originally written for solo piccolo, and says she valued the opportunity to discuss the work with Harberg.
“Getting to hear Amanda’s feedback makes the learning process more fulfilling and unique because I get to learn from the composer directly,” Shin says.
Narrowing the focus—works exclusively by women composers—ultimately can widen the playing field, Kampmeier says.
“I always think about potential: What is the world that could be? What could programs look like? How can we make the table larger and larger?” she asks, then quotes Emily Dickinson: “ ‘I dwell in possibility.’ She’s talking about poetry, but that’s what’s interesting: What could we do? What are the possibilities?”
Granting audiences access to music that has thus far, relatively speaking, existed on the sidelines of cultural inquiry, is one way to multiply the possibilities.
Shin adds that an all-female program of composers “serves as a reminder that women have always been capable of creating excellent works of music, despite being excluded from many educational and professional opportunities throughout history.”
Anna Lim (Photo by Janette Beckman)
“Clara Schumann is one of my heroes,” Lim says. And why wouldn’t she be? Consider this résumé, as enumerated by Lim: “She was an incredibly talented composer, a brilliant touring pianist, wife of the genius composer Robert Schumann, a muse and companion to Brahms and mother of eight children. Her piano trio is a piece that I’ve known and admired a long time. It’s soulful and impassioned.”Lim says she’s grateful to shine a light on women, yes, but particularly on art that has yet to receive its due.
“I’m thrilled to be playing these pieces,” she says. “This is great music, period.”
Participants include Rochelle Ellis, narrator; Tomoko Fujita, cello; Margaret Kampmeier, piano; Maron Katz, clarinet; Sunghae Anna Lim, violin; Barbara Rearick, mezzo-soprano; Sarah Shin, flute; Gabriel Crouch, Princeton University Glee Club conductor; and women of the Princeton University Glee Club.