Is the music that women write in some fundamental way different from the compositions of men? Feminist musicology is divided on the question. In any case, we hear a great deal more of the latter than we do of the former.
Times are changing. Composers such as Kaija Saariaho and Olga Neuwirth have a better chance than Alma Mahler or Clara Schumann ever did. Last week, Lower Austria’s Tonkünstler Orchestra provided listeners with the opportunity to hear music by women from a period spanning a century, thus tipping the scales a tiny fraction towards balance.
What might Alma Mahler have written had Gustav Mahler not so famously forbidden her to continue her own career when she married him? The four songs sung with sweet directness by Elisabeth Kulman make the question sound all the louder. Orchestrated in 1996 by Colin and David Matthews, these 1900-01 songs give us a glimpse of the composer that Alma Mahler might have become under different circumstances. Three of the four are ingenuous, competent settings in a clean language of tuneful romanticism. But “Licht in der Nacht” is more, with dark and angular shades that make it clear why Gustav Mahler chose the word “rivalry” when he wrote to Alma. Evidently, he had reason to feel threatened.
Equally intriguing was Lili Boulanger’s 1918 “D’un matin de printemps”. That such a consummately perfect piece of impressionism could come from the pen of a 24-year-old is extraordinary in itself. It was death, not male intervention, that stopped Boulanger’s career. What might she otherwise have written?
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, the Tonkünstlers’ young Colombian chief conductor, conjured a delicate transparency and a wealth of colour from his musicians that made the entire evening a sensual pleasure as well as a fascinating journey.
Olga Neuwirth’s Clinamen/Nodus (1999), which opened the programme, was a wild explosion of sound, full of violent percussion juxtaposed with washes of string sound and fragile toy-box interjections. Her relentless mood of catastrophe was offset by Sofia Gubaidulina’s breezy Märchenpoem, a descriptive piece written for a Czech children’s radio play, all deft whimsy and pictorial effects. Orozco-Estrada approached Neuwirth with violent energy, and brought a dark melancholy to Gubaidulina.
Kaija Saariaho’s 2002 Orion added weight and substance to the
evening. From the keening melancholy of the first movement, through the trance-like contemplation of the second to the visceral drive of the third, it is wonderfully evident that Saariaho knows how to make the listener care what happens next.
Orozco-Estrada and the orchestra are on good form, and a packed Musikverein responded appreciatively.