‘Muses Nine’ = Works by nine female composers – Becky Billock, p. – Muses Nine

by | Feb 4, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

‘Muses Nine’ = DIANE THOME: Spiral Journey; MOLLY JOYCE: Medium Piano; EMMA LOU DIEMER: Toccata for Piano; MARION BAUER: Six Preludes, Op. 15; ELLEN TAFFE ZWILICH: Lament; AMY BEACH: Dreaming; Honeysuckle; Scottish Legend; From Blackbird Hills; LIBBY LARSEN: Mephisto Rag; MARGARET BONDS: Troubled Water – Becky Billock, piano – Muses Nine (Becky Billock) [Distr. by CD Baby] 62:56 ***:

Becky Billock is a very fine pianist who is clearly pursuing her own muse of the work of female composers. I agree, actually, that the first step to recognizing and promoting artists who are from “outside the box” of typical classical music is to play their works. The second step is allowing the audience is to decide whether or not they like and appreciate the quality of the works they are hearing; incidental to any categorical commonality like the fact that – in this case – all the composers happen to be women.
In reading Ms. Billock’s own thoughtful and informative program notes, it is clear that she has an informed passion for gender equity and awareness issues. As Becky says, at some point it would be nice to see a recording company put out a collection of “The Great Women of Music”. (A cause that I think is at least as valid as thematic programming along cultural lines – actually much more common.)
Fortunately, these pieces are all very nice and compelling pieces in their own right. For me, these works are all very pleasant discoveries. Spiral Journey by Diane Thome is a swirling rhapsodic work that structurally ‘spirals’ in the most appealing way! It was written in honor of Ruth Geberding, a benefactor of the University of Washington School of Music; where Thome is a composition and piano professor.
Medium Piano by Molly Joyce is one movement of her Preludes of Pace, written for the 2011 Texas Piano Festival. Each movement is defined stylistically by its title: medium piano, fast piano, slow piano. There is a very attractive sound at work here; a sort of impressionism-meets-jazz quality. Ms. Joyce is actually a nineteen year old pianist and composition student of Christopher Rouse at Juillard. Very impressive!
Emma Lou Diemer is one of America’s pioneers in recognition for women composers. The Kansas City native has built a career spanning over sixty years as a renowned composer-pianist. Her Toccata, from 1979, is a very energetic and dramatic work involving some inside the piano techniques with traditional playing. This is a highly rhythmic and propulsive work that showcases the techniques of the soloist very well.
The largest work on this program is the Six Preludes by Marion Bauer. The six movements/preludes each bear a different character but share a tonal and harmonic language in common. The feel in these works is somewhat impressionistic, a bit jazz-influenced and occasionally quite Romantic. Bauer is an interesting historical figure, from Washington state and being one of what some musicologists call the “forgotten vanguard” of American modern music. Some of her larger works included a more pronounced dissonance and “experimental” feel. Bauer also helped found the American Composers’ Alliance and worked to her death promoting new music in America. The Six Preludes are very attractive and interesting and might be mistaken, just a bit, for some Ravel or even Tailleferre. The closing prelude, exuberantly, passionately, sounds – wonderfully – just like it says.
Ellen Taffe Zwilich is a big name in American music with multiple awards to her credit; including the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for her Symphony #1; the first time a female won such acclaim. Her music has a depth of feeling to it throughout genres. The Lament for piano does indeed have an elegiac tone to it, having been written for the passing of Judy Arron, Executive Director of Carnegie Hall. Zwilich wrote the work in memorial and response to this loss which the composer felt personally. Lament has elements of mourning as well as frustration and is a very strong work.
Becky Billock chose four short works by another American groundbreaker, Amy Beach for this program. Beach was, herself, an accomplished pianist and much of her work is neo-Romantic and melodic. Beach was a member of what some call the “Second New England School”, writing and promoting new American music around the Boston area. She was the only female member of this group that included McDowell, Paine and Parker. Her piano works (of which the four played here are a prime example) are quite reflective of both her affinity for Chopin as well as the influences that she felt, and left, in the “Boston Group.”  These works are historically important and stand alone in sound from the others in this set but are their equal in quality.
Minnesota native Libby Larsen is another renowned living American composer and 2010 winner of the Peabody award for contributions to American music. Most of Libby’s music has an attractive and clever style that draws upon a variety of cultural sources and references. In this case, her Mephisto Rag is a take on Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz but makes little use of direct quotes. It is basically a fantasy on the Liszt theme with rag elements and some touches of stride piano. A wry but captivating little work, this piece is both entertaining as well as a nice showcase for the soloist.
Margaret Bonds was one of the first African American women composer-pianists to become well known.  Her Troubled Water is a fantasy on the spiritual “Wade in the Water”. The treatment of the original melody is inventive and somewhat complex, being wrought through a series of variations, but the piece is fascinating and is helped by the weight and strength of the original melody. Bonds also wrote some very impressive works for chorus, all of them influenced by the Black Christian religious experience in the Depression-era South.
I applaud both Becky Billock’s playing but also her “muse.” There are so many wonderful piano works out there by female American composers. In addition to the wonderful music showcased here, the music of Jennifer Higdon, Augusta Read Thomas, Shulamit Ran and Rebecca Oswald are all worth exploring – to name just a handful. I look forward to more from Becky Billock and I recommend this disc to piano lovers and those wanting to know more about the repertory!
—Daniel Coombs

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