Women composers continue to dominate the local chamber music scene.
Last month, New York-based string quartet Brooklyn Rider performed five works by women as part of their Cincinnati debut at Memorial Hall. And on Feb. 6 at the Weston Art Gallery, Salon 21 will collaborate with Cincinnati Soundbox to present five world premieres for piano quintet composed by American and Polish women.
The program — entitled Parallels — will feature Salon 21’s artistic director, pianist Jill Jantzen, and 4-Way, a local string quartet, performing the works.
Founded in 2013 by pianist Jeong-In Kim, Salon 21 offers intimate concerts in “unexpected places” across the Queen City. (Jantzen took over for Kim in 2016.) Cincinnati Soundbox was created in 2015 by composers Rachel Walker and Ivan Alexander Moscotta to present new music by local, regional and international composers. It is now co-run by Walker and Laura Harrison. Later this year, all the featured works from Parallels will be performed in Warsaw, Poland.
Parallels marks the second collaboration for the two groups. Walker and Harrison’s compositions are on the program, along with works by Julia Seeholzer, Źaneta Rydzewska and Aleksandra Chmielewska.
Cincinnati Soundbox is no stranger to working with international artists, but the choice to collaborate with Polish artists this season takes on historical value. “Ensembles worldwide are performing works by Polish composers to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Polish independence,” Walker says.
Seeholzer is the bridge between the two cities: she studied with Harrison and Walker at University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and through a Fulbright scholarship, went on to study in Warsaw, where she currently lives.
“Her impressions of the musical world there made us curious to create an exchange concert, where we could present a concert to audiences here and in Warsaw,” Walker says. “And then we learned about Źaneta’s and Aleksandra’s work from her.”
All of the composers are in their mid-to-late 20s and have impressive rosters of commissions that range from solo to large ensemble works, which have been performed all over the world. Jantzen and Nat Chaitkin, the cellist in 4-Way, agree that the pieces they’re performing are “starkly different.”
“You couldn’t get a better snapshot of different approaches,” Chaitkin says.
At 26, Chmielewska is a doctoral student at Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice, Poland, she describes her composition, “Postcards from Warsaw,” as a three-part examination of human memory.
“I was absorbed by how our minds distort what we have experienced,” she says. “Each movement contains clichés: a tango-like part in the second movement or a ‘Dies Irae’ in the third.”
Jantzen calls the score “melodic,” filled with lush harmonies and sweeping passages for the strings. “They feel like Harry Potter’s owl Hedwig soaring through the air,” she says with a laugh.
Cincinnati Soundbox’s Harrison received a doctorate of musical arts and master’s degree in composition from CCM. Since then, she has collaborated with outstanding soloists and ensembles, including the Tower Duo, New Music Ensemble and oboist Sara Renner.
Her piece is entitled “Euryale,” a Greek mythological character who appears as three different powerful women. In an email, Harrison writes that the two-movement piece explores different ideas of intensity.
“The first movement is slow and dramatic, using close voicing and long sustained tones in the strings, and techniques which involve playing on the strings on the interior of the piano,” she says. “The second movement utilizes a driving ostinato figure, which gives the movement a sense of relentless energy.”
Cincinnati Soundbox’s Walker spent time in China during and after her studies at CCM. She has composed music for traditional Chinese instruments as well as for Western ensembles and soloists with recent performances across the U.S., China, Australia and Europe.
She says that her piece, “My shadow forms a resonant shell,” is written with instruments paired off and spread antiphonally throughout the performance space.
“Listeners will notice different details depending on where they are in the hall,” she says.
Jantzen says that Harrison’s and Walker’s pieces have an eerie sense to them, particularly since both call for plucked piano strings, among other effects. Walker’s score is also more visual than conventionally noted. “There are squiggles or diagonals indicating that strings are to be brushed or (hit),” Jantzen says.
Based in Warsaw, Rydzewska has won several international composers’ competitions. She was unable to respond to questions due to a family emergency but Jantzen says that her “Piano Quintet” is extremely mathematic.
“She uses four chords and divides them between registers,” she says. “The way she uses octaves, rippling, rolling chords between piano and the quartet is really fascinating — and I’m enjoying it.”
Seeholzer’s responses were personal and poignant. After CCM, she became friends with Rydzewska and Chmielewska while attending the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw. She has lived in Poland for over three years, and her works have been performed in the U.S. and Europe.
Her piece, “Bystander,” is a response to the pressures of adjusting to working and living in a new country while also having chronic depression and generalized anxiety disorder.
“I was pulled incredibly far away from my initial joy of and passion for creating music,” she says. “My piece refers to the uncomfortably familiar feeling I have when it all becomes too much for me to actively process, and I end up on some sort of auto-pilot. I expressed that with largely contrasting sections of volume and motion — with repeating material that hiccups and frays at the edges — and with some lightly prepared piano trying ever so timidly to unify with the strings.”
While learning all this new music is challenging, Jantzen and Chaitkin agree that the composers’ openness and availability to listen to comments and suggestions is invaluable.
“It brings you into the process more fully,” Chaitkin says. “My colleagues (violinists Sujean Kim, Shannon Lock and violist Kevin Boden) already have had responses to some of their emailed questions, and they’ve helped tremendously.”
Jantzen adds, “It’s also important for composers to hear their music live, not on a computer.”
The second performance in Warsaw later this year will be huge, says Chaitkin.
“A piece has to be heard more than once or twice to become part of the canon. I hope that all these works will get revisited many times.”
Parallels, presented by Salon 21 and Cincinnati Soundbox, will be performed 7 p.m. Feb. 6 at the Weston Art Gallery with at $15 suggested donation. More info: salon21.org.