By Michael Hamad
11:15 AM EST, February 27, 2013
Women Composers Festival of Hartford
March 2-9, various locations around the Hartford area, womencomposersfestival.com
Over the last 12 years, the week-long Women Composers Festival of Hartford has grown into one of the Northeast's top destinations for hearing new music by living female composers.
The reputation of the festival, now in its 13th year, has grown to where an internationally recognized artist like Hilary Tann, who succeeds Judith Shatin as this year's composer-in-residence, wasn't sure her work would make the cut.
Tann, a Welsh-born composer, cellist and pianist, teaches music at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., where she also founded the orchestra and acted as its principal conductor for 15 years. She holds degrees from the University of Wales at Cardiff and from Princeton University. Her music, deeply informed by her studies of the traditional music of Japan, has been recorded by some of the world's top ensembles, including the European Women's Orchestra, Tenebrae, Lontano, Meininger Trio, the Thai Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
Back in 2011, when Tann was the composer-in-residence at the Eastman School of Music's women composer's festival, she submitted a couple of chamber works for consideration in Hartford.
"I was feeling good about that," Tann told the Advocate by phone from her office at Union. "I don't actually send out much stuff, but I was interested in this festival... And of course, the way to be involved is to actually be involved, not just as an audience member."
No response. "They didn't accept anything," Tann said. "Here I was feeling pretty good about the composer's life, and I thought they should have accepted something."
A month later, Tann received an e-mail from festival organizer Daniel Morel. "It said, 'I was so pleased that you submitted something. We'd like you to be our composer-in-residence for 2013,'" Tann said. "Everything turned alright after all... When you are a composer, you're never quite sure what will work for people and what will not work for people."
You might want to start referring to March 2-9 as "Tann Week." The composer will discuss her music at the Institute of Contemporary American Music's Composers Seminar, which takes place on March 6 (5 p.m., free) at the Hartt School. She'll then head to the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Harford for the Local Composer's Concert (7:30 p.m., $10-$15) and a performance of her Windhover. On March 7 (3 p.m., free), head to CCSU in New Britain, where you'll hear Tann's The Gardens of Anna Maria Luisa de Medici, along with works by Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) and Elisenda Fábregas (b. 1955). Then, drive back to Hartt for an all-Tann program of saxophone-based compositions (8 p.m., free). The following evening is the Dahlia Flute Duo, who'll perform Tann's Llef alongside pieces by Jennifer Higdon, Libby Larson and others, at the Charter Oak (7:30 p.m., $10-$15). The week wraps with the day-long WCForum, an academic conference on March 9 (8:30 a.m.-6 p.m., $15-$20) and an evening concert at the Unitarian Society of Hartford (7:30 p.m., $15-$30), where Tann's work will again be featured.
Clapping between pieces, of course, is allowed, although Tann suggested there might be a better way to appreciate her work.
"A piece of music accumulates its meaning in the resonance of its last measure," Tann said. "The idea of clapping is already a problem. There are cultures where the more silence there is at the end of a piece, the more the audience is respecting the piece."
Last year, Tann attended a concert at Eastman devoted to her music. The performers announced that, since it was a one-composer concert, all applause would be held until the end of the concert. "It was magical," Tann said. "It was very moving... The audience, having learned it didn't have to clap, really got into the music. It was thrilling for me."
Tann arrived at Princeton as a composition fellow in the early '70s, where she became an assistant editor of the well-known theory journal Perspectives of New Music. She became involved with the International League of Women Composers (now the International Alliance for Women in Music) as soon as she could afford the modest membership fee.
The next thing she knew, she was editing the organization's newsletter. "I got to talk with a lot of women composers in the '70s and '80s," Tann said. "I had to make these lists to alphabetize of premieres by women composers."
At one of the organization's meetings, Tann spoke up about the tiresome process of making the lists and asked if she could get rid of them (this was before Pagemaker, or even reliable PC-based word processing). The composers objected.
"They said, 'No, we need to know that women's works are being not only written, but that there are premieres in different parts of the country,'" Tann said. "In the 21st century, I don't think [the list is] necessary. It's clear that women's work is being performed. When you have someone like Jennifer Higdon, who I think is officially the most-performed contemporary composer at this moment, there's no way of avoiding it."
What's lacking for today's women composers, Tann suggested, was a sense of history. "We don't have a series of mentors," she said. "Poor Schubert was under the shadow of Beethoven. There are some very tall male composers, and we don't have very tall female composers, with the possible exception of Hildegard von Bingen."
What's needed is some sense of a thread going back centuries. "That's what a women's festival like this does for the participants," Tann said. "It says, 'Okay, we're here now,' but in fact, we were here before."
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