The first feeling is one of sadness when listening to the music of Margaret Sutherland. Here was a leading female composer of her generation whose struggles in pursuit of her career now make us cringe, and whose works are unfortunately still only rarely performed today.
One might occasionally hear some of the Australian composer’s songs and piano pieces, but there are concertos and an opera that lie neglected. The worst story is that the publisher Boosey & Hawkes refused to publish her Concerto for String Orchestra because they found out she was a woman – and this happened in the same year, 1948, that she divorced her psychiatrist husband who believed she was mentally deranged for wanting, as a woman, to be a composer.
In its second year, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s She Speaks festival has sought to blow away long-held myths and prejudices surrounding women in the musical professions, and to restore to the stage many significant works by female composers such as Sutherland.
Heading the final concert in this two-day event was “Haunted Hills”, an impassioned, turbulent overture that Sutherland wrote in 1950 in response to the plight of Indigenous people following white settlement. The composer herself described it as “a sound picture written in contemplation of the first people who roamed the hills, their bewilderment and their betrayal, frenzied dance: its seeming gaiety born of despair”.
It is so interesting to hear, with snarly trumpet and rushing, swirling emotion that gradually subsides to make way for a lone oboe melody that in turn becomes the urgent thematic matter of the overture. Its eloquence and sheer power constantly made one think about the human drama that is so implicitly present. Cosmopolitan in style, Sutherland’s language impressed, too: its harmonic richness reminded one of the American composer Howard Hanson, and a pungent ending called to mind the final ebbing moments of Strauss’s Don Juan.
Co-curator Anne Cawrse spoke at the start of this She Speaks concert, entitled Epic, about how its aim was to challenge the notion that a “standard” orchestral concert, consisting of an overture followed by a concerto and symphony, cannot be built entirely from works by women composers. So, in what may well have been a first in the history of orchestral concerts, there followed Jennifer Higdon’s Oboe Concerto (2005) and Grace Williams’ very substantial Symphony No.1 (1943).
The American composer Higdon has created a warm, lyrical and entertaining work in her concerto. Unlike the two works either side, it carried no explicit programmatic content but rather took simple joy in presenting the oboe in a range of expressive capacities. Variously she gives the soloist the guises of singer, chirpy funster and soothing pacifier.
Celia Craig was the ideal oboist for it. Clearly enjoying the chance to play this concerto, she began with silken smoothness in its noble main melody, imparting a delicate waver to notes as a singer would, before diving in with great fun into its comical, Disney-like middle section. At times, the scoring gets so busy that the orchestra threatens to engulf the solo oboe, but conductor Benjamin Northey kept matters well in proportion. Higdon has fine lyrical gifts, and in the closing moments of this concerto, Craig played its hymn-like melodies with the sweetest poise.
Grace Williams was one of the foremost Welsh composers of her day, and in many respects her career followed a similar trajectory to that of her contemporary, Margaret Sutherland. Again there were forces that thwarted her, sadly the same familiar ones that have held back women composers through all the ages. Luckily, she had a few supporters on her side, including her teacher, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who held her in high regard and liked to be known to her as “Uncle Ralph”.
Williams’ Symphony No. 1 is a wartime work written when she was in her mid-30s and finding it almost impossible to make her way financially as a composer. There is immense struggle in this symphony, but also pride and valour. Taking inspiration from Shakespeare, she steeps herself in medieval Celtic history in her portrayal of the legendary figure of Owen Glendower, the Welsh prince (indeed the last Welsh-born prince) who fought off the English in the name of independence. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, this character appears as a wonderfully wild-spirited warrior who possesses magical powers, and there is a scene in that play in which his daughter, Lady Mortimer, sings a stirring Welsh song.
The “Glendower scene” becomes the subject of this swashbuckling four-movement symphony. Goodness, it is impressive. It opens with heraldic story-telling conviction in a torrent of brass, strings and woodwind all competing for voice. Then a really beautiful trumpet theme appears that seems to awaken the human spirit: one cannot help but think this is precisely the Welsh song in that Shakespearean scene. Later, the symphony becomes a little uneven in quality, but in places such as this, and in the majestic epilogue that serves as its fourth movement, one can see that this composer is working at the highest level. There are times when her style comes close to that of Vaughan Williams, both in its forceful and pastoral moods, but instead of his highly structured walls of sound, her scoring is seamless.
Northey and the ASO gave fine, committed performances in this very significant concert. The playing throughout was taut and disciplined.
All one might hope is that if the ASO runs this festival a third time it might think of also having a female conductor. Since the festival is partly about advocating for female musicians, it does seem entirely fitting that this idea is extended to the podium as well.
Epic was presented at Elder Hall on July 2 as part of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s She Speaks festival, co-curated by Anne Cawrse and Anna Goldsworthy.