Nevertheless, she persisted | February 24, 2017 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - February 24, 2017

Nevertheless, she persisted

Concert celebrates the achievements of women composers — and a local scholar

by Karla Kane

Throughout the history of Western civilization, women in music — like women in science, business and other fields — have always faced an uphill battle to do their work and be acknowledged for their accomplishments. Just in time to kick off Women's History Month, the Gold Coast Chamber Players will present a concert showcasing women composers from the Middle Ages through the modern day in Palo Alto on March 4.

"There were a lot of really meaningful things going on with women (in music) throughout the ages. I wanted to have one concert that really brought that to the forefront," Gold Coast Chamber Players artistic director and violist Pamela Freund-Striplen said.

The concert, which includes pieces for piano, voice and strings written by eight women composers, performed by six female musicians, is dedicated to the memory of the late Susan Groag Bell, of Stanford University's Clayman Institute for Gender Research.

Freund-Striplen titled the program "Threads" because she sees the composers' experiences as being linked through time, like a thread weaving through history. It incorporates works by Hildegard von Bingen, Lili and Nadia Boulanger, Clara Schumann, Jennifer Higdon, Geraldine Mucha, Thea Musgrave and Amy Beach.

Hildegard von Bingen, the earliest composer included, was a medieval mystic, artist and "very powerful figure" who founded her own nunnery, Freund-Striplen said. "There was no end to her talent." Freund-Striplen knew she wanted to include a piece of von Bingen's and, happily, discovered Bay Area vocalist Karen Clark, a von Bingen expert, and invited her to join the program.

"She has been spending the last 30 years studying (von Bingen) and how to sing her. I was over the moon about that," she said. Different in style from the chamber pieces audiences may be more familiar with, the spiritual von Bingen selections (to be performed by Clark with Freund-Striplen accompanying on viola) have a haunting, otherworldly sound.

"She had a way of writing music that goes so deep in a person, it goes kind of to your soul," she said. "When I heard Karen sing, I was just really struck by her deep commitment to that."

Freund-Striplen felt that including a von Bingen piece was essential, partly because "she's probably the first woman composer that you hear about. That's another can of worms. Why don't you hear about them? What was stopping them from coming into the forefront when they were writing?" she said.

Clara Schumann is a familiar name in the classical-music world, but mostly through her relationship with her husband and fellow composer Robert.

"She was really undermined by Robert," Freund-Striplen said. "What he wanted was that she become a great interpreter of his music," rather than write her own.

Lili and Nadia Boulanger were French sisters and composers born in the late 1800s. Nadia became one of the most important music teachers of the 20th century, instructing Aaron Copland and another of the artists included in "Threads," Thea Musgrave (who now, thanks to this project, has become a personal friend of Freund-Striplen). While Nadia was openly ambitious, younger sister Lili took a different tack.

"She would compose, but she would do it in a way that, when she put her work out there, it did not threaten the male establishment," Freund-Striplen said. "She would say, 'Oh, it came to me in a dream. Oh, I had a vision,' rather than 'Look at all the work I've done,' as pretty much any man would do."

Freund-Striplen said she was limited in choosing selections for the program by the smaller scale of chamber music (nothing requiring a choir or full orchestra), as well as what scores are available in the chamber-music realm (a traditionally white, Western genre).

"All the pieces are very strong compositions," she said. "It will show there is nothing less, no drop-off in quality," compared to the work of better-known male composers. "They're equally valid artistically."

In addition to Freund-Striplen and Clark, the program will feature four other world-class female musicians, including violinist Livia Sohn, who's on the faculty of Stanford's music department and was Freund-Striplen's first "Threads" recruit.

Freund-Striplen first started the Gold Coast Chamber Players with her husband in Alameda (the "Gold Coast" from which the ensemble takes its name) in 1987. Since then, it's evolved from its humble beginnings performing house concerts into an award-winning ensemble (now based in Lafayette) with a flexible roster, drawing international talent and acclaim. The group also conducts educational programs and outreach to local schools, and recently received a grant from the Zellerbach Family Foundation to continue the "Threads" program (which will be performed in Lafayette as well as in Palo Alto). Freund-Striplen hopes to eventually bring the concert to Boston, New York and the National Museum for Women in the Arts, in Washington, D.C.

"Now it seems quite relevant," she said about presenting "Threads" in the current political climate. "We're not wanting to speak directly about politics, but the politics will be evident in how we're showcasing unexplored women composers."

She'd been wanting to present a concert focusing on female composers for years, "but I couldn't think of exactly how I wanted to do it." After the 2015 death of Susan Groag Bell, a close family friend, Freund-Striplen felt the time was right to pay tribute to Bell's contributions to women's studies in the best way she could.

"I wanted to do something to honor Sue," she said. "I thought, 'How can I help? Well, I can plan a concert. That's what I do.'" Gold Coast Chamber Players will donate part of the concert's proceeds to the Stanford University Press' Susan Groag Bell Fund, which supports the publication of emerging works on women's history (concert goers will also have the opportunity to contribute to the fund directly).

Freund-Striplen, who grew up in Palo Alto, met Bell at an early age. "My mother and Sue took their kids to Chuck Thompson's Swim School (in Midtown)," the Paly graduate said, and the two became close friends for life. "She was very supportive of my concerts and came to many. I was somewhat unaware of the magnitude of Sue's work. She was never someone to toot her own horn."

In addition to her work in academia and as an advocate for gender equality, Bell led quite a fascinating life, according to her Clayman Institute colleague and longtime friend Dr. Karen Offen. As a child, she was forced to flee Czechoslovakia in 1939, leaving behind her father, who eventually died in a Nazi concentration camp. After years in England, she found her way to Woodside, California, upon marrying Varian physicist Ronald Bell. She earned a history degree from Stanford in 1964, only to be turned away from the graduate program, told by the history department that she, then in her late 30s, was "too old" to pursue a doctorate. She went on instead to earn a master's degree from Santa Clara University, then devoted herself to research and writing about women's history in Europe and America as a permanent scholar with the Clayman Institute. At Stanford's commencement last June, the history department awarded Bell a posthumous honorary doctorate in history.

"This was the department's way of saying, 'You deserved this, and we're sorry,'" Offen said.

Bell published a number of works, including a milestone feminist textbook, and, with Offen, the two-volume "Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in the Documents: 1750-1950." One of her particular interests was the medieval author (and proto-feminist icon) Christine de Pizan, whose "City of Women" works chronicle women's contributions to society. Bell did extensive research into the mystery surrounding the disappearance of six large tapestries depicting scenes from Pizan's work, some of which were rumored to be owned by notable women including Queen Elizabeth I. This research became her well-regarded 2004 book "The Lost Tapestries of the City of Ladies."

Offen, whose next book, "Debating the Woman Question in Modern France" is nearing completion, said a concert featuring all women composers — who still struggle to find their place in the spotlight — is a fitting tribute to Bell and her work.

"I remember when our kids were in elementary school, in the music room the famous composers had their portraits around the wall, and it was all guys," she mused.

"For a long time, women were also barred from playing in symphony orchestras, and there was a real discrimination against women artists. Why are they left out of the canon on a fairly regular basis?" she said. "We seem to keep having to bring the women in, still."

What: "Threads" by the Gold Coast Chamber Players

Where: St. Mark's Episcopal Church, 600 Colorado Ave., Palo Alto

When: Saturday, March 4, at 7:30 p.m.

Cost: $15-$40

Info: Go to gcplayers.org

Arts & Entertainment Editor Karla Kane can be emailed at kkane@paweekly.com

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