Sunday evening marked the inaugural performance of Charmante Musique, an organization dedicated to promoting the life and works of women composers, under the auspices of Forest Hill Concerts in San Francisco. Alexandra Sessler and Rachel Larsen, sopranos and co-founders of Charmante Musique, gave the audience an absolutely effervescent greeting followed by a brief talk about the evening’s featured composer, Amy Beach (1867-1944).
Beach was a musical prodigy who could accurately sing 40 tunes by age one and improvise a countermelody to any melody by age two. With over 300 works to her credit in every major genre of the time, including one opera, she was the first successful American woman composer of large-scale art music as well as a successful pianist in Boston, her hometown.
In terms of style, Beach was specifically regarded as a Boston Classicist and not a Romantic composer, though the selections for this concert certainly exhibited a certain brand of romanticism. More broadly speaking, Beach’s take on the question of an American style of music, a hotly debated question in her time, was that such a style could be both native and borrowed, as Sessler put it in her pre-concert talk. If setting a French text, Beach felt it necessary to emulate characteristics of the style of French music of the time. This was certainly true in her setting of Victor Hugo’s “Chanson d’Amour,” sung by Larsen and accompanied with great sensitivity by pianist Kalista Wong and cellist Ami Nashimoto, in which the French influence was certainly felt well beyond the language of the text, but also in the melodic and accompaniment style. Not only that, but Beach’s lyrical treatment of the cello makes this song more of a duet for two voices with piano, rather than a song for one singer and a duo of accompanists. Such treatment of a string instrument in a song was also true of “Within Thy Heart,” performed by the same group.
Elegant pianism and lyrical invention could easily sum up the majority of the program. From the gently undulating and subdued but insistent Ein Altes Gebet, (“An Old Prayer”), to the sweetly nostalgic Wir Drei, (“We Three”), both sung by Sessler and accompanied by pianist Walter Anderson, Beach’s songs display a preference for tuneful melodies and an accompaniment that vacillates between a simply harmonized tune and figures reminiscent of Ravel, Debussy, and ultimately Liszt. One particularly American group, performed by soprano Bianca Dominguez with pianist David Borac, retained this same ethos of lyricism but with an air of American popular song redolent with echoes of Tin Pan Alley coupled with nearly operatic range. The same is true of Beach’s Three Browning Songs, performed by Sessler and Anderson.
Although the bulk of the concert consisted of Beach’s vocal music, Charmante Musique offered a refreshing counterbalance in the programming by selecting some of Beach’s instrumental music. While this music maintains what became apparent as the composer’s trademark lyricism, Beach’s instrumental music is much more harmonically adventurous and texturally diverse. “Hermit Thrush at Morn,” for solo piano and performed by Aiyana Liu, counterpoints a haunting drone deep in the left hand against elusive fragments of melody high in the right hand which then suddenly change to flourishing figurations which then gently return to the initial texture. “Romance,” featuring violinist Victoria Perenyi and pianist Liu, is at first plaintive and sentimental, growing to a gesture of romantic pleading before returning, and unexpectedly interrupted by sudden bursts of energy. Similarly, the Allegro from the Op. 150 Piano Trio, performed by Perenyi, Nashimoto, and Liu, explores the contrast of the haunting and the sentimental.
For the lover of American music of this era, it would be hard to imagine anyone not enjoying this concert. The performances were all given with great commitment, sensitivity, and skill. Also, the performance space at Forest Hill Christian Church is a long hall with high ceilings, providing nice resonance without muddying the sound. Forest Hill Concerts presents free concerts every Sunday evening.
Brien Henderson is a composer who received a Master of Arts degree from San Francisco State University in 2013. He studied primarily with Richard Festinger and Benjamin Sabey. He has also studied with Christopher Jones and Robert Beaser.