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SCRUTINY | Blythwood Winds Shows Off Five Female Composers On The Rise

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Blythwood Winds (Photo courtesy Blythwood Winds)
Blythwood Winds (Photo courtesy Blythwood Winds)

Blythwood Winds at Heliconian Hall. June 10.

It is no secret there is a crisis surrounding gender balance in classical music composition. But in Toronto’s Heliconian Hall Saturday night, the scales were tipped, at least temporarily.

Blythwood Winds, a woodwind quintet founded in 2010 by five Toronto-based wind players, presented a concert of all Canadian female composers entitled “Voices of Canadian Women.”  The program included works by Abigail Richardson-Schulte, Ana Sokolović, Anna Höstman, Norma Beecroft, Elizabeth Raum, Linda Caitlin Smith and Bekah Simms.

The five composers featured varied in levels of age and experience, yet each composition displayed a unique and vital compositional voice, brought to life through the vibrant playing of the Blythwood Winds.

Pieces ranged in levels of tonality and use of extended techniques, beginning with Elizabeth Raum’s “King Lear Fantasy.” Originally composed for a production of King Lear, Raum’s piece featured a playful dialogue between instruments as well as a distinctly medieval flare, transporting the listener into the Shakespearean age.

Following Elizabeth Raum’s piece, Anna Höstman brought the audience to a more meditative landscape with “float,” a piece based on François Couperin’s Les barricades mystérieuses. Pianist Cheryl Duvall joined the ensemble onstage as the woodwind quintet encircled the audience, playing clumsy, dissonant interjections through Duvall’s French-flavoured wash of colour and tonality.

Abigail Richardson-Schulte, who has served as composer-in-residence for the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra since 2012, next presented her first ever professional composition, “emerge.” Originally composed for the Festival of the Sound in Parrysound, Richardson-Schulte admitted to the audience she had been commissioned to compose based on a painting she “wouldn’t have chosen for herself.” Her composition played vibrantly by the Blythwood Winds, features distinctly narrative qualities and a true Canadian feel. It’s not hard so see why Richardson-Schulte has enjoyed so much success in Ontario and abroad.

The next piece we heard was by Norma Beecroft, a pioneer in Canadian composition in the 1960’s and 70s, particularly in the realm of electronics. She remarked in the program notes that her piece, “Images,” found inspiration in the music of Debussy. Beecroft’s “Images” felt much more bombastic and less meditative than Debussy’s Images, though the fragmentary qualities and ambiguous tonality of her work could be considered a nod to French music. Tim Crouch’s lovely flute solo loosely evoked Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

One of the most exciting works of the night came from emerging composer Bekah Simms in “The Formula.” Commissioned by Blythwood Winds in 2016 as part of a series inspired by Toronto’s graffiti art, Simms describes in the program that her piece depicts an anti-capitalist mural by Joel Richardson which was “unceremoniously buffed” by the City of Toronto. Simms’ musical depiction brimmed with frenetic energy. Musical lines were punctuated by sharp, angular rhythms while tonality and melody emerged for fleeting moments out of a fog of extended techniques. Even when writing for an ensemble as classic as a woodwind quintet, Simms’ music felt distinctly of our time.

After Simms’ piece we heard another meditative, still work by Linda Caitlin Smith, whose works have been recorded by ensembles including Tafelmusik, Tapestry Opera, and the Penderecki and Bozzini string quartets. Her piece’s effect on its audience was penetrable, as the air in the hall fell still and tranquil.

Finally, we heard Sokolović’s Chansons à boire, a set of drinking songs for woodwind quintet.

Sokolović has gained much acclaim for her vocal works, and the Canadian Opera Company recently announced a commission of Sokolović for a mainstage work to premiere in the 2019/2020 season. Sokolović’s story-telling abilities came through in these six, short songs, filled with frenetic energy and evocations of debauchery. The piece’s melodies emerged in and out of Sokolović’s subtle usages of extended techniques and hiccup motives.

The concert presented by Blythwood Winds on Saturday night certainly demonstrated the wealth of riches Canada possesses in the way of female composers. Now it’s up to us to hold our arts organisations accountable and make sure we hear more and more of them.

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Sara Schabas
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Sara Schabas

Sara Schabas is a soprano and writer born and bred in the heart of Toronto’s musical community. When she’s not singing opera, you can find her covering Carole King on the ukulele, biking through the Annex and advocating the merits of Puccini.
Sara Schabas
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