Key concerts honor female icons, artists
An ancient queen. A medieval warrior. A virgin martyr. Three iconic figures embedded in our culture and our consciousness, these historical heroines have inspired stories throughout the ages, and they play starring roles in this year’s Oregon Bach Festival, from the queen in Dido and Aeneas, to Joan of Arc at the Stake, and an evening of odes to the martyred St. Cecilia. The music invites us to contemplate the fate of these courageous women—and how times have changed for the real-life women who dare to take the lead today in the field of music.
Dido was hardly humble. Nine centuries before Christ’s birth, this proud queen founded Carthage on the northern coast of Africa. According to the earliest historical accounts, she was a chaste widow who, rather than be forced into marriage to an ambitious king, ordered her own funeral pyre to be built. In Purcell’s version, following Virgil, she threw herself upon the flames because she had succumbed to her love for the Trojan hero Aeneas and was later abandoned by him. In the Roman author’s sympathetic portrayal, Dido is the prototype of the tragic romantic heroine.
The medieval peasant girl Joan of Arc became the most famous woman warrior of all time. She was born during the terrible Hundred Years’ War between France and England. While barely in her teens she began to hear sainted voices commanding her to save her country. During one year, 1429, she found her way to the royal court, commanded an army, helped wrest much of France from England, and crowned a king. During the next two years, she would fight again and be captured, sold, betrayed, cajoled into a false confession of heresy, and then burned at the stake while proclaiming her innocence. Joan’s visions were the source of both her power and her undoing. Women’s visions had power because they were outside the control of men, but they could and did lead to charges of heresy or treason and, ultimately, death. Because her captors carefully recorded her testimony during the months of her captivity, it is Joan’s own strong, clear voice that has come down to our time, inspiring paintings, statues, plays, movies, and, of course, music.
We can’t be so sure about the words and deeds of St. Cecilia. It is likely that a Cecilia was one of the famous virgin martyrs who died for her faith during the Roman persecution of Christians. Legend has it that she was a noble patroness of the church who “sang in her heart to God” during her wedding to a pagan and converted her groom to Christianity (and abstinence) that very night. Because of their youth and purity, virgin martyrs were powerful symbols throughout the first millennium of Christianity. What we celebrate at this Festival is Cecilia’s singing, which made her the Christian muse or Saint of Music.
Three other concerts reflect the theme:
The women in these works led extraordinary lives. They remind us that women have always had the power to influence, inspire, and advise. In the modern world, women have long struggled to gain authority, to have their talents and work recognized, to write their own stories. Some of these stories are part of the 2011 Festival.
- Bach Magnificat (June 23-June 24) Bach's choral-orchestral work uses as its text the Song of Mary
- Brahms Requiem (June 26) The composer's masterwork was in part a response to the death of his mother.
- We are Women: A Bernstein Cabaret (July 5) Reflecting lighter sides of the theme, this is a tuneful night of Broadway songs by Leonard Bernstein.
María Guinand and the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela choir
In residence June 23-July 10, with featured concerts June 25 (Eugene) and July 6 (Portland)
Maria Guinand brings two cultures together in her conducting and teaching. She has introduced the music of Latin American to audiences all over Europe and America. She premièred La Pasión según San Marcos of Osvaldo Golijov, a composer who fuses classical music with the popular rhythms and traditions of Latin America, as Guinand herself does. The leading choral figure for Venezuela's music education program "El Sistema," Guinand will speak on the music as a force of social change in the June 28 Hinkle Lecture.
As a violinist, teacher, and conductor, Monica Huggett is considered one of the greatest living interpreters of baroque music, and was named to direct The Juilliard School's first early music program. Known in the Northwest as director of the Portland Baroque Orchestra, she regularly fronts baroque ensembles throughout Europe and the United States and will lead performances of Dido and Aeneas in Portland, Bend, Ashland, and Eugene during the Festival.
Familiar to Eugene audiences as music director of the Eugene Symphony, Marin Alsop has led major orchestras on three continents and is the first woman conductor of a major American orchestra. She is also the first conductor ever to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as the Genius Award. After she debuts her interpretation of Joan of Arc at the Stake at the Festival, she takes a production of Honegger’s spectacular cantata to Baltimore, New York City, and—in 2012—to London to celebrate the 600th anniversary of Joan’s birth.
If we distinguish power—personal charisma and influence and talent—from authority, which is often patriarchal and supported by laws and traditions that exclude women, we know that women have always had power. Fortunately today’s women don’t have to rely on nunneries or visions or family background to receive public praise. Women have advanced in all fields—even to the podium. Not only will we see and hear many gloriously talented women perform at this year’s Festival, we will also witness the work of three pioneering conductors at the height of their creative powers—and authority.
It is a good time, indeed, to praise women.