Bel Cantanti Opera Company’s program on Saturday, Sept. 14 and Sunday, Sept. 15 honors the lives and work of four women composers; it could not be timelier.
The 200th birthday of Clara Schumann — probably the most well-known of the four — is celebrated on Sept. 13. In addition to being the supportive wife of Robert Schumann, who succumbed to mental illness, and the mother of their eight children, Clara was a well-known concert pianist and a composer in her own right.
To some music critics, even today — let alone then — the contributions of female composers are not fully appreciated and are underperformed. Bel Cantanti’s program, entitled “Muses Sing!“, focuses on Schumann as well as Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler’s wife; Fanny Mendelsohn, Felix Mendelsohn’s sister, and Pauline Viardot, Frédéric Chopin’s friend.
The reason for the “muses” in the title, explained Katerina Souvorova, Bel Cantanti’s founder and artistic director, is that these women inspired the men in their lives while trying to develop their own talents and having their voices heard.
The multilayered program will include an orchestral ensemble, ballet compositions, poetry reading and narrations, as well as projections of the translations of some of the four women composer’s songs and of images of famous 19th and 20th century paintings.
Many of the compositions featured in the concerts are chamber music and art songs, which are “more intimate, and people would interpret differently,” Souvorova said.
The stories of these women were very different; what they had in common were the obstacles they faced in having their music performed during their lifetime. They were “suppressed” by an assumption that women had less ability, and by the attitude that they should be taking care of their children rather than writing music. “But the gifts of these women are enormous and bright. They tried to fight the situation,” said Souvorova.
In addition to being composers, these women were skilled musicians. Schumann was, for example, the first woman to play piano without a score, and Viardot was a noted mezzo-soprano.
Sometimes, the opposition to their musical achievements came from home, rather than society. Mahler is said to have extracted a promise from Alma when he married her that she wouldn’t compose.
Among the four singers giving voice to these women’s compositions in “Muses Sing!” is mezzo soprano Viktoriya Koreneva, who has performed in other Bel Cantanti productions. She said she feels “particular affinity” for the subjects of “Muses Sing!” in that she is a singer who holds a degree in composition and writes music. “We live at a time when women composers are becoming more celebrated,” she said.
As the “token male singer” in the vocal group of the program, with the least amount of music to perform, tenor Allan Palacios Chan said, “This is appropriate,” because these women are so underrated and underperformed. “The songs are just devastatingly beautiful, and I love the form of art songs.”
Dancers of the Berrend Dance Centre, under the direction of Patricia Berrend, will perform to Erica Molina Hudak’s original choreography. “Berrend Dance Centre has been collaborating with Bel Cantanti since 2015,” said Hudak. “Our dancers will be representing the relationship between famous male composers and their very talented female composer counterparts. The female composers were not as recognized as the males in their lives.”
In five pieces, she added, “the dancers will paint a picture of their work and stories through dance,” she added.
Instrumentalists for the performances are cellist Igor Zubkovsky, Eugene Sidorov, on oboe and English horn, and Souvorova, on piano, organ and harp. Zubkovsky, a tenured member of the Washington National Opera orchestra, has been playing with Bel Cantanti almost every season since 2004-05. “For this concert,” he said, “we arranged most of the songs and instrumental music for the three instruments we had available: piano, oboe and cello.”
The four women composers wrote most of the music the instrumentalists will play. “All the songs and some trio movements are written by them, but we will also play other instrumental pieces by famous men that have been involved with these women one way or another — such as Gustav Mahler, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms.”
Zubkovsky said he was familiar with the works that originally had cello in them, such as Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio and Pauline Viardot’s “Star.” “Otherwise, most of the songs were new to me and I always love learning and exploring new pieces; so, this is a very interesting and exciting experience.”
Bel Cantanti presents “Muses Sing!” concerts at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 14 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15, at the Randolph Road Theatre, 4010 Randolph Road, Silver Spring. Tickets are $40, $35 for seniors, $15 for students, $30 for group of 10 or more. Call 240-230-7372 or visit www.belcantanti.com.