Shared with permission by author Natalia Dagenhart

Jennifer Higdon, composer
Jennifer Higdon, composer

“The eternal feminine leads us upwards,” said Goethe in the final lines of “Faust.” These wise words say it all. Although the role of women, as well as the role of women composers, is often underestimated, women did shape this world and particularly the world of classical music more than we think. A great example is the ninth-century abbess and composer Kassiani, whose beautiful scores survived up to our days. Chicago Sinfonietta, one of the most diverse orchestras in America, is happy to demonstrate the talent of women composers in its concert program called “Hear Me Roar.” It will take place at 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 11 at Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville and at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, March 12 at Symphony Center in Chicago.

“‘Hear Me Roar’ will be a celebration of the many contributions women have made to the field of classical music,” said Jim Hirsch, Chief Executive Officer of Chicago Sinfonietta. “As a part of Chicago Sinfonietta’s 30th anniversary season, this concert reflects our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion by showcasing works composed by women and is the centerpiece concert of our year-long Project W commissioning project.”

Interestingly, during its 30th anniversary season Chicago Sinfonietta has been presenting a higher percentage of works by women composers than any other orchestra in the United States. Chicago Sinfonietta’s year-long initiative called Project W with its statement “Women Rule” is a great way to demonstrate the unique talent and mastership of female composers. Only by promoting music written by women and by making it available to various audiences is it possible to prove that women composers are as skillful as men and are capable of creating timeless masterpieces.

“‘Hear Me Roar’ takes Chicago Sinfonietta into uncharted repertoire with two major new commissions among three Chicago Premieres,” said Maestro Mei-Ann Chen. “The entire program is comprised of incredible works created by women composers – both past and present. While Jennifer Higdon and Reena Esmail represent the new generation of composers who are making symphonic history with every piece they compose, Florence Price and Dora Pejačević wrote music that has literally become the hidden gem of the orchestral repertoire as very few music lovers know their music well.”

This brilliant concert program will be the fourth out of five main stage programs of this concert season. Maestro Chen, Chicago Sinfonietta’s beloved and extremely enthusiastic music director and conductor who celebrates her seventh year with the Chicago Sinfonietta, will lead the program. “Hear Me Roar” will feature such talented instrumentalists as Carol Dylan, violin; Karen Nelson, violin; Marlea Simpson, viola; and Ann Griffin, cello. Interestingly, “Hear Me Roar” falls right after International Women’s Day, which is celebrated on March 8, and within Women’s History Month (March).

“Under the baton of Music Director Mei-Ann Chen, the Sinfonietta will open the concert with Florence Price’s Dances in the Canebrakes,” noted Mr. Hirsch. “Price was the first African-American to have a symphonic work performed by a major American Orchestra. She has recently been rediscovered thanks in large part to Maestro Chen’s programming of her works with Chicago Sinfonietta and other orchestras. The first half concludes with Dance Card, a work co-commissioned by Chicago Sinfonietta by Grammy Award winning composer Jennifer Higdon.”

Price was born in Arkansas in 1887, and after intensively studying music and attending the New England Conservatory, she and her family moved to Chicago in 1927. Eventually, Chicago brought her fame and recognition, but her path wasn’t the easiest one. Price created more than three hundred compositions and was inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 1940, but after her death in 1953 her music was partially lost and partially forgotten. Chicago Sinfonietta is proud to demonstrate all the passion and the talent of this African-American female composer who deserves to be praised for her hard work, enthusiasm and mastership. Her piece called “Dances in the Canebrakes” will touch the heart of every member of the audience.

It will be followed by the Chicago premiere of “Dance Card” written by Jennifer Higdon, one of America’s most frequently performed living composers. Despite the fact that Higdon started late in music, she achieved a lot as a musician and composer and has become a major figure in contemporary classical music. She received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto, a 2010 Grammy for her Percussion Concerto, and a 2018 Grammy for her Viola Concerto. She is just another example of how far a woman composer can go and how much a woman can achieve. In one of her notes about “Dance Card,” Higdon enthusiastically wrote: “‘Dance Card’ is a celebration of the joy, lyricism and passion of a group of strings playing together!” Chicago Sinfonietta is happy to demonstrate all these emotions to its audience.

“The second half of the concert begins with another commissioned work, this time a world premiere by Reena Esmail entitled #MeToo,” added Mr. Hirsch. “All three of these works [premieres] will be recorded for our 16th CD and released on Cedille Records in 2019. The concert concludes with the first movement of Symphony in F-sharp minor by Dora Pejačević. This seldom heard symphony is an early example of a composition by a women composer that should be a part of the standard repertoire of orchestras all over the world.”

The piece with the modern title #MeToo is written by Indian-American composer Reena Esmail whose works combine both the features of Indian and Western classical music. This unique composer brings communities together through the creation of pieces that are loved and understood by people with different backgrounds. Her compositions are successfully performed throughout the US and abroad and have been programmed at Carnegie Hall, the Barbican Centre in London, Schloss Esterhazy in Hungary, and throughout India. Esmail holds degrees in composition from The Juilliard School and the Yale School of Music, and was a Fulbright grantee to India. Her piece #MeToo is so unique that it is worth hearing it!

The first movement of Symphony in F-sharp minor by Croatian composer Dora Pejačević will conclude the concert. Pejačević was and still is one of the most influential figures in Croatian music. She is known for bringing orchestral song to Croatian late-Romantic music. During her short life (she lived only thirty eight years) she composed fifty seven completed works. It will be an unforgettable Chicago Premiere of Pejačević’s unique and colorful piece that will make this concert program unforgettable!

If you are interested in supporting women composers and hearing their remarkable compositions, please call Chicago Sinfonietta at 312-284-1554 or purchase tickets online at Tickets range from $20-$99 for concerts at Symphony Center and $49-$62 for concerts at North Central College with special $10 pricing available for students at both concerts. Ticket holders are invited before the concert and during intermission to experience activities with Girls Rock! Chicago and YWCA. These activities are presented as part of BRIDGE – Chicago Sinfonietta’s audience engagement thematic concert programming established to break social, racial, and economic barriers within the symphonic experience.

Natalia Dagenhart


This article by Betsy Schwarm about composer Gerald Cohen’s new opera STEAL A PENCIL FOR ME is reprinted with permission from Opera Colorado’s Ovation newsletter, summer 2017.

Many of the very best operas are love stories. Few, however, are closely based on actual experiences of actual couples. This season, Opera Colorado will present the world premiere of an opera telling the tale of a very true love. The work of composer Gerald Cohen and librettist Deborah Brevoort, Steal a Pencil for Me, was inspired by the romance of Ina and Jaap Polak, survivors of Bergen-Belsen and members of the Shaarei Tikvah synagogue in Scarsdale, New York, where Cohen serves as cantor.

Having known the Polaks for over twenty years, Cohen was well familiar with their experiences. “Here,” he says, “was an amazing story right under my nose.” Imagining what a powerful opera it could make, he broached the idea to Ina and Jaap, who, as he recalls “didn’t take a lot of convincing;” there was already a filmed documentary of their story, though an opera would be something new, and even more dramatic. However, at the time, Ina was 87 and Jaap 97, a fact that led Jaap to advise “write it quickly.”

Having permission from the central subjects to make an opera of their life is one thing, but one also needs a text suitable for singing. Cohen approached librettist Deborah Brevoort. “At first, I said no,” Brevoort admits. “I was just too busy to take on something new at the time. But I agreed to read the letters, and found them too beautiful to resist.”

Jaap and Ina Polak
Jaap & Ina: through the years

Brevoort and Cohen sat down to visit with the actual persons at the center of the story: an immensely rare privilege in the opera world. Admittedly, when composer John Adams wrote his opera Dr. Atomic, he drew upon recently unclassified government documents concerning the Manhattan Project, but Robert Oppenheimer himself was already long gone. Of the conversation with Ina and Jaap, Brevoort says she found it “uplifting to actually spend time with them. I would be writing words to express their personalities.”

In another time and place, it might have been a romantic comedy. Brevoort sums it up: “boy meets girl – boy loses girl – boy gets girl back.” However, Ina, Jaap, and their friends and family are Dutch Jews during World War II; the Nazis are already on the scene and a concentration camp is in the immediate future.

Gerald Cohen
Gerald Cohen, composer

Brevoort cautions, however, that the resulting opera isn’t a typical Holocaust story: “Their situation made them appreciate the joyous wonder of the world, how beautiful and wonderful a glass of water was. They dreamed about sitting in a chair at a table and having an ordinary breakfast. I was struck by the ordinariness of it, and the beauty.” If the classic verismo opera concept, a la Puccini, is using music to tell believable stories about believable people, here it was.

An initial version of Steal a Pencil for Me was workshopped in New York in 2013. In an opera workshop, a work-in-progress is performed before an audience, perhaps semi-staged. Seeing it come to life, its creative team can get a stronger sense of the piece and begin to refine their creation. Opera Colorado’s Music Director Ari Pelto was asked to conduct. He found the piece sufficiently intriguing that he discussed it with Opera Colorado’s General Director Greg Carpenter, and the two decided they might be interested in staging the work.

As Pelto remembers, “it had a lot of potential, though it wasn’t ready to be produced. It needed some dramaturgical attention for better story-telling.” The suggestions that Pelto and Carpenter presented to Cohen and Brevoort were well received, and the new opera began to take more definite form. “It’s a privilege beyond what you can imagine,” says Pelto, “to have this much input this early on, and it’s personally rewarding to see how far it’s come.” Pelto’s suggestions ranged from instrumental choices to re-ordering of events in Act One: factors that affect both how the music sounds and how the story flows.

Deborah Brevoort
Deborah Brevoort, librettist

Comparing the opera’s to what Ina and Jaap actually experienced, Brevoort says “there’s very little that’s invented. We changed some sequencing and altered the opening scene in context, so we could introduce one principal character to the audience before the Nazis take him. It seemed to make Ina’s memories of Rudi – at the time, he’s her fiancé – that much more vivid.” Ina and Jaap had agreed that, when one brings real life to the stage, something need to change for dramatic flow.

Ina and Jaap are the central love story, but before coming together, both had other loves. Ina was engaged to Rudi; Jaap was married to Manja. Cohen saw this “romantic square” as a perfect opportunity for an operatic quartet late in the work, with poor departed Rudi appearing as a ghost; both Rudi and Manja free their former partners to pursue new happiness. He decided to write Ina, the younger of the two women, as a light lyric soprano, making Manja a mezzo. Rudi, being a ghost, is a high tenor. Jaap is a baritone, in part to contrast Rudi, but also because Cohen himself, as a cantor, is a baritone; the composer admits he may gravitate to his own vocal range when setting important male characters. In fact, when it comes to writing an opera, he sees an advantage in his experience as a singer: “I sense what it feels like in the voice to sing these lines, what feels right and normal.” Many an opera singer wishes more composers would approach their operatic writing in that way.

Bringing out characters and situations through musical means is exactly what the best operas do, and Steal a Pencil for Me proves that this long-standing vision still works. Anyone wanting a preview of the story itself can find it on Netflix in a 2007 documentary by director Michele Ohayan that composer Gerald Cohen found truly inspirational. However, this touching tale of love in the face of deadly peril will become even more powerful with music to carry it into the hearts and minds of the audience.

After a full life together, both Ina and Jaap passed away recently. “Fortunately, they had been ableto attend the performances in Scarsdale and New York City, sitting in the front row for both performances – a deeply emotional experience for both them and the cast. The initial workshop performance was presented in honor of their 90th and 100th birthdays. Members of their extended family are hoping to come to Denver for Opera Colorado’s production early next year.

Don’t miss Opera Colorado’s world premiere of Steal a Pencil for Me January 25, 27, 28 and 30 at the Wolf Theatre at Denver’s Mizel Arts and Culture Center, Denver, Colorado.