Chicago Sinfonietta praises women composers in its “Hear Me Roar” concert program

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