THE CLASSICAL MUSIC CANON is full of dead white men. Just look at the events schedule for most symphony orchestras or opera companies, even in a progressively minded city like ours. That sad truth has been ingrained in the musical world for centuries.
"Even in Europe at the end of the 19th century, it was the common understanding that women didn't have the capacity to compose important work," says Anya Kalina, artistic director for Portland Chamber Music (PCM). "They maybe could perform music, but that was usually just in living rooms for guests. Most people believed they weren't good enough for the concert stage. We know about [German composer Robert] Schumann, but we forget about his wife, Clara, who was also a major pianist at the time and a composer."
Even less widely recognized are members of the school of African American composers who emerged in the 20th century. Though many were trained at the world's most respected conservatories, names like Florence Price, Undine Smith Moore, and Margaret Bonds are still virtually unknown to even the most dedicated appreciators of modern classical.
That's what makes PCM's upcoming recital such a vital event for music lovers in Portland. Taking place at the Community Music Center on Saturday, March 5, the performance, A Remarkable Journey, will include works by the aforementioned composers as well as pieces by Betty Jackson King, Mary Lou Williams, and Mary Watkins. The evening will also feature photographer and writer Intisar Abioto, known for her curation of the Black Portlanders photo project, who will tell the life stories of these women, many of whom had to overcome some heartbreaking obstacles to get their music heard.
"They had to deal with so much," says Kalina. "Florence Price was the first African American woman to have a piece performed by a major orchestra in a major city, but had to run with her kids from an abusive husband. Margaret Bonds was a soloist with the Chicago Symphony while still dealing with a great deal of discrimination and fighting with depression. It's those details that make you wonder how they were able to write such beautiful music."
And so many of their compositions are breathtaking. Price's Adoration, one of the pieces that PCM will be performing, has a hymn-like quality, with long, stately chords that hang in the air like bulbous clouds against a dark blue sky. Troubled Water, written by Bonds in 1967 and based on the spiritual "Wade in the Water," feels rooted deeply in the ground and suffused with strongly felt agony and hard-won salvation.
Another extremely important aspect to this and every Portland Chamber Music recital is that the group makes sure the performance is accessible to everyone. The cost of admission is flexible, and the show is open to all ages. PCM also strives to bring classical music to neighborhoods and communities in the city that might not otherwise have access.
For Kalina, the message of a performance like A Remarkable Journey goes even deeper than that.
"This music is so uplifting," she says. "It is a reminder for all women that no matter what we are facing, we can do what we want to do and dream what we like. So many of these women were discouraged by society or their significant others or their parents, and they all said, 'No, this is what I want to do and I will do that.'"
A Remarkable Journey: Music by African American Women Composers
Portland Chamber Music at Community Music Center, 3350 SE Francis, Sat March 5, 7 pm, $10 suggested donation, all ages, pdxchambermusic.org
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