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Classical 101

New Recording Of Music By American Women Composers

Reuben Blundell leads the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra.
Mark Gavin
Reuben Blundell leads the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra.

There’s a new recording shedding light on a much-neglected area of American music—orchestral music by women composers.

The history of American orchestral music is full of names like Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein – men whose music is as timeless as it is enjoyable. But, as conductor Reuben Blundell puts it, “there’s this whole other history of American music that’s just terrific.

In his most recent recording with the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra, American Discoveries (New Focus Recordings), Blundell is shedding light on that music.

American Discoveries features world-premiere recordings of underperformed works by three American women composers – Priscilla Alden Beach, Linda Robbins Coleman and Alexandra Pierce. Blundell discovered the music in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music, home to works by more than 100 American women composers.

The works on American Discoveries span a range of musical styles. Priscilla Alden Beach composed City Trees while a student at the Eastman School of Music during the 1920s. The piece is redolent of the lush, neo-Romanticism of her teacher Howard Hanson.

American Discoveries cover art
New Focus Records
New Focus Records

Contemporary composer Linda Robbins Coleman’s For a Beautiful Land is full of rich harmonies and expansive gestures.

“One of the instructions that she writes to performers is that ‘this phrase should be played in a very Coplandesque way.’ So that’s the kind of musical language that she’s very attracted to,” Blundell said.

Alexandra Pierce served on the faculty of the University of Redlands and, alongside composing, had a career researching the connections between music and movement. Her tone poem Behemoth, in five short movements writhes with sinewy melodies and tense harmonies.

You can hear excerpts from these pieces in my interview with Blundell, posted above.

In addition to bringing underperformed works by American women composers to light, Blundell’s work on American Discoveries has made some of those works useable for other orchestras for the first time.

Beach’s City Trees was available only in handwritten parts when Blundell came across it. With support from the Fleisher Collection and with the expertise of music editor Clinton Nieweg, the score and orchestra parts for City Trees have been professionally typeset in an edition that is available for loan from the Fleisher Collection.

American Discoveries is the first of a planned three recordings showcasing underperformed works by American women composers. Blundell plans to feature music by Joanna Brouk, Radie Britain, Frances McCollin and Ulric Cole on the next disc in the American Discoveries series, with a planned release in 2023.

Beyond the additional recordings, Blundell says he hopes the American Discoveries project will inspire concert planners everywhere to consider programming and performing this repertoire.

“I encourage people to check out this music,” Blundell said. “None of it’s music that I have the only copy of, and I hope that what we’re doing is able to encourage people to perform it and share it with their public, too.”

Transcript of interview with Reuben Blundell:

Jennifer Hambrick: I’m Jennifer Hambrick midday host of WOSU Public Media’s Classical 101, in Columbus. I’m speaking with conductor Reuben Blundell about his recording American Discoveries with the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra. Your recording American Discoveries was released just this year, 2021, and is entirely devoted to music by American women composers. How did this recording come about?

Reuben Blundell: Well, I’m very lucky in that the orchestra that I conduct in Philadelphia, the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra – it’s in the Delaware County suburbs of Philadelphia – because I live in New York, I go to Philadelphia, and it’s the only thing I have on my calendar when I go there. So if I can get away earlier in the day, I go to the Fleisher Collection. It’s part of the Philadelphia Free Library. And they have 23,000 pieces of music there. And it’s not solely the scores. For most of those pieces it’s also the full orchestral sets. They have a lot of the standard repertoire. You can certainly get a Beethoven symphony. They have Shostakovich, Prokofiev. But 23,000 pieces is a lot. It would take years to play that music end to end. So I had the opportunity to explore. And I put together my first CD with a small string orchestra, the Gowanis Arts Ensemble, in 2016. And that was all new recordings of previously unrecorded pieces for string orchestra. And that came out, it went pretty well. And that was all American composers. And then a second CD of that repertoire. And with the Lansdowne Symphony, we recorded also music for the third CD in that series. But one of the things you have to do when you’re making a recording is you have to be economical. And if you find music that is in hand-written form, it’s difficult to get it recorded. It’s hard for the musicians to read. So what that meant, though, is that a lot of the scores that I’d look at, a lot of them were by female composers, But they were handwritten. I kept thinking, this is going to be something. One of the pieces on this CD is by Priscilla Beach, and it was only in handwritten copy. It’s very clean handwritten copy from the Works Project Administration projects that the Fleisher Collection took great advantage of in the ‘30s. Erwin [Edwin] Fleisher applied for grants and hired composers to make orchestral sets of some really great pieces of music. But for our purposes, it’s even better if we have a really good edition that can then be lent out to the orchestras that, I hope, will be intrigued by the music that we’re recording. The Fleisher Collection version of City Trees by Priscilla Beach anybody can now borrow it and perform from the same published set that we did.

JH: So you were sort of a frequent guest, I guess, at the Fleisher Collection and just discovered that there was this wealth of music by women composers that had maybe never been performed or not performed in a while, and then you built the American discoveries project around that.

RB: That’s exactly right. There’s this whole other history of American music that’s just terrific.

JH: If you would, please talk us through the works on American Discoveries.

RB: So, Priscilla Beach is descended from Mayflower folks, but she had an incredibly intriguing life. After studying at Smith College she went to Eastman, and then Juilliard. And she was involved in music for silent films at the Museum of Modern Art apparently. You just learn so much about America reading about these composers. The Museum of Modern Art had a silent film series where they’d have a small orchestra, and she composed music for that. I mean, this piece is very early in her career. It’s really her graduation piece from her master’s degree from Eastman. She started at about the same time as Howard Hanson, and it’s kind of in that vein of music. So Later on in her life, she moved over towards science and was a research director at Shelton University [College] Cape May, New Jersey. So fascinating, fascinating life.

Linda Robbins Coleman now, she lives in Iowa. She has, I think, lived in Iowa her entire life. She went to Drake University. At Drake, she was a composer at the playhouse there, and she continued that relationship for a long time. And so her music – it’s very beautifully tonal and accessible. And, you know, one of the instructions that she writes to performers is that “this phrase should be played in a very Coplandesque way.” So that’s the kind of musical language that she’s very attracted to.

Now, Alexandra Pierce’s piece – Alexandra Pierce was born in Washington, D.C., but she spent most of her life in California. She was a professor at the University of Redlands, and her husband was also a, I think, musician. But her area of research – It’s a fascinating area of how movement and physicality is connected to sound. And she’s written books about this. And it’s really kind of interesting, in Behemoth because she writes about the piece being inspired by the non finito, [by] Michelangelo, those marble sculptures where it seems as if the people – mostly very strong men – are emerging from the marble. And so the whole idea of muscles and kinesthetic connection to music is fascinating. And the piece really has a lot of that.

JH: American Discoveries is the first in what you are planning to be a series of recordings of underplayed works by American women composers. Could you talk about what you have planned of the rest of the series?

RB: Once the Lansdowne’s Symphony’s back at rehearsing, we’ll probably record our next piece sometime in February of next year and then probably another on in March, another one in hopefully May. And then we have our summers off because we’re a community orchestra that rehearses on Tuesday nights. A community orchestra of excellent players. Some of them have master’s degrees in music, but they work in other fields, so it’s just such a wonderful ensemble to work with. But they have work. Unfortunately, we can’t set aside a couple of weeks for recording sessions. That would be terrific, but their other employers might have problems. So I expect that the next full orchestra recording of the Lansdowne Symphony, which will include pieces by Joanna Brouk and Radie Britain and Frances McCollin, I think, and Ulric Cole. I’m expecting that the next full orchestra recording would be out in 2023 at the end of the year, hopefully. Or maybe 2024 early in the year. But I’m not sure yet. It sort of depends how things go, including the progress of the pandemic.

JH: It sounds like there is enough music in the Fleisher Collection by American women composers that you could keep doing this forever. You could make and entire career out of recording this repertoire.

RB: When you say the words “You could make a career out of it,” I just get so excited. It sounds like a fun one, a fun career. One of the really useful things that I heard recently was, make sure that your audience knows that you’re doing something special. One of the reasons that great music that deserves a second look can sometimes fall off the main serving table, to torture an analogy, is because people don’t realize that, Oh, we’re doing a female composer, we’re doing a composer of color. We’re doing a couple of underplayed pieces. We want you to think about this music, and we’d like to play it again. So I encourage people to check out this music. None of it’s music that I have the only copy of. And I hope that what we’re doing is able to encourage people to perform it and share it with their public, too.

JH: Conductor Reuben Blundell’s most recent recording with the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra is American Discoveries, featuring works by three American women composers. I’m Jennifer Hambrick with Classical 101, WOSU Public Media, in Columbus.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.