Saturday, July 24, 2021

Back to the Future Is Female with Sarah Cahill

In June of 2020, back when nobody knew how long the COVID pandemic would last, the Old First Church concert series made plans to open for safely distanced concerts with a piano recital by Sarah Cahill featuring little-known female composers. As the numbers of infected continued to rise across the country, there was a last-minute decision to cancel the live concert and broadcast it live over YouTube from an Oakland living room with a beautiful rug. It was an interesting concert, which you can read about by clicking here, but it confirmed that watching musical performances digitally while hunkering at home was not going to be for me, and I took up 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles instead for most of 2020.
Old First Concerts finally opened their live concerts over a year later, and last Friday Sarah offered another "The Future Is Female" concert, with completely different pieces and composers.
This strange in-between-time we are experiencing with the new variants among the vaccinated and unvaccinated has prompted an array of mitigation efforts. Having been to enough "return to performance" concerts over the last few months, they all seem completely arbitrary. The most effective, in my mind, is what the San Francisco Symphony has done at Davies Hall, where proof of vaccination is required to enter. At Old First Church on Friday, there was no such screening, but the audience was asked to keep their masks on throughout and every other row was to be kept empty, an instruction we didn't realize until we were kicked out of a row close to the stage. We relocated to the front row of the balcony, which turned out to be great seats.
The concert started with the 1997 Music for Piano by the 74-year old Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh who has been writing fusion music between traditional mugam music and Western modernists like Arnold Schoenberg. The piece calls for a beaded necklace to be placed on the treble strings of the piano, which made it sound like the tar, a long-necked, plucked lute that has a zither-like sound. This alternated with the unmodified bass section of the piano in a fascinating way. This was followed by On the Chequer's Field Array'd, a three-movement work by the British composer Hannah Kendall that was brainy and involving, following a chess game narrative that felt like a more intellectual version of The Queen's Gambit.
My favorite piece of the evening was by Anna bon di Venezia, who wrote Six Keyboard Sonatas in the mid-18th century at the age of 19 before disappearing into marriage and historical anonymity. Sarah played Sonata #5 in B minor and gave a beautifully articulated performance of music that was probably written for a harpsichord. This was followed by a pair of short, unpublished works from the 1910 Au sein de la nature by Leokadiya Kashperova, famous for being Igor Stravinsky's piano teacher and Anton Rubinstein's best student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.
The major work of the evening was by Agi Jambor, a half-Jewish Hungarian piano prodigy born in 1909 who lived one of the most dramatic lives imaginable. Her Wikipedia page is about 12 terse sentences and here are a few of them : "From 1926 to 1931, Jambor studied piano with Edwin Fischer at the Berlin University of the Arts. In the early 1930s, at the height of her popularity, she fled to Paris and into exile. In 1933, Jambor married Imre Patai, a physicist and pianist. Trapped with her husband when the Nazis overran Holland, and unable to escape to the United States, she later returned to Hungary, which was still neutral. The Nazis invaded in 1944 and Jambor participated in the Resistance, often dressed as a prostitute in seductive clothes and heavy makeup, calling herself Maryushka. She refused to return or perform in Germany again. She and her husband came to the United States in 1947. Her husband died two years later, his health destroyed by the war. Between 1955 and 1957, Jambor recorded five albums for Capitol Records in New York City, New York. After leaving Baltimore for Philadelphia in 1957, she began performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra, where she became a favorite soloist of Eugene Ormandy and was acclaimed by conductor Bruno Walter. She received rave reviews and made 12 recordings for Capitol Records."

She was also the fifth wife (out of six) of movie star Claude Raines in the 1950s when she anonymously wrote a three-movement piano sonata dedicated to the victims of Auschwitz. The Sonata is ferocious music, with obsessive, repeating bass patterns mingling with sounds that were like Shostakovich meets Ligeti. Afterwards, Sarah played three slight pieces by Zenobia Powell Perry (the 1960 Rhapsody) and Madeleine Dring (the 1963 Blue Air and Brown Study), but they were overwhelmed by what had preceded them.
Everyone is coming out of their pandemic shells at different speeds and with differing levels of psychic wounds. It was a pleasure watching so many people reconnecting for the first time in over a year, including the Italian composer Luciano Chessa above, who is presently esconced in Berlin after years in Berkeley.

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