As part of its regular season programming, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra presents concerts of music for smaller ensembles featuring some of its star performers. The women composers theme of today’s program celebrated the famous “sister act’” of Nadia and Lili Boulanger, along with America’s earliest female composer of note plus a composer of today.

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra © Chelsea Tischler
Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
© Chelsea Tischler

Opening the program were several works by the Boulanger sisters, beginning with a group of three pieces for cello and piano by older sister Nadia. Composed between 1911 and 1914, they’re attractive, finely crafted pieces that were sensitively played by cellist Joshua Koestenbaum and pianist Wei-Yi Yang. But they’re hard to distinguish from other works of this kind that were being composed in France during the early 1900s. Listening to them, I couldn’t help but think that Nadia made the right choice in becoming a teacher, leaving her own composing career behind. Cellist Koestenbaum’s singing tone was beautiful, but in the third piece there were some intonation difficulties in several of the trickier passages.

Certainly, Nadia must have recognized the creative genius of her younger sister Lili, who despite her tragically short life (she died in 1918 at the age of 24) managed to pen a number of impressive compositions in a variety of genres. The 1911 Nocturne is an exquisite piece that flautist Julia Bogorad-Kogan, joined by pianist Yang, delivered with great musicality, making it all sound effortlessly easy (it isn’t).

Also presented was Lili’s D’un matin de printemps, a work that the composer created in several forms. I had the opportunity to review the orchestral version for Bachtrack  earlier this month, allowing for direct comparison with today’s rendition for flute and piano. Dating from the final year of Lili’s life, the originality of this piece demonstrates how much her compositional skill had progressed in a very short amount of time. Today’s performance by Bogorad and Yang was superb – yet I came away thinking that Lili’s orchestral version is the more successful one.

Coming forward nearly a century, New Zealand composer Dame Gillian Whitehead’s No stars, not even clouds dates from 2012. Inspired by the fighting spirit of writer Juanita Ketchel, a terminally ill friend of the composer, this string quartet contains several defined sections. The piece is punctuated by the distinctive calls of bellbirds (or korimako birds) which thrive throughout New Zealand. It makes for an unforgettable motif – and indeed it was an important unifying musical element in the work, which was forcefully played by SPCO violinists Maureen Nelson and Steven Copes, violist Hyobi Sim and cellist Sarah Lewis.

For the final work on the intermission-free program, the SPCO’s four string players were joined by pianist Yang for the Quintet in F sharp minor for piano and strings, Op.67 by Amy Marcy Cheney Beach. As America’s first recognized female composer, Beach has received flattering attention ever since the 1970s when her compositions were rediscovered as part of the revival of interest in Romantic-era repertoire – not least her Gaelic Symphony which has eclipsed in popularity contemporaneous symphonic creations by other women composers such as Dora Pejačević.

The music of Beach is often compared to that of Brahms. I can understand the impulse, but in the case of the Piano Quintet, which Beach composed in 1907, I don’t think it’s a particularly apt comparison. True, the piece has the muscular weight we equate with a composer like Brahms, but it doesn’t sound like a work the German composer would have created. Instead, I hear more similarities between Beach’s Piano Quintet and the one composed by César Franck in 1879. Today’s performance was one of real passion. Following the portentous introduction, the sonata-like development in the first movement was vigorous and full-bodied. Passages of chorale-like melodies in the strings provided contrast, with delicate decorative touches by the piano.

With such an impressive first movement, one might have wondered how the SPCO musicians would sustain musical interest thereafter – but it was a challenge met easily. The second movement began with an achingly beautiful melody, dreamily presented by the violins and later the cello. I was struck by the emotional intensity of this movement, even though the dynamics rarely rise above mezzo-forte (with one exception towards the end).

The final Allegro agitato movement was a tour de force, full of color and forward momentum while also allowing for a lyrical middle section. At the end of the Quintet, Beach’s return to the music of the introduction is a masterstroke, following which the SPCO players brought the piece home with a soul-satisfying flourish. Throughout the entire piece, ensemble was tight and musical lines blended beautifully. In short, it was a memorably committed performance from the consummate artists of the SPCO – and it made the best possible case for this music.