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Uncommon Women
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This project is funded by the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, through the generous support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

+ About the Performance
This program was recorded 02/07/2014 at Symphony Space.

Celebrating a host of birthdays, the women warriors of new music, Joan Tower (75),  Ursula Oppens and Tania León (70), and the Cassatt Quartet (30th anniversary season) come together with Tower’s Dumbarton Quintet, Beethoven’s “Harp” String Quartet, and  the world premiere of Ethos by León, dedicated to the late Isaiah Sheffer.

This concert is part of the citywide Composers Now Festival.


Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet No. 10 in Eb maj "The Harp" Op. 74

I. Poco Adagio - Allegro

II. Adagio ma non troppo

III. Presto - Piu presto quasi prestissimo

Tania León: Ethos for Piano and String Quartet

I. In the cage where the heart paces,

II. blaze of lights

III. Viridian. Ochre. Cobalt blue.

Ethos was commissioned by Symphony Space with support from the New York State Council of the Arts Individual Artists Program.

A conversation with Tania León, Joan Tower, and Laura Kaminsky

Joan Tower: Dumbarton Quintet

+ About the Artists

Acclaimed as one of America's outstanding ensembles, the Manhattan based Cassatt String Quartet has performed throughout North America, Europe, and the Far East, with appearances at New York's Alice Tully Hall and Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, the Tanglewood Music Theater, the Kennedy Center and Library of Congress in Washington, DC, the Theatre des Champs-Élysées in Paris and Maeda Hall in Tokyo. The Quartet has been presented on major radio stations such as NPR's Performance Today, Boston's WGBH, New York's WQXR and WNYC, and on Canada's CBC Radio and Radio France.

Formed in 1985 with the encouragement of the Juilliard Quartet, the Cassatt initiated and served as the inaugural participants in Juilliard's Young Artists Quartet Program. Their numerous awards include a Tanglewood Chamber Music Fellowship, the Wardwell Chamber Music Fellowship at Yale (where they served as teaching assistants to the Tokyo Quartet), First Prizes at the Fischoff and Coleman Chamber Music Competitions, two top prizes at the Banff International String Quartet Competition, two CMA/ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming, a recording grant from the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, and commissioning grants from Meet the Composer and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2004, they were selected for the centennial celebration of the Coleman Chamber Music Association in Pasadena, California.


Pianist Ursula Oppens, one of the very first artists to grasp the importance of programming traditional and contemporary works in equal measure, has won a singular place in the hearts of her public, critics, and colleagues alike. Her sterling musicianship, uncanny understanding of the composer’s artistic argument, and lifelong study of the keyboard’s resources, have placed her among the elect of performing musicians.

Driven by an enduring commitment to integrating new music into regular concert life, Ms. Oppens has commissioned and premiered many compositions, including works by Anthony Braxton, Elliott Carter, Anthony Davis, John Harbison, Julius Hemphill, Laura Kaminksy, Tania León, György Ligeti, Witold Lutoslawski, Conlon Nancarrow, Tobias Picker, Frederic Rzewski, Alvin Singleton, Joan Tower, Christian Wolff, Amnon Wolman, and Charles Wuorinen.

Tania León, (b. Havana, Cuba) is highly regarded as a composer and conductor and recognized for her accomplishments as an educator and advisor to arts organizations. Her opera Scourge of Hyacinths, based on a play by Wole Soyinka with staging and design by Robert Wilson, received over 20 performances throughout Europe and Mexico. Commissioned by Hans Werner Henze and the city of Munich for the Fourth Munich Biennale, it took home the coveted BMW Prize. The aria "Oh Yemanja" ("Mother's Prayer") was recorded by Dawn Upshaw on her Nonesuch CD, The World So Wide.

Commissions include works for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, New World Symphony, Koussevitzky Foundation, Fest der Kontinente (Hamburg, Germany), Cincinnati Symphony, National Endowment for the Arts, NDR Sinfonie Orchester, American Composers Orchestra, The Library of Congress, Ensemble Modern, The Los Angeles Master Chorale, and The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, among others. Her works have been performed by such orchestras as the Gewaundhausorchester, L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the China National Symphony, and the NDR Orchestra. She has collaborated with authors and directors including John Ashbury, Margaret Atwood, Rita Dove, Jamaica Kincaid, Mark Lamos, Julie Taymor, and Derek Walcott.

Joan Tower is widely regarded as one of the most important American composers living today. During a career spanning more than fifty years, she has made lasting contributions to musical life in the United States as composer, performer, conductor, and educator. Her works have been commissioned by major ensembles, soloists, and orchestras, including the Emerson, Tokyo, and Muir quartets; soloists Evelyn Glennie, Carol Wincenc, David Shifrin, and John Browning; and the orchestras of Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Washington DC among others. Tower was the first composer chosen for a Ford Made in America consortium commission of sixty-five orchestras. Leonard Slatkin and the Nashville Symphony recorded Made in America in 2008 (along with Tambor and Concerto for Orchestra). The album collected three Grammy awards: Best Classical Contemporary Composition, Best Classical Album, and Best Orchestral Performance. In 1990 she became the first woman to win the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Silver Ladders, a piece she wrote for the St. Louis Symphony where she was Composer-in-Residence from 1985-88. Other residencies with orchestras include a 10-year residency with the Orchestra of St. Luke's (1997-2007) and the Pittsburgh Symphony (2010-2011). She is in residence as the Albany Symphony’s Mentor Composer partner in the 2013-14 season.

+ About the Music

Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet No. 10 in Eb maj "The Harp" Op. 74 (1809)

The year 1809 could be called Beethoven's E flat year, since it produced three major works in that key – the Fifth Piano Concerto, the piano sonata Les Adieux, and this magnificent quartet. The three works are basically serene masterpieces, as if Beethoven felt himself to be on a plateau of confidence after a great outpouring in the previous six years. Other things in 1809 testify to his desire to enjoy his powers – the two short piano sonatas, Op.78 and 79, and a number of songs.


The quartet (which has been labelled "The Harp" on account of some arpeggiando pizzicato passages in the first movement) opens with a contemplative introduction in which the key of E flat is made to have introspective tendencies, with a pull towards the sober subdominant, A flat, in which key the slow movement will fall. The Allegro, dignified and confident, immediately displays a similar tendency towards the subdominant and the celebrated pizzicati soon follow. The development contains a wonderfully exultant C major treatment of the main theme, and the coda creates one of the most original and powerful passages in quartet writing – the first violin breaks out into brilliant bravura, as if he were suddenly the soloist in a concerto, and while he lets fly the texture thrillingly deepens and solidifies beneath until the four instruments sound as if the whole world is singing.


The gentle A flat slow movement is a rondo, the beautiful main melody recurring at intervals, with episodes that tend to melancholy. This music is essentially innocent and direct, and attempts to overstress it always defeat themselves. Then comes a very strong C minor scherzo, its rhythm reminding us of the Fifth Symphony, the suggestion reinforced by a rushing C major trio. The parallel with the symphony becomes even more striking when the scherzo recedes into a breathless pianissimo that shows signs of behaving like the famous link into the symphony's finale.


The allusion is genuine, but ironic. Beethoven is clearly making affectionate fun of the earlier drama, and instead of a blazing finale (as much as to say "there's no brass in a string quartet!") we have some delightfully resourceful variations on a deceptively accented theme. These variations, in their unobtrusive way, contain shrewd prophecies, as anyone who knows their Brahms will confirm. The last movement of Brahms' B flat quartet, Op.67, might almost be described as a variation on Beethoven's variations, theme and all. If you remember the Brahms, listen especially to Beethoven's variation with solo viola, and to the one with persistent triplets on the cello. Brahms obviously could not resist anything so Brahmsian.

--Dr. Robert Simpson

Tania León: Ethos for Piano and String Quartet (2014)

I want to gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Susannah Sheffer for offering her poems for me to read which inspired the titles of the movements, and to Ethel Sheffer, for lending me CDs that were dear to Isaiah. One of the CDs in particular, sung by Moishe Oysher, resonated with the intention of the piece and two selections of the recording were sources of inspiration for the first two movements of the work—in the first movement, Greene Bletter (a Yiddish folk song) and in the second movement, Hayom (a Cantorial song performed during Rosh Hashana).
Ethos is a work with a range of stylistic devices, influences and references of Western music, evoking traditional roots of diverse mixture of ideas and traditions.  

I. In the cage where the heart paces 
The work opens with a series of meditative chords in a slow processional pace of movement and stillness. The processional pace gives way to a myriad of propelling lines in contrast to a series of emerging rhythmical structures. A multitude of fast passages in swirling motions while notated may be perceived as though they were improvised.  

II. blaze of lights
In the second movement, the whirlpool of propulsive rhythmic impulses weaves into tapestries and mixtures of different musical worlds. Calls and responses; evoking conversational interactions for traditional chamber music participation. The movement ends with a fragment inspired by the Cantorial song "Hayom," in a slow processional pace... of movement and stillness.

III. Viridian. Ochre. Cobalt blue.
The third movement may be translated as my homage to a joyful spirit that is characteristically "jazzy." A distinctive sonic territory engulfed in a liberal mix of Latin and jazz musical elements, imbued with a final whirlpool of rhythmic pulses.
Ethos is written for Ursula Oppens and the Cassatt Quartet.
-Tania León

Joan Tower: Dumbarton Quintet (2008)

Following Stravinsky and Copland as the third commissioned composer by the Dumbarton Oaks Estate is of course quite daunting — particularly since these are two very strong composers that had an enormous influence on me. Their sense of musical continuity and profiling of ideas puts them in the category of musical geniuses. I have, in fact, dedicated two pieces to them: Petroushskates (to Stravinsky) and Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman (to Copland). My musical debt to these two great composers is profound. 

The Dumbarton Quintet is a piano quintet dedicated to Susan Feder, my longtime publisher at G. Schirmer and Associated Music Publishers. (She is now with the Mellon Foundation). It was commissioned by the Dumbarton Oaks Estate. 

It is a 14-minute work in one movement that travels through several themes with different emotional contents. The first is a flowing line that is cast in a narrow space of smaller intervals first soft, then loud but with a restrained kind of intensity that finally "bursts out" into a more "forward" and visceral type of intensity. This shifting between intensities, in fact, is part of the "dna" of the work and as the piece progresses; each side tends to take on more and more extremes of expression. At particular points, the "softer" material becomes almost romantic, consonant and singing in its expression whereas the "louder" passages become the opposite — manic and aggressively dissonant. 
--Joan Tower

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