Classical music critic

Programming a concert shouldn’t be about filling a quota. It should be about enlightening an audience with great music in wonderful combinations. Two concerts last week served as reminders of that. The thing is, they deliberately set out to include music by women, which was why they were so wonderful.

On Wednesday, Steven Isserlis, the British cellist, and Connie Shih, the Canadian pianist, offered a program called “Composers and Their Muses” that presented three pairs of composers, male and female, each of whom drew inspiration from the other. On Friday, violinist Jennifer Koh and composer/keyboardist Missy Mazzoli offered an evening of Mazzoli’s work. Both were vivid, bracing, memorable performances; yet neither would have happened had the performers not been making an explicit attempt to put women in the spotlight. Koh and Mazzoli’s evening, indeed, was the kickoff event in a maiden three-day festival of women’s music, put on by a new outfit called the Boulanger Initiative, dedicated to making women more visible in a field still heavily dominated by men.

Violinist Jennifer Koh, above, and composer/keyboardist Missy Mazzoli performed works by Mazzoli at the Blind Whino arts club. (Juergen Frank)

I hear a lot from people who fear that programming with an eye to gender, race or any other consideration is going to degrade the art, dragging it into some dreary sphere in which we try to meet quotas rather than promoting artistic excellence. There’s no better argument against this than actually listening to what happens when women’s music is brought to the fore. There’s far more great music out there than we can listen to in a lifetime. Clinging only to canonical names and established “masterpieces” has yielded an increasingly sterile field that’s struggling for relevance and connection with audiences who, at the same time, expect to be taught what they’re supposed to like. Opening up the field to other voices feels like a blast of fresh air — at least, it does whenever the window is cracked wide enough to admit more than a faint breath of it.

Isserlis and Shih’s recital at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, presented by Washington Performing Arts, was a delight from start to finish — from reading Isserlis’s compelling concert notes, which made you eager to hear the music, to the encore by Robert Schumann. In between came six pieces by Clara and Robert Schumann, Vitezslava Kapralova and Bohuslav Martinu, and Augusta Holmès and César Franck — and not a weak link in the bunch. Hearing the strong voices of the women felt like hearing the rest of the story, the part that’s usually confined only to the program notes: Rather than watering down the program, it fleshed it out.

Clara Schumann’s “Three Romances for Violin and Piano” showed a distinctive compositional presence, counterbalanced by Robert’s “Drei Fantasiestücke.” Kapralova’s “Ritornelle” was so powerful and vivid one suspected the composer might have eclipsed Martinu, with whom she seems to have had an intense affair, had she lived longer than 25. Still, Martinu’s first cello sonata, written around the same time, was also a remarkable burst of energy. (If there was another implicit tribute to women that evening, it was that Shih was so terrific she almost eclipsed Isserlis.)

Holmès, the first woman to have an opera premiere at the Paris Opera, was represented with an arrangement of part of a religious cantata in which the cello took the singing vocal line to ravishing, addictive effect. After that, Shih and Isserlis offered Franck’s famous sonata, which the composer specified could be played by violin or by cello — and left their hearts on the stage in a jaw-dropping performance of this well-known work. Among other things, the evening was a reminder that music is about voices, not masterpieces: the voices of the composers and the performers, rather than some static, abstract idea about how high a given work measures against some arbitrary benchmark. I wish every concert were more like this one.

Though Isserlis’s program was in a more “establishment” context, and Koh and Mazzoli were performing at a festival of women’s music, surrounded by murals on the colorful stage of the arts club Blind Whino in Southwest Washington, it was the latter who could be said to represent the musical mainstream. Isserlis revealed neglected composers. Mazzoli, however, is anything but obscure, the new composer-in-residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with a couple of successful operas (notably the remarkable “Breaking the Waves”) under her belt. Koh, a powerhouse soloist, plunged into a string of Mazzoli’s violin works from the last 15 years, many of them written for her, most of them interlaced with electronics and keyboard samplings refracting out from the sound of her strings, like the light reflecting off the shards of mirror that studded her concert dress.

As a representation of Mazzoli’s oeuvre, the works for solo violin seemed a little lacking, not revealing every dimension of a still-young composer who’s done so much good work in other media. Some common gestures surfaced in several of the pieces, especially a tendency to seesaw the bow energetically back and forth over the strings in paroxysms of intensity, a kind of emotive equivalent to Philip Glass’s arpeggios. Many of the pieces also yielded to gentle, meditative codas. Still, it was a bracing hour of expressive music, linked together with interludes from “Vespers,” a longer work in which recorded voices waved through the electronics like thick smoke. “Dissolve, O My Heart,” commissioned by the L.A. Philharmonic, was an intense solo introduction for Koh’s confident playing; “Kinski Paganini” deconstructed a Paganini caprice until all that was left was a handful of dry glittering bits, like salt crystals. The last work, “Vespers for Violin,” was one of the strongest, though undermined by the accompanying video by the director James Darrah, a collection of cliches in which a male model/dancer gestured ecstatically in the desert, and then ended by dragging on a cigarette with a long finger of dangling ash. If they’d wanted to send up men, they couldn’t have done it better.