There’s an inherent problem, of course, that leads some composers to avoid the all-women’s concert like the plague. To focus on women’s music for its own sake is to risk trivializing the subject one seeks to promote: encouraging everyone to blindly like music because of its social context, rather than hearing it through a critical filter.
Downes’s concert, called “Holes in the Sky,” which will appear in several other cities in coming months, demonstrated this problem to some extent. On the one hand, it was a charming selection of pieces by some powerful composers. Margaret Bonds, a friend and collaborator of Langston Hughes who died in relative obscurity in 1972, showed her mettle in “Troubled Water,” a terrific piano piece that was musically even more powerful than the “Three Dream Portraits” based on Hughes’s texts that Downes and Giddens also performed. Hazel Scott, the first black person to have her own television show, was represented with “Idyll,” a piece Downes transcribed from an old YouTube video that was well worth the trouble. And among the evening’s three world premieres of three-minute piano solos, Elena Ruehr’s “Music Pink and Blue” stood out for its depth and thoughtfulness.
Yet in its eagerness to celebrate women, the program fell into some pitfalls — like listing Nina Simone as a composer of music she patently did not write (“I loves you, Porgy” and “Black is the Color”). Downes also made much of the rediscovery of the music of Florence Price, the first African American woman to have a piece played by a major American orchestra. But though the three piano pieces she performed were in the trove of manuscripts unearthed in 2009 in the composer’s former summer house near Chicago, it has been pointed out frequently that Price was always well known in the black community; it’s the white mainstream that forgot her and is now championing her.
It also seemed odd that the living composers on the program got such short shrift: the three world premieres (commissioned by the evening’s presenter, Washington Performing Arts) were lumped together and played one after the other without Downes letting the audience know much about any of the composers or why they had been chosen. (Marika Takeuchi offered a delicate and pretty “Bloom”; Clarice Assad’s “A Tide of Living Water” was also mellifluous.) And Reena Esmail, who wrote a mini-cycle of choral songs (“I Rise: Women in Song”) performed with admirable intensity by the women’s chamber choir of Eleanor Roosevelt High School, went unmentioned.
Part of the point of the program was to celebrate some of the alternate ways that women — including, Downes pointed out, both herself and Giddens, who trained as an opera singer at Oberlin but has become known as a very different kind of artist — have had to create their own paths in music. (Giddens’s expressive voice was shown to least advantage in Bonds’s art songs, which called for her to go into a higher and more classical register that doesn’t suit her very well — as opposed to Bonds’s arrangement of “Hold On,” which she sang with profoundly moving nuance at the program’s end.) So to criticize the evening as being “light” is to miss the point; it was meant as a celebration of otherness, as well as an act of repatriation. Yet both intellectually and musically, the evening left me feeling a little hungry — with a lingering sense that it had the ingredients to feel far more substantial than it did.