By Cara Search, Special to the Sybaritic Singer
Stepping confidently into the minefield of socially corrective art history, British pianist Samantha Ege offered up a touchingly personal and powerfully interpreted collection of works titled Four Women in May of 2018. Born of a personal investigation into early 20th century composer-pianist Florence Price and her student and friend Margaret Bonds, Ege’s distinctive pianistic voice shines brilliantly through this insightful program of solo works.
Ege titles the album after a Nina Simone ballad about African American women’s experiences in the United States. Simone, herself a skilled classical pianist, was denied acceptance to the Curtis Institute of Music, ostensibly on the basis of race, and hustled as a cabaret pianist-turned-vocalist in Atlantic City before receiving her artistic due. Ege concedes a revisionist curiosity on this point: how might Nina Simone’s story be different had she been connected to an historical community of Black female classical musicians? In a more practical sense, Ege wonders as an educator what happens when gifted musicians don’t see their identities represented in the canon.
Lurking behind every noble feminist rediscovery project is the ghost of Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, enumerating the perils of trying to contextualize women’s work in a rubric for greatness designed to exclude them. We cringe at the grasping that can undergird these types of projects, and recoil further when they accidentally affirm the canon’s judgment with clumsy presentations of new voices in old music.
No grasping here: Ege’s account of her encounters with the music of Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, and Vitezlava Kapralova call to mind the experience of finding home in a place one has never been. She describes immediately connecting to Kapralova’s musical language and Price’s distinctive voice, rich with historical depth and empathy.
That feeling is palpable in her playing.
Beyond the significant historiographical effort of Four Women, the project highlights the piano itself as a musical shapeshifter, and Ege as an immensely creative soloist.
Ethel Edith Bilsland’s The Birthday Party delights in twinkling, well-tailored phrases suited for happy weekends at home. In this premiere recording, the pianist-storyteller plays all of the characters in neatly dramatized bedtime tales from Peep-Bo to Sleepy Song. In an interview given the day she recorded the album, Ege remarked poignantly that The Birthday Party, with six movements dedicated to Bilsland’s six nephews, is a rare artifact of a woman’s creative work shaped lovingly by her familial attachments and obligations. Later, in renewed commitment to her family, Bilsland literally boxed up her compositions and put them in the attic to focus on a stable career as a singing teacher.
For Kapralova, a young Czech composer-pianist-conductor, the piano is liquid orchestra, alternately roaring, destroying, dripping, and flowing within the landscape of a complex emotional life. Margaret Bonds’ piano is a dancing body singing out as its feet step assured polyrhythms.
Florence Price’s Sonata in E Minor puzzles and delights in its deliciously unclassifiable synthesis of neo-classical harmonies, plantation melodies, modernist chromaticism, and larger-than-life earth-shaking orchestrations. In an unforgettable opening fanfare, the piano announces itself with the swinging figures of a French baroque overture that slide down to a jazz swing and back up to a Renaissance cadence. One particularly satisfying transition in the first movement drops neatly from rhapsodic cadenza to a coy song, the bass line creeping up in half-steps while a soprano voice sings a light folk tune. The second movement broadens warmly somewhere between a Romantic sonata and a hymn, and the third contrasts mischievous scherzo moments with unapologetically beautiful waterfalls of sparkling pianistic colors.
With this project, Ege opens the doors to her self-made musical home, inviting us to appreciate a new canonical architecture. Movement flows into movement, piece to piece with an unbridled vitality, musical and emotional complexity, and singularity of voice. At the heart of it all is an uncompromised sense of belonging to itself which makes the question of belonging to the canon seem like a limp afterthought. Four Women is truly a gem for pianists, listeners, musicologists, and cultural thinkers alike.
Mezzo-soprano Cara Search sings, improvises, composes game music, and creates interdisciplinary theater in New York City. This past season (2017-18), Cara sang with Fresh Squeezed Opera Company, Anonymous Ensemble, Utopia Opera, and members of Bang on a Can All-Stars, International Contemporary Ensemble, and Sō Percussion. Her favorite painter is Janet Werner, favorite podcast is Still Processing, and her favorite lie is that she doesn’t care about astrology. Cara holds a B.Mus from McGill University in Montreal. www.carasearch.com