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Women composers to be celebrated at RDSO’s Breaking the Bias concert

Works of Jocelyn Morlock, Ethel Smyth are on the program
Local musician Holly Parker will be soloist at the RDSO’s Break the Bias concert on March 4, in celebration of International Women’s Day. Parker is the winner of the 2021 Festival of the Performing Arts. (Contributed photo)

The talents of two woman composers and one local musician — also female — will be spotlighted when the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra presents its Breaking the Bias concert on March 4.

Groundbreaking U.K. composer Ethel Smyth will get her due when the orchestra tackles her Suite for Strings to celebrate International Women’s Day.

The acclaimed harmonics of Canadian composer Jocelyn Morlock’s piece, Solace, will also be heard at the Red Deer Polytechnic Art Centre.

And local violinist Holly Parker, 17, winner of the 2001 Festival of the Performing Arts, will be guest soloist for Henri Vieuxtemps’ Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 31.

RDSO’s music director, Claude Lapalme well knows female musicians pack a lot of talent, considering seven out of the RDSO’s 13 regular players are women.

Yet, where are all of the historic female composers? With the exception of Clara Schumann, few come to mind.

Lapalme blames societal constrictions of the past: Women were expected to dedicate themselves to their families. Even Clara Schumann’s creative output dwindled after the one-time child prodigy married fellow composer Robert Schumann and gave birth to eight children, he noted.

Young girls who took music lessons would be encouraged to entertain guests in their own parlours. But Lapalme said it would have been scandalous for them to perform in public.

Although these rules began loosening by the mid-1800s, women composers still had a hard time being taken seriously in a heavily male-dominated field.

But marching out of the Victoria Era came Ethel Smyth. Not only was she a pioneering female composer, but also a dedicated suffragette, who refused to be grounded by the constraints of her sex or her middle-class status.

“Ethel was quite the firecracker. She did not suffer fools gladly, and had tons of energy,” said Lapalme.

As a teenager, Smyth confined herself to her room, refusing to eat, until her father agreed to send her to study composition at the Leipzig conservatory. After her patriarch finally relented, Smyth was enrolled at the conservatory, where she met Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann and Pyotr Tchaikovsky — on whom she made an impression.

The Russian composer complemented her Violin Sonata, saying “she gave the promise… of a serious and talented career.”

The RDSO will be performing Smyth’s Suite for Strings, Op. 1A. It’s a tuneful and virtuosic piece for string orchestra, said Lapalme. “It’s well worth performing, the strings players will really be able to sink their teeth into this one.”

While it took composers such as Smyth to break down barriers in the music industry, Morlock, born in Winnipeg in 1969, benefitted from coming into the world towards the end of the 20th century.

Morlock’s music has received numerous national and global accolades, including a Top 10 spot on the 2002 International Rostrum of Composers, and a Juno Award for classical composition.

Lapalme said Solace is a popular piece that uses harmonic notes in the high and low registers to create a “sheen”-like sustained pitch, transporting listeners into tranquility.

Talented local violinist Holly Parker, who plays with the Calgary Youth Orchestra and is the concertmaster for the Rosedale Valley Strings, will perform as soloist for Henri Vieuxtemps’ Violin Concerto No. 4.

Lapalme said the Belgian work, which starts off brooding and becomes “a beautiful barcarolle,” is as accomplished as many better-known violin concertos and deserves to be performed more often.