Through Music, Berks Sinfonietta Celebrates ‘The Struggle for Equality’

The next time you go to a concert, try listening with your eyes closed. Without sight to distract you, you hear so much more than you do with the visuals around you competing for attention. With closed eyes, works like those that the Berks Sinfonietta played Saturday night become colors and suggestions that dance in your mind.

You are alone with the music, and your own imagination. Saturday’s concert, “The Struggle for Equality,” exclusively featured music by women. For the Sinfonietta, highlighting works by women, people of color and other groups who are underrepresented in the classical repertoire is nothing new, but it is always welcome. All three female composers featured Saturday night faced challenges due to their gender, but their styles and stories were each unique. These women struggled to belong in a classical music establishment hostile to their belonging. That was the theme of the night: belonging. Saturday night we all belonged in Shillington’s Immanuel UCC, united by sound.

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The concert began with Louise Farrenc’s (1804-1875) mesmerizing Symphony No. 3. This kinetic work is filled with the storytelling potential of the symphonic form, and shows all of the possibilities of what music can do to the soul. The first movement was fiery and passionate, with thunderous timpani from Michael Simmons. The second movement began as solemn as a sunrise. As I listened to it with my eyes closed, a feeling of warmth, of unbelievable tranquility, washed over me. The horns in the stormy-but-regal third movement were like flowers blooming. And the finale was enough to have you dancing in the aisles.

After intermission, the Vox Philia chamber choir paraded through the nave of the church, singing Ethel Smyth’s (1858-1944) suffragist anthem “The March of the Woman.” Smyth took two years off of composing to support votes for women full-time. In 1912, Smyth used a toothbrush to conduct female prisoners singing her song. This was at a time when suffragettes were frequently thrown in prison. Whether sung in prison or in a church, it is an anthem of chilling clarity.

The Sinfonietta and Vox Philia collaborated to perform Ruth Gipps’ (1921-1999) “Mazeppa’s Ride,” a musical setting of Lord Byron’s poem of the same name. It was the first time the piece had been publicly performed anywhere in the world. Due to its complexity and modern compositional techniques, it is a challenging piece to perform and listen to. Berks Sinfonietta and Vox Philia are always challenging their audiences – they never pander or placate them with the same-old same-old.

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Photo of the Berks Sinfonietta concert livestream.

Berks Sinfonietta conductor David A. McConnell acknowledged the work’s flaws – it is overlong and unpolished – but it was the first work Gipps ever composed. When she presented the work to her male superiors, reaction was so negative that she stuffed it in a drawer. It remained stuffed in that drawer until McConnell reached out to Gipps’ family to resurrect “Mazeppa’s Ride.” If a male composer had presented the same piece, McConnell told the audience, he would have been told to go back and work in it some more. Gipps was rejected outright. Because she was a woman, she didn’t get the chance to improve. How much more art, how much more perfection, how much more genius has been lost for the same reason?

Berks Sinfonietta presents “The Struggle for Equality”. Watch the full concert online for a small donation:

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Wes Cipolla
Wes Cipolla
I cover local news, culture, and business in Berks County.
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