Frieda Belinfante: Cellist, Conductor, Outwitter of Nazis

In light of recent events in America, here’s an unplanned entry on Nazi-fighting cellist Frieda Belinfante.

frieda

Heroine.

I’ve never mentioned her on the blog before; her story is so extraordinary that I wanted to save it for a big project. I still want to come back to it someday. But I thought her story – and more specifically, her own words – could bring some much-needed comfort, perspective, and inspiration in this particular moment.

Frieda Belinfante was a cellist and conductor who was born in Amsterdam on May 10, 1904. The Concertgebouw hired her to found the Het Klein Orkest in 1937, which, in the words of Wikipedia, “made her the first woman in Europe to be artistic director and conductor of an ongoing professional orchestral ensemble.” Frieda was a lesbian, and her father Jewish (although she insisted adamantly that neither her heritage nor her sexuality defined her). After barely escaping the Nazis, she emigrated to the United States in 1947 and founded the Orange County Philharmonic Orchestra. She died in the spring of 1995 in New Mexico.

The following excerpts are transcriptions from an oral history testimony she gave to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in May of 1994. You can read all 86 pages of it here, and I recommend that when you have time, you do.

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Frédérique Petrides: Music Director, Newsletter-Writer, Orchestrette-Maker

Industrialist Joseph Heinrich Mayer met Seraphine Sebrechts when he hired her to be his invalid first wife’s musical companion. After the first Mrs. Mayer died, Seraphine became the second, and in 1903, the newlyweds had a daughter named Frédérique Mayer.

petrides

“Be glamorous AND trailblazing AND aristocratic AND badass? I believe I can do that.” – Frédérique Mayer Petrides, probably

Riki (as she was nicknamed) seized every privilege of her upbringing, throwing herself into her studies with aplomb and enrolling at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels. (She had seen how her pianist / composer / painter / photographer mother’s talents had been suppressed, and she was determined not to let her own go to waste.) In 1923 Frédérique emigrated to the United States, where she began pursuing her penchant for conducting at New York University.

A decade later, in 1933, she and her journalist husband Peter Petrides decided to found a women’s chamber orchestra: the Orchestrette Classique. Peter was named the Orchestrette’s manager and publicist, while Frédérique became its music director.

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Antonia Brico: Conductor, Trailblazer, Greenland-Melter

The most comprehensive article online about trailblazing conductor Antonia Brico is this one, and it makes her sound very scary.

“She had this stern look on her face that could have melted parts of Greenland.”

She was a “horrid prima donna.”

“She knew how to maneuver people.”

“I loved that lady tremendously, but sometimes I could have wrung her neck.”

So when I cued up Judy Collins’s Oscar-nominated 1974 documentary “Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman,” I sat back and waited for a monster to appear.

Instead, I saw a quietly self-possessed woman standing in front of a rehearsing orchestra. When she speaks, she says tyrannical things like “eight after B” and then “diminish the quarters, please.”

After watching the whole documentary, I don’t doubt the imperiousness is there. (You need imperiousness to be the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic.) But Antonia Brico was clearly more than just a frustrating (and frustrated) manipulative genius Greenland-melter. She could also be self-deprecating, brutally honest, and hilarious.

brico_cropped_courtesy_denver_philharmonic (1)

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The Sheepy Summer of Our Discontent

The summer I was in sixth grade, my mom painted the garage, while I took a ruler and a piece of chalk and drew a to-scale square on the sidewalk, captioning it “the size cage a battery hen lives her life in before she is sent to slaughter.” I had just learned about the existence of factory farms, and I was determined to share the bad news with as many passersby as possible.

Other mothers would have encouraged moderation in their daughter’s activism, but not mine. By never protesting my protesting, she telegraphed important life lessons: When you perceive an injustice, work to right it. And when your conscience compels you, use whatever means you have, to say whatever you have to say.

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Why Are Pioneering Female Composers So Neglected?

I’m embarrassed by how late this is, but here’s a reminder announcement:

May first and May eighth, starting at 6:45pm, I’m giving a pre-concert talk at the James J. Hill House in St. Paul for the Hill House Chamber Players (most of whom are current or former Minnesota Orchestra players).

  • All the details, including ticket information, are here.
  • You can like their Facebook page, and read up on the women featured, here.

The program includes music by Lili Boulanger, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and Gabriel Fauré. Fauré and Bach are my two favorite composers, so it’s a deeply meaningful program to me, and I hope to you, too. It certainly is a beautiful one.

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How The F*ck Did I Not Know This Woman?: Edith Lorand

Presenting…

How The F*ck Did I Not Know This Woman?

~(A new Song of the Lark series)~

(Part 1 / ???,???)

Edith Lorand: violinist, conductor, queen

*

If you’re like me, you’ve never pondered what André Rieu would be like if he:

  • was a flapper
  • with better hair
  • who could actually play the violin.

Also if you’re like me, the instant the idea of Flapper André Rieu occurs, you feel an intense longing to know her.

It’s easy to imagine her biography.

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Hill House Chamber Players Concert!

Hey, guys! Anything new since my last entry in…November? Good. I’m glad everything has been so serene and uneventful.

Sorry about the break. I swear it has been unintentional. I’ve just been swamped by stuff in my personal life, the details of which I will not bore you with, and suddenly it’s March and we’re a few weeks away from planting our potted pansies. I’m alive, I’m well, and I’ll probably resurface in the blogosphere soon.

But I’m not writing about my not writing. I’m writing to remind you of the Hill House Chamber Players, a group I was honored to be asked to give pre-concert talks for during the 17/18 concert season. The Players consist of star Twin Cities musicians (including a few Minnesota Orchestra members) performing at the James J. Hill House on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. Their next concerts are being held Monday March 6 and Monday March 13th. Both nights feature the same marvelous programming: works by Mozart, Clara Schumann, and Rebecca Clarke. Pre-concert talks start at 6:45; the concert itself begins at 7:30.

I’ve got a copy of the script right next to me. If I was to give a bland description, I’d say it’s about the dual careers of Clara Schumann and Rebecca Clarke. If I was to give a slightly more provocative description, I’d say it’s about how the romantic hero great composer archetype (as personified by Beethoven) robs listeners of inspiring musical voices, including those of women. If any of that intrigues you, I’ll see you on Monday!

Also, you should like HHCP’s new Facebook page for news, reminders, and tidbits about the works they’re spotlighting.

More information about the concert and the season here!

clara-schumann

Clara Wieck Schumann, here seen gazing dolefully at you, wondering why you aren’t coming to hear her work performed by some of the greatest musicians in the Twin Cities

 

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Our Tears Will Teach Us: Being A Woman In The 2016 Election

Warning: political discussion ahead! If you think bloggers who write about music should keep their traps shut about politics, ignore this post.

I apologize for not writing much on the blog lately; I’ve been busy with my personal life, and I haven’t been able to give entries the time and thought they deserve. But after the results of the presidential election, I thought it would be therapeutic to check in with you guys. That’s what I feel like I want to do: connect with the people who mean a lot to me. And you, dear readers, mean a lot to me.

Here are where my thoughts have been lately… There are desperately important questions to be asked about politics and race and culture right now, but since I focus on gender on this blog, I’ll drill down into that particular topic. Mainly I want to explore how Hillary’s defeat, and Donald’s victory, made me feel as a woman last night.

Fun factoid: like many other Americans, I’m a direct descendant of Elizabeth Alden Pabodie, potentially the first white woman born in New England. She was born in 1623. Yesterday I kept thinking about her. How would she feel if she could see a woman winning the popular vote for President of the United States? How would her daughters and granddaughters and great-granddaughters and so on and so on and so on for centuries react? She endured so much building America. They all did. What would they say about this election? What insights might they have about the journey we’ve shared with them?

grave

Elizabeth Alden’s grave; photo from Wikipedia

On the other hand, I want to be careful not to idealize or romanticize Elizabeth or her descendants. (It goes without saying that the recognition of her as the first “white woman” is uncomfortable: somehow it seems to negate so many other babies born over so many other centuries on this continent.) I have to believe that I had female ancestors who endured and did heartbreaking things…simultaneously. I’m sure there were women who endured difficult marriages because society gave them no way out. Women who were hit and raped. Women whose personal interests were brushed aside, or who felt pressured to brush them aside themselves. Women who were treated as breeding machines and nothing more. And I’m also sure that there were women who were virulent racists. Women who shunned immigrants. Women who abused their own family and friends. Women who, for whatever reason, chose apathy. In other words, women who were human beings.

But somehow, in fits and starts over centuries, progress was made: slowly, slowly, slowly, yes, but also surely. Later, Elizabeth’s descendants multiplied first by the dozens, and then by the hundreds, and then by the thousands, and then by the tens of thousands…maybe more. They saw so much progress in their collective lifetimes: they saw so many American women doing so many amazing things. I’m so humbled to think about the process. It feels like a dinner party has been going on for centuries, and I’m just now popping in, aware of but unable to totally grasp the significance of what has come before. And that was a feeling I didn’t have until this election, honestly.

I’m looking at this Wikipedia page now – “List of American Women’s Firsts” – to try to put the evolution I’m talking about in perspective. I highly recommend you check it out, and read these women’s biographies.

In 1647 Margaret Brent was the first woman to demand the right to vote.

In the 1700s Henrietta Johnston became the first woman working as an artist in the colonies.

In 1762 Ann Franklin became the first woman newspaper editor.

In 1776 Margaret Cobin was the first woman to serve as soldier in the American Revolution.

In 1784 Hannah Adams became the first woman to become a professional writer in America.

In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in America to earn a medical degree.

In 1850 Harriet Tubman was the first American woman to run the underground railroad.

In 1853 Antoinette Brown Blackwell became the first woman to be ordained as a minister.

In 1869 Arabella Mansfield became the first female lawyer in America.

In 1870 Louisa Ann Swain became the first American woman to vote in an election.

In 1872 Victoria Woodhull became the first American woman to run for president.

In 1878 Emma Abbott became the first woman to form her own opera company.

In 1887 Susanna M. Salter was elected the first female mayor in America.

In 1911 Harriet Quimby became the first licensed female pilot.

In 1916 Jeannette Rankin became the first woman to to be elected to Congress.

In 1921 Edith Wharton became the first woman to earn a Pulitzer.

In 1922 Rebecca Felton became our first female senator.

In 1925 Nellie Tayloe Ross became the first woman in America to be elected governor.

In 1931 Jane Addams was the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1932 Hattie Caraway was the first woman actually elected, rather than named, to the U.S. Senate.

In 1933 Frances Perkins became the first woman to serve as a cabinet member under FDR.

In 1934 Lettie Pate Whitehead became the first woman to serve as a director of a major corporation.

In 1944 Cordelia E Cook became the first woman to receive both the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart.

In 1972 Katharine Graham became the first female Fortune 500 CEO, as CEO of the Washington Post company.

In 1981 Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to join the Supreme Court.

In 1983 Sally Ride became the first woman in space.

And in 1984 Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman in America to run for vice president on a major-party platform.

And five years later, I was born. And I’m only 27.

Obviously I only scratched the surface. Look at that list of firsts, with each woman working on the shoulders of the women who came before her. When I step back and think of how far we’ve come over the centuries… And when I think about how, in the long run, our setbacks as American women generally seem to be temporary… It makes me want to talk to Elizabeth and ask her:

What do you think?

And: will other demographics be so lucky?

*

It goes without saying, this doesn’t mean we should be content with where women are now, or stop fighting to improve our lives and the lives of the other and the marginalized. But when a disappointment this huge comes along, after crying a bit at the chance so unexpectedly lost, I feel it is important to take a step back and remember that bigger picture.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I still feel hope in the pain today. I’m someone who deeply values respect of women. (Obviously.) A man who bragged about committing sexual assault has just been elected to the highest office of the land, and somehow I’m not completely destroyed by the idea. (Yet, at least.) (Am I shell-shocked?) My best guess as to why that is? Because I feel like the history I ticked off above is more powerful, more sustained, than any one man or any one movement. Our mothers fought against horrifying odds, and still they put one foot in front of the other and stayed on the path of progress. But…we’ll see.

Also, my mom’s tragic early death, and even watching the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, taught me how catastrophe can cause people to bond in profound ways. Our tears will teach us. Laugh if you will – call me naive if you want – be deeply concerned about what Mr. Trump’s election means to non-white-males, and to the country and the world at large (I’m concerned, too), but also… When you think about us American women, at least, remember our strength, and how many setbacks we’ve overcome before.

You know, I’m not even sure if any of this makes sense, but I just wanted to say something. Given how often I write about female musicians on the blog, silence didn’t feel right. I’m also working to let go all that I don’t control, and fighting like hell over the things I can. And I’m looking forward to finding the dark humor in the struggle (dark humor is the best).

I’m also trying to remind myself how blown away Elizabeth Alden would be if she could know that one of her great-times-many granddaughters, born 366 years after her, had the chance to vote for a female president. And it’s not just me who had the chance; it was many thousands of her descendants. Barring catastrophe, there’s a decent chance we’ll be able to do it again. Maybe soon.

The work goes on, and so does the beat.

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Women of Note at St. Paul’s Hill House!

Here are some of my favorite things:

  • Chamber music
  • Female composers
  • the Minnesota Orchestra
  • Minnesota history
  • Architecture
  • the Cathedral Hill neighborhood of St. Paul
  • Post-concert refreshments

Lucky for me, all of those passions are combining in a single project this season. The Hill House Chamber Players are devoting their 2016/2017 season to spotlighting works by women, and they invited me to give a pre-concert talk before every show.

The Hill House Chamber Players consist of some of the area’s most talented musicians, including some Minnesota Orchestra players. Together they perform in the James J. Hill House gallery, which used to be lined with art now at Mia. (I once heard a rumor that Jules Breton’s painting The Song of the Lark – which Willa Cather featured in her novel by the same name – hung in the Hill House gallery for a while, but I’ve never been able to prove or disprove that…) It’s a very cozy and intimate venue, and I’m really looking forward to chatting with audiences there.

Here’s the schedule:

October 10 & 17, 2016

  • Amy Beach: Quintet for Piano and Strings in F-sharp minor, Op 67
  • Judith Lang Zaimont: Calendar Collection for Solo Piano (excerpts)
  • Robert Schumann: Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Opus 44

March 6 & 13, 2017

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K.493
  • Rebecca Clarke: Viola Sonata
  • Clara Wieck Schumann: Piano Trio in G minor, Op 17

May 1 & 8, 2017

  • Lili Boulanger: Two Morceaux: Nocturne and Cortege
  • Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel: Piano Trio in D minor, Op 11
  • Gabriel Faure: Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op 15

For more information on the season, and for pricing, click here!

I want to thank the HHCP for having the guts to commit so wholeheartedly to their theme. When was the last time you heard of a chamber music series season that consists of two-thirds female composers?

It’s a little early to know for sure, but it feels like works by women are gaining ground locally this year. Not only are the HHCPs committing wholeheartedly, but The Musical Offering is presenting works by Elsa Barraine and Lili Boulanger as part of their broader 2016/2017 theme of “Emigrés and Mentors.” If you have more examples of recent or upcoming local concerts featuring the work of women, please post in the comments!

I’m optimistic that one of these decades, works by women might even show up in a meaningful way at a big-budget organization like the Minnesota Orchestra. But until they do, support your local chamber music scene. Inevitably, chamber music is where innovation starts.

I look forward to seeing you guys at the Hill House!

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#MnOrchTour: Copenhagen

The script of my first conversation in Denmark went something like this:

(EMILY has left the airport on a train. This train may or not be headed to Copenhagen. EMILY looks at her phone, then looks at her ticket, then back at her phone. It becomes increasingly obvious that EMILY has gotten on the wrong train system entirely.)

(Abruptly, a DANISH MAN approaches and begins speaking Danish. DANISH MAN is wearing a neon vest. It is clear that DANISH MAN will fine – or more realistically, jail – EMILY for inadvertently bumming free train rides. EMILY stammers.)

EMILY: Sorry, I’m a dumb American and don’t speak Danish and also I’m on the wrong train, sorry, and I also have a ticket but I just realized it’s wrong, so.

DANISH MAN (switches to perfect English; pretends that EMILY makes sense): That is fine! I am not collecting tickets. I am conducting a survey about customer satisfaction on Danish trains.

(DANISH MAN brings out a clipboard to record EMILY’s profound thoughts on customer satisfaction on Danish trains.)

(SCENERY: whizzes by in wrong direction)

EMILY: Actually, I think I need to get off now.

DANISH MAN: I’m sorry?

EMILY: I need to get off at this next stop. I’m on the wrong train.

DANISH MAN: Oh, this is your stop?

EMILY: I need to get off now.

DANISH MAN: You need to get off now?

EMILY: I need to get off the train now.

(EMILY jumps off and onto an empty platform.)

(THREE wrong platforms, TWO sets of conflicting directions, and ONE five minute train ride later, EMILY opens a door to a building that appears to be the hotel. She is greeted by, I kid you not, a hotel lobby filled with live trees. It smells as though monkeys might start swinging from the branches at any moment. EMILY leaves again and looks at her phone’s map app. A SECOND DANISH MAN yells to her from a window.)

SECOND DANISH MAN: YOU HAVE TO GOT. TO GO. AROUND!

(SECOND DANISH MAN slams window shut in disgust. EMILY staggers through the summer heat with her suitcase and her backpack, tiptoeing around the construction surrounding the hotel, trying not to stumble into the path of a jackhammer. On the other side of the building, EMILY nearly collapses in relief when she sees MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA MUSICIANS leaving to go to lunch. She has survived her brush with Denmark.)

(For now.)

*FADE TO BLACK*

I mention this story not to entertain, but to encapsulate my experience of Copenhagen, where everything was Just. Plain. Weird.

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