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Piano marathon at MFA to spotlight women composers

Bill DeYoung



Pianist Sarah Cahill. Publicity photo.

Equal parts musician, historian and performance artist, Sarah Cahill is on a mission.

Noted for her longtime championing of “new” classical music, by unknown and/or contemporary artists, the California pianist is coming to the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg Thursday with a program she calls The Future is Female.

A performance of music by little-known female composers, this is no mere recital.

It’s five hours long.

“There are people who will stay for the whole time, and there are people who will come and go,” Cahill tells the Catalyst. “And that’s all great. However one wants to experience it. I myself don’t always like sitting still through concerts. And because it’s in the museum, I think there’s so much to engage the senses. So that’s what I’m hoping for.”

She’ll break up the music marathon with expository comments. “There are some really great stories about the composers,” Cahill says. “That’s part of the whole experience.”

A former child prodigy, Cahill’s explorations into the “other” classical music began, she relates, as a “lightbulb” moment.

“I felt for the first time like I had a real purpose as a pianist,” Cahill says. “My mission wasn’t playing the 500th performance of the Beethoven Opus 110, or another Chopin Nocturne. In other words, the music that everyone plays. My purpose was to take these new works, and premiere them, and have the focus be on the composition itself.”

That focus and drive has carried over into The Future is Female, which covers more than 70 compositions by women around the globe, from the Baroque to the present day, including new commissioned works.

“It would be great,” she says, “to get to the point where we won’t need to focus on gender, or race, or identity. But we’re not there yet, in terms of music, literature, art, anything.

“When people think of music, it’s always the same white male classical canon. I’m trying to shift things slightly to a different perspective, to including the many, many worthy and important women composers.”

For Cahill, bringing forth the music of earlier eras is an exciting way of putting “new” music aside, for a quick moment. “It’s a way back into playing classical music,” she explains. “I’m playing traditional classical music, but it’s music that really deserves to be heard.”

She’s quick to defend her motives. “I love Bach, I love Schubert, I love Beethoven. I’m not trying to cancel those composers at all. It’s more about broadening our horizons and adding to what we know and hear and appreciate. Adding to that rather than taking away.”

Cahill works with piano students across the country, and she finds that the “passing down” of the great, well-known composers – all white men – has encompassed every generation, from teacher to student and on down the line.

“And I want to say ‘Just try one piece by this baroque composer Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, or one Fanny Mendelssohn piece instead of yet another Felix Mendelssohn piece. Just give it a try. I think it’s just important to have that to open your ears, and have that experience.”

Traditionally, over the centuries, woman composers have had a much tougher time than their male counterparts. Fanny Mendelssohn’s father famously told her that “composing” was all right on an amateur basis, but that she absolutely could not perform or publish; her job, he scolded, was to take care of the house.

The marathon includes works by Maria de Alvear, Galina Ustvolskaya, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Florence Price, Hannah Kendall, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Kui Dong, Meredith Monk, Vítězslava Kaprálová, Tania León, Fannie Charles Dillon and numerous others.

“If you don’t have preconceptions, if you don’t say ‘Oh, I’m coming into a room to hear music by an African American composer,’ but instead you just hear the music itself, that’s what I’m interested in,” Cahill says.

“Just listen to the music and make up your own mind. The idea is to listen to the music before passing judgement on it.”

Details on The Future is Female here.

Details on Thursday’s MFA program here.













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