Women composers have hardly had their fair shakes. But I'd venture to say that in Rochester, at least, their situation is looking up just a bit this fall. Last month, a spectacular Pegasus Early Music concert featured remarkable vocal music by the 17th century composer Barbara Strozzi; in a couple of weeks the RPO will perform a recent percussion concerto by Jennifer Higdon, one of the most popular contemporary American composers. And Sunday, the Rochester Chamber Orchestra (under Music Director Gerard Floriano) performed a dandy, almost unknown symphony by a female composer of the 19th century.
Louise Farrenc's career is unfortunately similar to that of many female musicians -- outstandingly talented, acclaimed in their lifetimes, but forgotten immediately afterwards. Farrenc, who was born in 1804 and died in 1874, was a notable pianist and pedagogue who taught at the Paris Conservatoire for 30 years; she was also a composer whose early piano music was praised by Schumann. (She and her husband also ran a successful music publishing company.) Besides solo piano and chamber music, she also wrote three extremely attractive symphonies, and Rochester heard the first of them on Sunday afternoon. (You can discover a lot of Farrenc's music, including those symphonies, on YouTube.)
It may or may not be a masterpiece, but Farrenc's First Symphony is definitely worth rediscovering and rehearing. For a symphony written in 1842 Paris, it is fairly conservative in style: a strict sonata-form first movement, a lyrical slow movement, a minuet, and a passionate finale. (And considering the 19th century Parisian mania for opera, it is somewhat unusual that she wrote symphonies at all.) Farrenc's style can have a Beethovenian energy; the stern, passionate first movement, in C minor, occasionally recalls the "Eroica." But the closest parallel among Farrenc's contemporaries might be Mendelssohn, with a touch of Berlioz in the fragrantly harmonized melodies of the slow movement. This work also resembles the similarly classical-style symphonies of Farrenc's friend Saint-Saens, which were a few years in the future. However, along with her solid symphonic construction Farrenc offers nicely colored orchestration, with beautiful and typically French use of the woodwinds and horns, and her music has a personality of her own.
Floriano and the RCO presented this rare piece splendidly and with such palpable enthusiasm that you'd think it had been in the musicians' repertoire for years. The tempos were well judged, and the music practically leapt into the Hochstein Performance Hall. The audience may have been disappointingly small, but at least a few people made a memorable musical discovery on Sunday afternoon.
The program balanced the Farrenc symphony with equally lively performances of two very familiar works: Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" Overture and Beethoven's First Symphony. Floriano led the Beethoven with a sophisticated, and quite satisfying, combination of energy and relaxation; the small number of strings allowed the composer's elaborate writing for the winds and brass to sound out clearly - and the conductor had a classically correct setup by dividing first and second violins on either side of the podium, as Beethoven (and most European composers up to the 20th century) would have known.