Trailblazers: Women’s Impact on Organ, Carillon, Harpsichord, and Sacred Music

February 5, 2019

Joy Schroeder holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from University of Michigan in organ performance. She is currently a student, ABD, at the University of Oregon in music theory.

The fifty-eighth annual organ conference at the University of Michigan celebrated women’s contributions as performers, composers, educators, and builders of the organ, harpsichord, and carillon. Distinguished guest artists and lecturers from North America and Europe joined University of Michigan faculty, students, and alumni in presenting an impressive range of events, beginning with the annual improvisation competition and concluding with the restaging of three choreographies by the American modern dance pioneer, Doris Humphrey, set to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The conference explored not only the music, performance practices, and pedagogy of women in the field, but also how their individual careers in a male-dominated profession have helped shape the current landscape.

A prelude to the conference

Jennifer Pascual, director of music at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, performed a recital at the First Presbyterian Church of Ypsilanti on September 23. The performance was presented by the Ypsilanti Pipe Organ Festival and the Ann Arbor Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. Her program included a mixture of well-known organ works by Bach, Guilmant, Duruflé, Yon, Ravel, and Cherubini (both arranged by Machella), lesser-known pieces by Hakim and Lidon, and music by women composers Clara Schumann, Jeanne Demessieux, Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn, and Sr. Mary David Callahan, serving as an introduction to the conference the following weekend.

Saturday, September 29

The First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor hosted the Seventh Annual Improvisation Competition, and three contestants had been selected to enter the final round. The contestants improvised on the hymntune, Wondrous Love, and a selected chromatic theme. First place and audience prizes were awarded to David Simon, currently a student at Yale University; second prize to Alejandro D. Consolación, II, from Manila; and third to Christopher Ganza from Minnesota. The judges were James Biery, Ann Labounsky, and Anne Laver. Kola Owolabi chaired the event with assistance from preliminary round judges Joseph Gascho, Darlene Kuperus, and Stephanie Nofar-Kelly. Timothy Huth of the American Center of Church Music provided historical anecdotes along with host representative Richard Ingram.

Sunday, September 30

First Presbyterian Church hosted a hymn festival titled “Sing Justice! Proclaim Justice! Hymnody in Word and Song by Women Poets and Composers.” Scott Hyslop served as the organist, while the Reverend Kendra Mohn gave several meditations on injustice, with support from the First Presbyterian Choir and interim director of music, Richard Ingram. The program featured works by Catherine McMichael (prelude), Jane Marshall (anthem), with hymn texts by Mary Louise Bringle, Carolyn Winfrey Gilette,
Shirley Erena Murray, Jaroslav Vajda, and Rusty Edwards, arranged by Alice Parker and Hyslop.

That evening, the faculty recital featuring works by Pamela Decker, Rachel Laurin, and a world premiere of a work by Catherine McMichael was presented at Hill Auditorium with Susan Clark Joul, soprano; Joan Holland, harp; James Kibbie and Kola Owolabi, organ. McMichael’s The Apostle: A Symphony in Three Linked Movements drew thematically from the biblical character of Paul of Tarsus—persecutor, poet, and apostle. The last piece by Rachel Laurin, Fantasy and Fugue on the Genevan Psalm 47, op. 62, was a duet performed by Kibbie and Owolabi. The work has contrasting registrations and themes utilizing four manuals and pedal of the organ.

Monday, October 1

The day began with two lectures. Michael Barone discussed women organists past and present (including music presented during the conference) in “Ladies Be Good: One Guy’s Overview of Women Organists and Composers.” Sylvia Wall presented “Call Me Fran: Harpsichordist Frances Elaine Cole.” An American harpsichordist, Frances Cole (1937–1983) was a musician from Cleveland, Ohio, who taught at Westminster Choir College, Princeton, New Jersey, and died in New York. She organized numerous harpsichord festivals, and her life was commemorated in the lecture by Wall and by Cole’s niece, Mia Cole Washington. Following, Annie Laver discussed and performed “An Introduction to the Organ Works of Judith Bingham.” Bingham has written about 300 works of which some twenty are for organ.

In the afternoon, conference attendees heard music in a program entitled “Élizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre: Claveciniste Extraordinaire,” including the Chamber Sonata in D Major, the Harpsichord Suite in A Minor (played by Nico Canzano), and the dramatic cantata Semelé. The recitalists, Nico Canzano, Ellen Sauer, Leah Pemick, Leo Singer, Antona Yost, Alyssa Campbell, Alex Baker, and Neil Robertson are all students of Joseph Gascho.

Following the performance, a lecture, “Sylvia’s Little Black Book: an Intimate View into the Pioneering Life of Harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe,” was presented by Christina Scott Edelen. Marlowe (1908–1981) was an American harpsichordist who commissioned many works from leading composers and performed Baroque repertoire. This recital included works by Virgil Thomson, François Couperin, Vittorio Rieti, and Henri Sanguer. Italian virtuoso Letizia Romiti completed the afternoon’s events with a recital, “Women, Italy, and the ‘Queen of Instruments.’” The program featured works by Andrea Gabrieli, Merulo, Majone, Frescobaldi, Madame Ravissa de Turin, a manuscript from the Convent of Notre-Dame de Vitre, and Clara Schumann.

The evening began with a carillon recital at Burton Memorial Tower performed by Margaret Pan of Boston, Massachusetts. The pieces played were mainly by late twentieth-century women composers and included Reflections from the Tower (1990) by Emma Lou Diemer. The evening concluded with a recital at Hill Auditorium, “Music by Women Composers,” presented by students of James Kibbie and Kola Owolabi, including Jenna Moon, Kaelan Hansson, Joseph Mutone, Sarah Simko, Joseph Moss, and Julian Goods, with featured works by Pamela Decker, Judith Bingham, Libby Larsen, and Florence Beatrice Price.

Tuesday, October 2

The last day of the conference began with Ana Elias and Sara Elias presenting “An Evolution of Women’s Role in the Carillon World and Its Implications for Arts Entrepreneurship.” Starting with the historical evolution of women’s role in the carillon, the current state of the profession in Portugal was discussed. Female entrepreneurship was encouraged, and the presenters’ traveling carillon was exhibited. Following, “Florence Price: The First African-American Woman Composer Successful in Classical Music: Newly Found Organ Works” was presented in lecture and recital by Calvert Johnson. In particular, Johnson discussed Price’s Passacaglia and Fugue of 1927.

Later that morning, the panel “The ‘Solo’ Keyboardist: When You’re the Only ____ In Your Workplace—Professional Perspectives” was moderated by Tiffany Ng, university carillonist, and featured panelists Anne Laver (Syracuse University), Susan Tattershall (ID Project at Colorado Legal Services), Elena Tsai (freelance harpsichordist and technician), Colin Knapp (Michigan Opera Theatre), and Anne Huhman (associate director of University of Michigan Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center).

In the afternoon, students of James Kibbie and Kola Owolabi played music by women composers at the First Congregational Church. The recitalists were James Renfer, Matthew Durham, Allison Barone, Samuel Ronning, Clayton Farmer, and Emily Solomon performing the music of Pamela Decker, Ruth Zechlin, Erzsébet Szönyi, Brenda Portman, and Efrida Andrée.

“Living Legends . . . Lasting Legacies: Emma Lou Diemer, Marilyn Mason, and Alice Parker” was presented by Darlene Kuperus and Marcia Van Oyen, with music by Diemer, Parker, Larry Visser, and Joe Utterback, along with videos and remembrances of each “legend.” The afternoon concluded with a presentation of “The Work of Dana Hull, Organ Builder & Restorer” by Tom Curry and Elgin Clingaman, followed by a reception in honor of Hull.

Tiffany Ng began the final evening with a carillon recital that utilized added electronics. The recital, “Women Who Rock the Bells,” was divided into sections: “#METOO: The Movement to Support Survivors and End Sexual Violence” (music of Pamela Reiter-Feenstra); “Breaking the Tower Ceiling: Black Composers” (music of Yvette Jackson and Jessie Montgomery—both Michigan premieres); “Frontiers of Space and Imagination” (music of Laura Steenberge, Margo Halsted, Agniezka Stulginska), and “Not Your Quiet Model Minority” (music by Carolyn Chen).

The conference concluded with University of Michigan Dancers, the University of Michigan Baroque Chamber Orchestra (Aaron Berofsky and Joseph Gascho, directors), and James Kibbie on organ, recreating choreography staged by Gail Corbin, Jillian Hopper, and Michela Esteban of Doris Humphrey (1895–1958) to the music of Bach. Non-danced music of de la Guerre was also included in “An Evening of Doris Humphrey and J. S. Bach:  Romantic Post-Modernism in Dance and Music.” The final piece, Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582, was played by Kibbie with stunning choreography by Humphrey from 1938. Jillian Hopper and Christian Matijas-Mecca are directors of the Dance Legacy Project.

The conference was one of trailblazers, presenting music chiefly by women, many of whom are unknown. Indeed, the conference itself was a trailblazer in its presentation of women composers, the breadth and varied scope of the offerings, and the immense educational benefits to all attendees.

Photo credits: Sherri Brown

Related Content

September 29, 2019
Held on St. Olaf College’s beautiful hilltop campus in Northfield, Minnesota, June 13–14, the 2019 Musforum conference was “for, about, and by women…
March 31, 2019
Each IOHIO (Instituto de Órganos Históricos de Oaxaca, A.C.) Festival builds on the success of its predecessors, making this one the best ever. It…
March 02, 2019
When I reviewed the 2009 Organ Historical Society Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, I remarked on the evolution of such gatherings from their mid-…