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September 19, 2000

Modern Composers[Music of] Melinda Wagner [and] Poul Ruders. Melinda Wagner, Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion, Westchester Philharmonic, Mark Mandarano, conductor; Poul Ruders, Concerto in Pieces (Purcell Variations), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Davis, conductor. (Bridge, CD # 9098) 2000.

Why haven't women composers written more high-quality music in the past forty years? (Hint: It's a trick question.) The real question is of course why women composers are so under-represented among recipients of major awards and commissions in the past forty years. Melinda Wagner, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1999, is only the fourth woman to receive a Pulitzer for music in the 56-year history of the award. (Pulitzer awards for literature began in 1893, but the music award began in 1943.) As in many other areas, women are slowly gaining more recognition as composers, but it seems still to be more difficult for women composers to find outlets for their work.

Wagner received the Pulitzer for the work featured on this new recording from Bridge Records -- the Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion, written for Paul Lustig Dunkel, who performs on the recording. The album also includes Poul Ruders' Concerto in Pieces, subtitled Purcell Variations for Orchestra.

Melinda Wagner was born in Philadelphia in 1957 into a musical family. She says that as a child music was a natural part of her life at home, and that when she began to play at playing the piano, at about age four, she didn't make a distinction between playing tunes that someone else had written and inventing her own tunes. She says that she never made a conscious decision to become a composer, because by the time she understood the concept of composer, she already was one. She began formal study of music, including composition, in high school, and eventually received graduate degrees in composition from the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania.

Wagner's Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion is in three movements, the first of which, according to the composer, "does owe a doff of the cap to the spirit of Sonata Allegra form with strongly delineated first and second themes." Compared with traditional concerto form, however, the roles of solo instrument and ensemble are a bit altered. Wagner says that she "wanted the accompanying ensemble to participate fully in the music," rather than simply create a structure for the flute, and the solo voice is allowed to "participate fully in [the] compositional and formal rigor" of the work, rather than "merely bob and float delicately atop the piece." This is possible partly because of her decision to write the concerto for strings and percussion only, so that the flute voice does not have to compete with the heavier brass and winds.

The second movement features a lullaby tune played in the low register of the flute, with an intricate pattern of complementary melodic lines and long pedal tones in the strings. The entire concerto is a work of delicate beauty, eschewing flashy pyrotechnics and gimmicks to highlight the flute's "tones of dark and mysterious loveliness." Good pick, Pulitzer guys!

You can hear the Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion by Melinda Wagner on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, September 21 at 7:00 p.m. as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green


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