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Sharing releases, present and past, to brighten your day. WXXI Classical has its eyes and ears on the latest releases from classical artists working today. When we come across a story or a release we think you might enjoy, we’ll be sharing it with you on CD Spotlight. You’ll learn more about the artists online at WXXI Classical, and you’ll hear selections from these artists on FM 91.5. CD Spotlight shares new releases by artists that you’ll want to know and some by great artists and ensembles that deserve to be in the spotlight again.

CD Spotlight: A Room of Her Own, Neave Trio 

“A woman must have money, and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” wrote the famous 20th century author Virginia Woolf in her essay “A Room of One’s Own.”

Fittingly, the Neave Trio chose to ascribe Woolf’s title to their most recent album released just last month to an outpouring of interest and excitement.  From the heavy emotions of Lili Boulanger’s "D’un soir triste" to the colorful and elegant Presto leggiero movement of Cecile Chaminade’s Trio No. 1, the Neave Trio brings the works of four composers from two centuries into the same room. The intertwining of violin, cello, and piano carry the listener through a variety of styles and emotions from these women, all composing while in their twenties. 

The Neave Trio is not new to exploring the works of women composers, as they performed trios by Amy Beach, Rebecca Clarke, and Louise Farrenc on their 2019 album, “Her Voice” which both the New York Times and BBC 3 named one of the best recordings of the year.  This new album includes music by Cecile Chaminade and Ethel Smyth, born a year apart in the mid-19th century, and by Germaine Tailleferre and Lili Boulanger, also born a year apart in the late 20th century. 

Anna Williams, the violinist of the trio, describes this music as “an embarrassment of riches.” She shared her thoughts on this album in an interview with Mona Seghatoleslami, going on to say that it’s “an honor and a privilege” whenever they are able to, “explore good music… playing a small role in shining a light on those voices who have historically and presently not been heard from enough.”

 Williams recalls connecting even more deeply with these composers as she was pregnant with her now eight month old son while recording. She shared, “I quite literally didn't know from take to take if it was going to be my last take of that day.”  She describes how this forced her to be “totally present to the process, to each phrase, to the music making that went on between the three of us.” Her trio members, pianist Eri Nakamura, and Williams’ husband, cellist Mikhail Veselov, shared this concern, creating unique conditions to their recording process.

"God, what an added appreciation, to put it lightly, of what women have endured and contributed quite literally, artistically and otherwise…There was something kind of doubly profound about that." — Anna Williams, Neave Trio

The women featured on this album faced a variety of challenges in their careers and otherwise.  Ethel Smyth was frequently imprisoned for her protests as a suffragist. Germaine Tailleferre attended conservatory secretly for years to avoid her father’s disapproval, and later changed her name from Taillefesse to Tailleferre to disassociate herself from him. Critics frequently disparaged Chaminade’s works as either “too feminine,” “too masculine” or simply designated her work “salon music,” unworthy of the concert hall. Of the four composers on the album, only Boulanger had the support of her family, but she faced the challenges of living with chronic illness that led to her premature death.  

The two pieces by Lili Boulanger at the opening of the album are often performed with a full orchestra, but this smaller trio setting allows for a more intimate window into Boulanger’s soul. The range of emotional depth in her compositional style comes through in the great contrast between “Spring morning” and “Sad evening." Williams describes “Sad Evening” as the most emotionally demanding piece on the album due to the rich, dense harmonies. In contrast, “Spring Morning” bursts with an exuberant, almost frenetic energy. 

Williams shared a memorable anecdote to understand Ethel Smyth on a deeper level: picture her teaching the suffragist anthem she’d written for the movement to her fellow inmates, conducting them with a toothbrush. "If that doesn't just paint the most vivid picture of someone with high, strongly held convictions and personality to boot and maybe a little quirkiness, I don't know what does," Williams shared with a laugh.

Ethel Smyth conducting
Ethel Smyth conducting

She goes on to describe that this personality comes through so clearly in Smyth’s music. “The fourth movement has so much drama, but then it sort of turns on a dime to a beautiful melody, and then it goes back to this sort of buoyancy… I'm needing a larger vocabulary to try to access all that she conveys in such a short amount of time.”

The album stands out for the trio’s bold interpretation of these beautiful and virtuosic Romantic compositions, but also gives the listener an opportunity to understand these composer’s lives in a time when writing music as a young woman was both uncommon and frowned upon. Through this album, one can sense the need of the feminine spirit to create music, despite the barriers and criticism she may face. 

Hannah Reich is a mezzo-soprano, voice teacher, and now arts journalist from Atlanta, GA currently based in Rochester, NY. While getting her Master of Music in Voice Performance and Literature at the Eastman School of Music, Hannah also works as an intern with WXXI Classical Radio and teaches voice at the Eastman Community Music School.