Taking note of female composers

Alexina Louie musician composer

The proper recognition of the work of female composers has been exercising programmers in Irish concert venues recently.

This rising curve of consciousness continues with a festival highlighting the work of women in the arts at the South Tipperary Arts Centre. Clonmel will host a second series of concerts by women composers as part of a programme of events beginning tomorrow on International Women’s Day.

This year, the festival celebrates the anniversaries of three significant women of music drawn from different eras. 2019 marks the 200th birthday Clara Schumann, the 400th birthday of Baroque composer Barbara Strozzi, while Alexina Louie celebrates 70 years.

Recognised as something of a national treasure in Canada, Louie will be in Clonmel to attend the first performances of her solo piano and chamber works in Ireland.

Louie is an apt choice for a festival title ‘Finding a Voice’. A promising pianist, Louie turned to composition when an operation on her hand stymied her childhood route to self-expression.

“When I graduated from San Diego, I wondered what would excite a musician about playing my music when there are so many composers and styles,” she said from her Toronto home.

Louie stopped composing for six years as she began a quest to find her own unique style.

I began to think that the answer must lie within myself as a person unique in the world as we all are.

Raised in a Western and Chinese household, Louie began to explore her Asian roots. “My father gave us a respect for the tradition. On Chinese New Year, as toddlers, we would follow the dragon dance as it went up and down Pinder Street in Vancouver. The excitement of that that stayed with me.”

Louie began studying ethnic instruments and reading Asian myths and philosophies and eventually she began writing again. “Those first pieces when I tried to incorporate these ideas — they come out sounding quite studied but over time, I didn’t have to think so obviously about what I was doing. It became naturally part of my musical language.”

Louie’s was plucked from relative obscurity in her native Canada in 1982 when her piece, ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ written in memory of legendary pianist Glenn Gould was picked up by all the major Canadian orchestras. The piece was originally written for 40 individual string players at McGill University, and was later choreographed by the National Ballet.

She ponders a question about the impact her gender has had on her career trajectory. “I seldom thought about the gender issue. I only knew that writing is hard. It was never easy for me and writing well took time. When I moved back to Canada, I found myself in a community of composers who were all young men and I was accepted. When I had my first rejection, my thinking was that my music had to be stronger. That helped me, it didn’t hinder me.”

While at 70, Louie can look back on a highly successful and a diverse body of work. She enthuses about her new piano collection for beginners, Small Beautiful Things.

At the other of the spectrum, a triple violin concerto commissioned for the 150th anniversary celebrations of Canada involved three concert masters from the major national orchestras. “Can you imagine the egos?” she chuckles.

After Clonmel, she travels to Switzerland for a performance of her piece, ‘Take the Dog Sled’ that combines Inuit throat singers with a classical ensemble. The only note of yet unfulfilled ambition comes

during a discussion of her opera, The Scarlet Princess. Despite a successful concert performance, the work awaits a fully staged production. An aria from the opera will be performed by Clonmel native Kelley Lonergan at the festival lunchtime concert dedicated to Louie’s music.

Alexina Louie will give be speaking about her work at CIT Cork School of Music today at 6pm (followed by an open rehearsal with Ellen Jannson and ensemble)

Finding A Voice starts tomorrow, on International Women’s Day, and runs until Sunday. Falling Through Time: Music of Alexina Louie, tomorrow 1pm at old St Mary’s Church Clonmel

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