Women composers aren't classical-music underdogs in this stretch of the 21st century, at least in Philadelphia. But their road to prominence took on a more personal narrative in Dolce Suono Ensemble's highly curated Women Pioneers of American Music concert on Sunday at the Curtis Institute. The flute-based chamber music repertoire showed the composers not so much out to conquer the world as processing their worlds in a more intimate medium - including newer works by Andrea Clearfield and Jennifer Higdon.
Known for her large-scale works, Amy Beach (1867-1944) showed wonderful melodic charm in borderline parlor music with her Two Pieces for Flute, Cello, and Piano. Marion Bauer (1882-1955) showed the compositional clarity of a master in her brooding Prelude for Piano Op. 1 No. 5.
Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953) was the wild card: Her folk song adaptations were nothing special (better left to her stepson Pete Seeger), but her forward-looking Prelude for Piano No. 6 and Study in Mixed Accents are so heady as to be baffling without pianist Charles Abramovic - who co-curated the concert with Dolce Suono founder Mimi Stillman - giving pre-performance explanations.
One common thread: From Bauer to five Jennifer Higdon songs (delivered with lovely simplicity by Sarah Shafer), many of the pieces ended with a musical question mark. A gender thing? A topic for a dissertation?
The concert's big premiere was Higdon's American Canvas for Flute, Cello, and Piano - a solid, middling piece destined to generate discussion about possible connections between sight and sound. The three movements are explicitly the product of Higdon's view of the painters Georgia O'Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, and Andrew Wyeth. The excellent O'Keeffe movement juxtaposed like-minded lyrical melodies for flute and cello but paired casually, with the two voices sideswiping each other and doing similar things at the same time but not in the same way.
The sprawling Pollock movement was much busier, with a lot of nervously repeated notes to convey underlying explosiveness. Wyeth's microscopic detail inspired something of a musical ping-pong game with balls painted different colors. But was the visual stimulus so intimidating that Higdon never hit the creative ozone layer of her best pieces?
Clearfield's Spirit Island: Variations on a Dream for Flute, Cello, and Piano was inspired by canoeing through the Canadian Rockies, with close-knit, low-register interaction among instruments suggesting the elemental murmur of the setting. Incursions of fast music were less satisfying in what felt like an experimental study for something bigger. The core ensemble - Stillman, Abramovic, and cellist Nathan Vickery - had the solidity you'd expect from musicians who weren't about to let the weather stop them.