Music, particularly that composed for a symphonic orchestra, must come from a place of legitimate self-reflection.
It is a product of turning experiences inward, creating something that captures a moment of emotion brought on by nature, human relationships, or in the case of Cheyenne Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming show, women’s right to vote.
“A lot of times, great composers have an inspiration for their music, but they don’t necessarily want to limit the person listening to the music,” said William Intriligator, musical director for Cheyenne Symphony Orchestra. “So a lot of great music isn’t clearly about one thing, but it does evoke the feelings and images of those things.”
“A Time to Honor” was originally scheduled to be performed in October 2020, but because of restrictions brought on by COVID-19, the concert was postponed. It was organized to honor the nation’s 100th and Wyoming’s 150th anniversary of women’s right to vote, and contains musical pieces commemorating the history and the emotions surrounding events in the movement.
To make up for it, Cheyenne Symphony Orchestra isn’t holding back in its big return, as it will present a full symphony for the first time since the pandemic began. Not only is it the largest in more than a year, but this is the first time in its history that it is presenting a concert made up of musical pieces written solely by female composers.
“We kind of feel like it was important to do that,” Intriligator said. “We actually thought it was taking a bit of a risk because some of our regular ticket buyers might look at this program and say, where’s Tchaikovsky? Where’s Mozart? Where’s Beethoven? And they might not buy the ticket.”
The concert will revolve around the theme of women’s suffrage, which is an understandably difficult task. How can music capture such a feeling backed by so much history?
An answer may lie in two particular pieces of music being performed on Oct. 16, one of which is a commissioned piece making its world debut.
“I’m just thrilled that Cheyenne Symphony Orchestra is going to be playing a Wyoming composer,” Anne Guzzo, Emmy nominated composer and associate professor at the University of Wyoming, said. “Of course, I’m thrilled that it’s me.”
Guzzo, a Laramie native, spent more than a year composing her new piece, titled “Stumbling Toward Equality.” She is honored to premiere her piece in her home state, particularly a work that required her to not only analyze Wyoming’s history, but her conflict with it.
“While it is a piece that celebrates suffrage, suffrage had a lot of problems,” Guzzo said. “Like in Wyoming, we allowed white women and black women to vote, but not Indigenous women. So it’s kind of this strange checkered legacy that’s something to celebrate, but also had problems all along the way.”
To capture her emotions, she structured the piece in four sections with vastly different themes and arrangements, each deliberately pointed under the theme of the piece.
It begins with an upbeat fanfare, a call to arms symbolizing the rallying of suffragettes’ spirit. Following this is a conflicted tug of war where each half of the orchestra plays in a different time signature, the tension meaning to represent their struggle, the early pushback and impending difficulties that inspired Guzzo.
The third movement is a romance, a positive note illustrating the suffragettes hope for the future, but Guzzo knew she couldn’t leave it at that. The fourth movement ends the piece with another fanfare and call to arms, declaring that the fight is not over, equality has not been achieved and there’s still plenty to fix.
While Guzzo has a love for the giants of classical music, she sees a real opportunity with a concert like “A Time to Honor.”
“It makes me feel like we have a living art form instead of a museum art form when we’re more inclusive,” Guzzo said. “To have women or people of color involved in this season makes me feel like we’re relevant and speaking to people of our time, instead of just performing that old stuff.”
Intriligator said the Cheyenne Symphony Orchestra’s schedule will ultimately return to more traditional shows in the future, but he does feel that the orchestra is making an “enthusiastic” effort to include more female musical compositions outside of “A Time to Honor,” as well as more compositions by people of color in addition to music by classic composers like Bach and Brahms.
The happy medium lies in maintaining a balance between the old and new, ushering in more diverse composers until it is commonplace.
One way this effort has manifested is in inviting in a guest conductor.
It is highly uncommon for Intriligator to surrender the podium, even more so for two conductors to share the stage. But Saturday night, for the second half of “A Time to Honor,” Intriligator is doing just that.
The concert will conclude with “Gaelic Symphony,” a momentous piece by Amy Beach, the first largely successful female American composer. It was first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1896, and for “A Time to Honor,” the orchestra has invited Avlana Eisenberg, music director of the Boston Chamber Symphony, to guest conduct the piece.
Eisenberg has conducted all over the world and in nearly every state, but has yet to visit Wyoming. She sees it as wonderfully fitting that she will be traveling from where the piece originally debuted to the state that spearheaded women’s suffrage.
Adding to a series of wonderful connections is how the piece reinforces the message of the concert. Though not directly addressing the theme of women’s suffrage, “’Gaelic Symphony’ is sonically grandiose, varied and ‘democratic,’” Eisenberg said.
Instruments that usually play supporting roles are given solos throughout the piece, along with the wind and brass sections. Each musical flurry is a response to another, creating a dialogue between violins and bassoons alike.
“The emotional range that Beach portrays through this piece is remarkable,” Eisenberg said. “It includes some of the most gorgeous, haunting melodies and driving rhythms. There are parts that are explosive, bombastic, militaristic – it was considered so symphonic.”
Historically, the symphony was considered a very masculine orchestral form. In a moment of extreme irony, “Gaelic Symphony” was originally described as being “manful” and “not effeminate” when it premiered more than 100 years ago.
But this was not a criticism at the time. The range of Beach’s concoction was astounding, but to retroactively analyze its original critic’s interpretation only solidifies the strides that Beach made for female composers, making it a significant note on which to conclude the concert.
Though “A Time to Honor” revolves around women’s suffrage, it ultimately stands to represent much more.
“I think in commissioning a woman to write a piece and featuring a program of all women composers, that’s a statement, in a way, because [the concert] is obviously not just about about voting,” Eisenberg said.