‘Remarkable Women’: Book examines state’s female household names

Of all the arts, literature and music are closest to my life. Probably not a single day passes on which I don’t read for pleasure – not to mention for work – and on which I don’t listen to music.

If I can’t always sit and listen with intent, I at least have music in the background, to help me focus my thoughts, virtually always.

Columns about books and recordings always tap into my inner guilt. As I’ve probably already written a hundred times, a column about theater or visual arts or about music or dance performances must appear in print by a certain date, or it does no good for the organization presenting the performance, but a column about take-home arts can inspire readers to obtain their own version of the book or recording and listen any time, so it seems wrong to postpone a live performance column to write book or CD reviews.

On the other hand, sometimes events happen which are beyond my control, in which I have planned on a column on a certain topic, then something happens at the last moment which makes it impossible to write on that subject. Then, I have often told presenting groups that I can’t write on their topic, because I have promised the space to someone else, and when that other topic doesn’t appear, people think I have lied to them.

With Chautauqua newly opened, and live events happening all round us, it seems an odd time to be writing about books and recordings, but events have taken place, and it’s too late to start writing about a different topic, so let’s examine together some great reading and some great sounds, all of which are very much part of a happy summer, not to mention any other season of the year.

REMARKABLE WOMEN

The American Association of University Women has promoted and supported the work of women for many years. This year, the AAUW has coordinated the writing of a most impressive volume of short biographies of more than 300 women who have made vast contributions to the life and culture of New York state. The book’s full title is “Remarkable Women in New York State History.”

Some of the book’s subjects are household names, such as Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Beverly Sills, Lucille Ball and Eleanor Roosevelt. Others are examples of women who have raised huge sums for charity, who have pioneered service in government and industry for women, or indeed for all of mankind. The book was edited by Helen Butterfield Engel and Marilynn J. Smiley, both of the faculty of SUNY Oswego, among many other impressive qualifications.

The authors number 84, and each is a representative of one of the branches of the AAUW. Included in the book are 12 biographies written by B. Dolores Thompson, of the Jamestown branch, and six biographies from the pen of Susan Pepe, of the Dunkirk-Fredonia branch.

I have enjoyed reading the book very much, and I do recommend it to you highly. In some ways the great strength of its diversity is also a handicap, because after reading approximately two pages, the narrative voice and style change completely. The subjects are presented in the order of their last name. The reader must leap from a college professor in the late 19th century, who had to fight for the opportunity to do research, to a chairperson who heroically risked ridicule and rejection to establish women’s right to be more than the corresponding secretary of a government organization. And, from there, to JoAnn Falletta, who was the first woman to be admitted to various programs of study and the first woman to become the regular conductor of a major American symphony orchestra, until someone finally thought to mention that pioneer or not, woman or not, she gets brilliant music out of orchestras she conducts. She has a gift for attracting thousands of people who have been culturally deprived of the splendor of classical music to share in its wonder and to part with the occasional dollar to help it to continue.

Jamestown-area women, as described by Dolores Thompson, are Lucille Ball, whose accomplishments are surely well known by all; Mary Agnes Burchard, who was a medical missionary to Brindaban, India; Margaret Fuller, a writer and journalist who was part of the Transcendentalist Circle, with Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott; Elinor Hare, who devoted her life to bettering the lives of women who had been incarcerated; and Catherine Harris, who was a nurse, a midwife and a major figure in the local elements of the Underground Railroad.

Also, Calista Selina Jones, who was an outstanding educator and school administrator, and who also was the first woman in Jamestown to be paid the same rate as men, for doing the same work, at her own insistence; Mehitable Wing Prendergast, mother of Jamestown’s founder, James Prendergast, served as her husband’s defense attorney when he was accused of leading a rebellion against their noble British landlord, then when he was convicted, rode alone on horseback for 80 miles to Albany to obtain a stay of his execution until she could appeal for a pardon from King George III. When one was granted, the Prendergasts remained loyal to the man who had shown them mercy, so they had to leave their home in Eastern New York when the American Revolution broke out. Their move, with nine of their children to Chautauqua County set the stage for son James’ beginning of a settlement along the Chadakoin River.

Pauline George Stitt was born in Frewsburg, and in 1916, while reading “Little Women,” in which the character Nan became a doctor, she decided that she could become one as well. Despite repeated illnesses, including polio which badly weakened her and killed her younger brother, she managed to go into private practice, specializing in the care of women and children. Then when tuberculosis attacked, she had to give up her practice, but went into medical administration and worked with a number of government and international organizations to improve health and well being in places all around the globe.

Lakewood native Bertha Stoneman was a botanist, a college professor and a college administrator. Her aunt, Katherine Stoneman, was a pioneer who fought the state’s legal establishment up to the Supreme Court for the right to practice law, making her the first female attorney in our state.

Martha VanRensselaer, born in Randolph, was a crusader for Home Economics, a crusade which would eventually inspire Cornell University to name a building in her honor. Lucille M. Wright was a pioneer in airplane flight, not only for women but for all people. She was a friend of Amelia Earhart, and was a driving force in the creation of an airport at Jamestown. She worked very hard for the Jamestown Girls Club, and for more than 40 years was the only female member of the American Association of Airport Executives.

Turning to Ms. Pepe’s biographies, we learn about Helen E. Barker. She was an abolitionist, who worked energetically for the Native American population, and was a founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Ester Lord McNeil was the first president of the Chautauqua County branch of the WCTU and devoted her life to providing food and medicine for children who needed it, and to educating the public about the negative effects of intoxicating liquor. Grace S. Richmond was a highly respected author, having published stories in national magazines such as the Ladies Home Journal, which inspired her to begin a series of 27 best-selling novels. Many of her novels centered on the adventures of a country doctor named Red Pepper.

Eva Saulitis is a biologist, teacher and world-respected expert on whales, especially killer whales. Wendy Corsi Staub is a Dunkirk native whose suspense, romance and young adult novels are known throughout the nation.

The last of the series is Fredonia native Jean Webster, a great-niece of author Mark Twain. She became a professional author in her own right, writing such works as “The Wheat Princess,” “Jerry Junior” and “Daddy Long Legs.” The latter novel inspired a series of stuffed animals and other associated products, the profit from which she devoted to enabling the adoption of orphans.

It numbs the mind to think of what greatness might have happened if our culture had encouraged the progress of women, instead of striving mightily to stifle it, but this book is rich evidence that much of it has happened, all the same.

MUSIC BY FALLETTA

We spoke of JoAnn Falletta in the previous section as one of the outstanding women of our state’s history. I have recently come into possession of a number of CD recordings which have been made by orchestras under her baton. We have reviewed numerous such in the past, and are happy to share with you three more which you might want to own yourself.

In April, we wrote about the Buffalo Philharmonic’s winning of the Spring into Music competition, held by New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall, which resulted in the orchestra winning the right to perform on the stage of the famed venue. Part of the competition was a requirement that the orchestra submit a creative and innovative program which they would perform in New York City. Falletta chose a program of a short work by Soviet composer Giya Fancheli and a huge symphony by Russian Reinhold Gliere, and the orchestra both performed and recorded the program in Buffalo, before taking it to Carnegie Hall.

That recording has not been released yet by the Naxos Label, but they have released another examination of Russian music by the BPO with Falletta. Bearing the title “Russian Masterworks,” it is an extremely enjoyable recording of two works from Russia: four movements from Dmitry Shostakovich’s “Gadfly Suite, Op. 27,”‘ and Peter Illych Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64.”

In both works, the orchestra sounds wonderful. Sometimes Shostakovich’s music can be off-putting to untrained ears, but this energetic little work is delightful, perfectly accessible and melodic. It has the dense harmonies and rich bass qualities which are so familiar in Russian music, but it plays lightly on the ear and could be greatly enjoyed, even without intense concentration.

The Tchaikovsky symphony is familiar to virtually everyone. The orchestra gives it a rich, clean string sound with disciplined and energetic brass and woodwind parts. Listeners who love rich melody and traditional harmony can enjoy the work, and those who thrive on skilled musicianship and technical mastery can enjoy the recording as well.

It’s available on the Beau Fleuve Label, dated 2012, with catalog number 610708-094-920.

A second suggestion would be a recording of Falletta conducting the Ulster Orchestra, of which she has been the Principal Conductor, since 2011. The orchestra is the only professional orchestra in Northern Ireland, the northeastern corner of the island of Ireland which is still governed to some degree by the British Government.

The album is a collection of Irish compositions, centering on the Cello Concerto of Ernest John Moeran. Moeran, who died in 1950 was said to be an enthusiast of the music of Frederick Delius, and like Delius, his music is lyrical, very beautiful, and gentle on the ear.

The soloist is cellist Guy Johnston, a handsome young English-Irishman who has performed with many of the world’s great symphonies since his professional debut in the year 2000. Also performing on the album is coloratura soprano Rebekah Coffey. All of the music has a Celtic quality, poetic and dramatic and never challenging.

To me, the album is more like a slide show than a moving picture. By that I mean it has wonderful moments which make superior listening, but those moments are separated by fairly uninspired passages which can lead the listener’s mind to drift to other elements of his life until the next highlight. Falletta’s conducting is firm and clean, and the musicians respond to it with energy and color, yet in utterly the appropriate degree of intensity. She directs the performance, rather than letting it have its head, so to speak.

It bodes better as background than as focus of listening, but it is certainly beautiful. It’s on the Naxos Label, dated 2013. Find it with catalog number 8.573034.

The third of our checking out of recent recordings from Ms. Falletta is a 2012 recording of George Gershwin’s music, which is the second recording of his music featuring Ohio concert pianist Orion Weiss by the BPO, under her direction.

The first recording focuses on the “Concerto in F,” which Gershwin famously created in a practice shack at Chautauqua Institution. This one focuses on the famed “Rhapsody in Blue,” of which Weiss gives a powerful and dynamic reading and the orchestra accompanies lushly. John Fullam’s clarinet is thrilling.

All of the music on the album has a jazz quality, sure to please even non classical enthusiasts, yet the conductor shapes the sound with big dynamic changes and a loose approach to tempi which keeps everything fresh, while maintaining an orchestral quality.

You can find this recording on the Naxos label, recorded in 2012 and released this year. Find it with catalog number 8.559750.

I can’t help commenting: life is a banquet. Don’t be one of those poor sons of guns who is starving to death because he can’t decide which rich offering to sample.