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Diana Ambache's orchestra continues to bring neglected women composers into the light
By Charlotte Cripps
The Independent 14 May 2003 2003Diana Ambache has made it her mission to promote works by neglected women composers. "I stumbled across a concerto by Germaine Tailleferre – full of zing and bubbliness – and I was shocked that I'd never heard of her, or heard this piece of music. It made me realise that women composers are never performed," she says.
Ambache, a pianist and musical director, founded her own orchestra in 1984 because of her love of Mozart – she describes herself as "nuts" about him. But her discovery of Tailleferre set her off on a different path of exploration that found her digging for more female composers. "I felt in a position to do something about it – to get the music heard," says Ambache, whose current series, Old Masters, New Mistresses, showcases Mozart (of course), Mendelssohn and Elgar, as well as Marion Bauer, whose Concertino for oboe, clarinet and strings (1943) is one of the series' seven premieres.
"When I started playing music by women composers," says Ambache, "the feeling was – well, what's the point? One of the things I have been really pleased about over the last 16 years or so is the change in attitude. Nowadays, people are curious, and hence discovering pieces of real quality. Although I don't think the prejudice has been flattened, there is more willingness to find out and enjoy."
And, so far this season, Ambache's audiences have already enjoyed works by Helen Hopekirk, Amy Beach and Ruth Crawford Seeger. The latest "New Mistress" find, Bauer's Concertino, is an interesting combination of late Romantic and impressionistic style, with a faint American flavour – "slightly American pastoral," says Ambache. "[Her] range is from open air to sometimes faintly grotesque. I think she must have had a fun sense of humour." A second Bauer piece – Lament on an African Theme – is only being played in London.
The "Old Masters" section of the programme, meanwhile, is made up of traditional and cherished composers, but not their most famous pieces. "The Elgar Serenade for Strings in E minor is everyone's favourite, but Mendelssohn's Sinfonia for strings – a piece that he wrote when he was 14 – is not so well- known, and is full of youthful exuberance. Mozart's Piano Concerto No 13 in C, K415 is also one of the lesser-known works to which we are attaching a higher profile."
But Ambache's pioneering spirit does not stop with the repertoire – her orchestra, too, has no conductor. She believes that when nobody dictates to the musicians, it creates a livelier interpretation, and the 40 people who currently play for Ambache are chosen in part for their participatory qualities. "Everybody is an essential part of the process," she asserts.
St John's, Smith Square, London SW1 (020-7222 1061; www.sjss.org.uk) tomorrow; then touring to West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge (Sun), Ludlow Assembly Rooms (23 May) and Falmouth Arts Centre (4 Jun); further details on www.ambache.co.uk
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