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Settling old scores
Recovered from a near-fatal brain tumour, Diana Ambache has renewed her crusade to rescue female composers from obscurity
By Brian Hunt
The London Evening Standard, 1 October 2002It is easy to believe there is a malevolent spirit bent on denying the world half of its great composers. Easier to believe, in fact, than that the gift of writing good music is confined to male genes. For centuries, women composers struggled against the attitude that they were freaks of nature. When, against the odds, they did gain recognition, the evil spirit ensured their achievement died with them, kicking over the traces so that each new generation thought they were starting out on a new, lonely path.
Three years ago, this demon was denied another victory when Diana Ambache, this country's foremost campaigner on behalf of women composers, made a defiant return to the concert platform. A brain tumour, and the complicated operations she underwent following its discovery, had taken her to death's door. Ambache, 54, a pianist and leader of her own chamber orchestra, has spent years setting history's record straight by rediscovering and performing the music of female composers. You can understand why any sexist sprite would have it in for her.
Now, a fully recovered Ambache launches the latest of her regular concert series at St John's, Smith Square. As always, the concerts will combine newly unearthed works by women with the music of familiar male masters: Mozart, Haydn, Brahms. The special feature this year is that the female composers are American.
"All of the previous series have concentrated on European composers" says Ambache. "But when I was playing and recording music by the relatively well-known Amy Beach [1867-1944, Boston-based] I suddenly realised that she had a lot of contemporaries I'd never known about. So I started to look them up.
"These were people who made a big contribution to American musical life. Ruth Crawford was the first woman to win a Guggenheim fellowship. Mary Howe was one of the founders of the Washington Symphony Orchestra, and the first woman on the faculty of New York University music department. Quite late in the day I discovered Louise Talma - two Guggenheim fellowships, the first American women to have an opera performed in a major European opera house.
"As someone who researches extensively into the work of women composers, I was shocked that I had never heard of these people." Perhaps it should not have been so much of a shock. The efficiency with which mainstream music history has erased all traces of women composers is extraordinary. As a result, women have composed in isolation from any knowledge of their heritage and, until very recent years, from the performers and arts institutions of their day.
By this process of isolation and discouragement, the prophecy that "there will never be a female Wagner or Beethoven" has been self-fulfilling. Ambache is under no illusions about it, and doesn't pretend to have found a treasure trove of neglected masterpieces. But the music she brings to light is always stimulating and original - and an inspiration to future generations of female composers.
Why, then, are so few other musicians championing the cause? "because it's a hell of a lot of work," says Ambache, who is all too familiar with the challenge and labour of locating obscure scores and preparing parts. "People are still suspicious. They still ask if there's anything worthwhile to be found."
There would, therefore, have been few others to take up the torch if Ambache's crusade had come to an end, as looked likely in 1999. The brain tumour she developed turned out to be benign, but the process of removing it was dangerous and prolonged. For months it seemed unlikely she would survive, let alone return as a performing musician.
"At the beginning, when I started playing again ... well, Jeremy (Polmear, her oboist husband) said, 'I suppose nothing measures up to what you've been through.' Perhaps that's why I didn't feel as nervous as I had done before my illness. I think now my sense of risk and responsibility has come back - I'm in touch with the difficulties again."
Many in the loyal Ambache audience, who have witnessed her return to full powers, feel that she is playing with a new directness and engagement; before the operation there was sometimes a distancing formality in her playing.
"I cannot really relate my playing to that experience of losing everything," she says, in a dismissive, matter-of-fact way that ought to crush the further ambitions of any evil spirit. "But I feel absolutely thrilled with music and thrilled to be spending my life doing what I'm doing."
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