Recap: Trombonist Ava Ordman returns to Grand Rapids Symphony for an exciting evening of music by women

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Trombonist Ava Ordman is a pioneer’s pioneer.

At age 19, still an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, she won the principal trombone position with the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1973 in an era when fewer women held principal positions in American orchestras and nearly none played brass instruments.

Over 24 seasons through 1997, Ordman was a frequent soloist, performing Donald Erb’s Concerto for Trombone with the Grand Rapids Symphony and recording it for a CD released by Koss Classics; and debuting Libby Larsen’s “Mary Cassatt” with mezzo soprano Linn Maxwell Keller and the orchestra.

Since her departure, she has returned many times as an extra musician. But for the first time in more than 20 years, Ordman returned to the Grand Rapids Symphony stage on Friday, May 3, as soloist with a concert titled The 20th/21st Century Concert: Celebrating Women featuring music by women plus a woman as guest soloist.

It was an amazing performance led by associate conductor John Varineau in the hallowed halls of St. Cecilia Music Center, an organization founded in 1883 by nine women to promote the enjoyment and understanding of music among women.

Ordman, today a professor of music at Michigan State University, was soloist in a concerto for trombone and orchestra titled “Their Eyes Are Fireflies” composed by her MSU colleague, David Biedenbender.

The title is a metaphor for, as Biednebender puts it, “the magic and joy” that his young, preschool-age sons, Izaak and Declan, bring to his life. The 20-minute work is journey of discovery for the composer as well as the audience. It’s colorful, occasionally introspective, and often exuberant to the point of surreal.

Ordman is a phenomenal player. If it can be done with a trombone, Ordman can do it.

Varineau led a swirling opening movement titled “Beginnings,” and a more balanced middle movement full of beautiful melodies, titled “This Song Makes My Heart Not Hurt,” lovingly played by Ordman. The finale, titled “Izaak’s Control Panels” was an adventure with bursts of fireworks for both soloist and orchestra, making it an adventure for the audience as well.

The final concert of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2018-19 PwC Great Eras series was an evening to celebrate pioneering women in music who not only shattered glass ceilings but also broke new ground in music. The concert featured music by American composers Ruth Crawford Seeger and Joan Tower and by British composer Anna Clyne, three women whose careers spanned more than a century from Seeger in the early 20th century to Tower and Clyne in the present day.

Each woman was extraordinarily successful. Seeger in 1930 became the first female composer in history to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. Tower in 1990 became the first woman to win the lucrative Grawemeyer Award for composition, a prize worth $100,000 today.

Clyne, a British composer, now living in the United States, isn’t quite 40 years old yet. But she’s a rising star who won the 2010 Charles Ives Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the 2016 Hindemith Prize.

Grand Rapids Symphony performed her work for string orchestra, Within her Arms, a piece composed in 2009 in memory of Clyne’s mother who died that year. It’s a stunningly delicate lament that pushes the emotional buttons. So much so that it’s been compared with Samuel Barber’s well-known Adagio for Strings, which is high praise indeed.

The piece for 15 players is a heartfelt meditation on the meaning of the loss of a loved one. Varineau’s performance did it justice. It was incredibly moving.

The evening opened with Joan Tower’s aptly named Chamber Dance. It’s a piece for chamber orchestra, and the music does dance. The performance featured lovely solos in oboe, flute and violin as well as charming duets by instruments not necessarily sitting near each other.

Notably, it’s a piece with subdued energy that pulses nonetheless, often in a flurry of notes that zip by.  It requires the musicians pay especially close attention, not only to the conductor, but to each other. Varineau led a performance careful poise.

If Ruth Crawford Seeger’s last name looks familiar, it should be. She was the step mother to folk singer Pete Seeger. Half of her career as a modernist composer included writing ground-breaking avant-garde music that would inspire composers for two generations to come including her String Quartet of 1931, a seminal work in American music in the early 20th century.

It included a strikingly novel slow movement, which she arranged for string orchestra. What’s fascinating about her Andante for Strings is each of the string instruments occupies one voice of a chord. By varying the dynamics, one particular note stand out, and as the piece progresses, the standout notes form a melody. It isn’t played on any one individual instrument, but it’s a melody just the same.

It’s an eerie melody, perhaps even sad. It’s an interesting challenge for the conductor, and Varineau artfully pulled the tapestry together.

The other half of Seeger’s career was as musicologist gathering and arranging folk music. The latter resulted in her brief work, Rissolty Rossolty, a sophisticated setting of folk melodies, but folk melodies even so.

In the Grand Rapids Symphony’s performance, folk tunes spun forth with a splash and a dash. Much like a well-chosen encore, it sent audiences home with a smile on their faces.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 12:00 PM
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