Review: S.F. Symphony unveils an elliptical, tenuous treatment of women’s suffrage
By Joshua Kosman
The passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, granting American women the right to vote at last, was a landmark event in the nation’s history. It was part of a continuous debate whose roots lay in the Revolutionary period and whose implications continue to reverberate to the present day.
There’s a vibrant account to be spun out of this ongoing struggle, but “Her Story,” the latest in a series of historical and sociological oratorios by the New York composer Julia Wolfe, winds up nibbling around its edges.
In its West Coast premiere in Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday, May 25, “Her Story” registered as a series of generalized gestures in the direction of its subject matter, circling the topic of women’s suffrage without ever really landing a punch.
Again and again, Wolfe leans on a handful of weighty words — most notably quotations from Abigail Adams and Sojourner Truth — to carry the argument forward, and each time those words fall flat.
“Her Story,” commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony in partnership with several other orchestras, had its premiere last year with the Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero, that orchestra’s dynamic and resourceful music director. Guerrero’s return to San Francisco following his exciting Symphony debut last year was among Thursday evening’s happier aspects.
So, too, was the presence of the Lorelei Ensemble, the 10-member women’s chorus for whom “Her Story” was written. Under Artistic Director Beth Willer, these singers produced a bright, beautifully blended sound, their voices snaking through sections of vocal counterpoints and massing into sharply etched chords.