International Women's Day Playlist by Music Director Thomas Dausgaard

In honor of International Women's Day 2021, Seattle Symphony Music Director Thomas Dausgaard shares a specially curated playlist featuring performances by violinist Kyung Wha Chung, pianist Galina Werschenska, soprano Jessye Norman and more.

By Thomas Dausgaard

Editor’s Note: Music Director Thomas Dausgaard will be sharing monthly playlists throughout the 2020–2021 season. Featuring his unique blend of passion, intellect and joy, each playlist will introduce you to some of the music he loves as well as his unique approach to curation.

For International Women's Day 2021, I would like to celebrate and honor my female musical heroes who inspired me as I grew up and still inspire me today:

1: Kyung Wha Chung performs Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto

In my early teens, a documentary about a most stunning young violinist from Korea was aired on Danish TV. The portrait of Kyung Wha Chung included glimpses of her playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, and I instantly became her biggest fan. Her playing was sparkling with vitality and fiery intensity. Her first visit to Denmark was to play Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 2 (which I loved) with the Radio Orchestra, but as the conductor turned out not to know it well enough for her taste, she canceled the day before the concert. Instead, she went later that year to our second biggest city, Århus, and performed it there — and of course I pilgrimaged there, and indeed to any concert she gave.

2: Miriam Makeba performs "The Click Song"

The life-affirming vitality in the singing of South African singer-songwriter Miriam Makeba still mesmerizes me. The Xhosa click-sounds and language were exotic inspirations for me as a child and her joy was transformative. As a strong anti-apartheid activist, she was banned from South Africa in 1959, and then invited back by Nelson Mandela in 1990.

3, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17: Galina Werschenska performs Nielsen's Humoresque-Bagatelles

My pianist grandmother once gave me a book by her contemporary Russian émigré pianist Galina Werschenska, who settled in Denmark in 1925. Werschenska performed as soloist and chamber musician, and later in life wrote wonderful books about music, including about her personal acquaintance with Russian musicians like Rachmaninov, Chaliapin, Shostakovich, Glazunov and Horowitz. These books opened my eyes and ears to them through her personal and lively anecdotes. I am happy here to present her playing music of her new adopted homeland, Denmark: Nielsen’s Humoresque-Bagatelles. They are short, to the point, and fun — and originally written for children, and thus also played by me. Not unlike the function of the Promenades in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, the Humoresque-Bagatelles form the short bridges between the many styles of music in this playlist.

4: "Gaelic" Symphony by Amy Beach (performed by Detroit Symphony Orchestra)

One of the last concerts I had before the coronavirus pandemic was with “my” BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, where we performed the astonishing “Gaelic" Symphony by the American composer Amy Beach. It is written in a kind of response to Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony; rather than (like Dvořák) looking at America from Europe, she looks at Europe from America. It was premiered by the Boston Symphony in 1896 and was a big success. Melodies pour out of her pen, full of character and invention, seamlessly galvanized into a big form. I don’t hesitate to call it the first great American symphony. I look forward to performing it in Seattle.

5: Annie Fischer performs Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21

I experienced the [playing of the] legendary Hungarian pianist Annie Fischer once in the concert hall where she magically performed Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. I knew her from old LPs of Mozart piano concertos which I loved, in particular No. 21 where she played the unusual cadenzas by Ferruccio Busoni. I still am completely in love with how the cadenza in this third movement eases back into the orchestra. Pure genius, and stylishly played by Fischer.

6–8: Birgit Nilsson performs arias from R. Strauss' Salome

Birgit Nilsson was a force shooting up from the peasant ground in Southern Sweden, not far from my family’s rural summer home. She was largely self-taught and became a beloved singer throughout the classical music world. She was known for her forthrightness, laughter and sheer vocal power. Here she is in one of her famous roles as Salome, in the final scene of the [eponymous] opera, which we should have performed in Seattle last year around this time. It is the climactic moment when she receives — and revoltingly kisses — what she has demanded: the cut-off head of John the Baptist. Nilsson in top form.

10: Ida Haendel performs Britten's Violin Concerto

Electricity was in the air when Ida Haendel came onstage in Copenhagen to play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Her playing was passionate, furious, serious, singing, virtuosic — everything. Here you hear her in a most stunning performance of the diabolical scherzo and cadenza from Britten’s wonderful Violin Concerto.

12: Mahalia Jackson performs "Take My Hand, Precious Lord"

LPs with Mahalia Jackson were staples in my family's records, and I loved them. What an intensity and expression in her voice. A force of nature. Jackson was a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and this song was his favorite. In it, she expresses her deep belief in the most beautiful way. On the record sleeve, she says, "It seems like this song really has significance with people who are oppressed. When you can't do anything else, Good God, that's God's time to lead His children on. He knows, believe me." She also reminisces: "I wanted to make this album because it was like a prayer to me, that 'Precious Lord.' you know when you have trouble in your mind, and you don't know what to do — then you just look up to the Precious Lord to take your hand. There's nothing else to do — I need You to lead me and guide me. And when I got through recording that song, I just sat down and cried ...."

14: Flute Concertino by Cecile Chaminade (performed by James Galway)

Cecile Chaminade’s Flute Concertino is a compact masterpiece, thoroughly heart-warming and charming. Accompanying flutists on the piano, it has followed me at seminal points through my life, and it always touches me. I have been lucky to perform with the great James Galway, and here he is, making this work glow.

16: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong perform "Cheek to Cheek"

Ella Fitzgerald featured strongly among our LPs. I particularly loved an EP with her duetting with Louis Armstrong, who both sang and played the trumpet. I wish I could have heard that live. I also felt a strong connection with Armstrong — and we share a birthday!

18: Jessye Norman performs an aria from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde

As soon as Jessye Norman would enter a concert stage, the hall seemed to shrink and become like a living room in size. Her presence was so larger-than-life, enhanced by fantastical, often African-inspired robes. But that was still nothing compared to when she opened her mouth and began to sing: like opening up to a force of life, phrases stretching into eternity, sensitivity beyond measure, and Mahalia Jackson-like in her fervent intensity. Here in a historical meeting with Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic, she sings the love-death (liebestod) from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. In a visionary way, she takes Wagner’s music — which magnetically circles around longing in love — to a higher plane: in Norman’s voice I always sense an unconditional love, an overflowing heart. Together with the women above she took me into realms of perception and sensitivity, insights, vitality, vulnerability and much more which continues to shape me as musician and human today. I am in awe; thank you!

Posted on March 8, 2021