New Generation Revives “Ladies First”

New Generation Revives an Old Pen Women Project

By Mollee Kruger, Bethesda Branch, Maryland

Last summer, Lauren Latessa made a surprising discovery at the retirement community where she works as musician in residence. In a casual visit to a tenant (me), the vivacious 30-year-old cellist discovered Ladies First, a 1995 Pen Woman project that would blend perfectly into her desire to promote music by American women composers.

After earning a fellowship from Community MusicWorks in Providence, Rhode Island, Latessa wanted to learn about the ways that music might transform communities. With two other young musicians, she had developed a project that created meaningful relationships between professional classical musicians and the residents of Charles E. Smith Life Communities (CESLC) in Rockville, Maryland.

The Iris Trio — Lauren Latessa, Sara Matayoshi, and Jessica McKee — perform a recital at Potter’s Violin Co. July 2017.

Latessa and the other two women — violinist Sara Matayoshi and pianist Jessica McKee — entertained and educated the older adults at CESLC while also sharing their love of music with others in the community. But except for a touch of Clara Schumann, the trio had never performed women composers.

The more we talked, the more she wanted to learn about Ladies First, which was a collaborative effort by composer Winifred Hyson and me, two members of the Bethesda Branch. Latessa loved Hyson’s imaginative musical score. The songs were based on poems from my ’94 book, “Ladies First: Rhymes and Times of the Presidents’ Wives and Other Female Phantasies.” For a full decade, our 45-minute show had been performed for numerous civic organizations, women’s groups, and retirement communities.

Mollee Kruger, soprano Elana Lippa, and pianist Jessica McKee review the score in 2017.

She was ecstatic. “Perfect,” she said. “Music, poetry, women, history! Why don’t you let us do a Ladies First revival?”

Her fellow musicians were equally enthusiastic. They wanted to expand the idea further to highlight American women in the arts. At a brainstorming session, Latessa proposed a five-day festival including, Ladies First and other events honoring American women including Pen Women Amy Beach and Carrie Jacobs-Bond, and lectures on American women writers, conductors, and artists during Women’s History Month.

I knew the revival could not be a replica of the original.  The original cast consisted of women ranging in age from 63 to 80. Unlike our “electronic age” replacements in their 30s, we grew up in an America perhaps closer to the one experienced by these First Ladies themselves. We brought different skills, backgrounds, and philosophies to our script.

Mollee Kruger and Winifred Hyson review the Ladies First score together in 1995.

Winifred Hyson, with a doctorate in physics from Radcliffe, had married young, bore three children, and while seeking piano instruction for her daughter, found teachers for her child and herself at American University. Later as a certified piano teacher, she published a voluminous amount of award-winning music. Mezzo-soprano Lee Beaudoin privately trained in voice and piano and had four children. She was a descendant of Jane Pierce, wife of President Franklin Pierce, and whenever she sang about her relative, she poured her heart into her ancestor’s tragic life. Pianist Mary Beth Beck had five children. A widow, she also managed the family farm until well into her 80s. She still had time to serve as an accompanist to a number of professional singers in the community. As for me, I had a small part as mime. At one performance, a thunderstorm blew out all the lights. Ever tried doing pantomime in the dark?

Although there are generational differences, Lauren Latessa, Sara Matayoshi, and Jessica McKee will be as flexible and unflappable as we were — and more skillful. Matayoshi has earned recognition as a solo, chamber, and orchestral violinist, and is currently the acting principal second of the National Philharmonic Orchestra. McKee has a doctorate of musical arts from the University of Maryland, studied piano at the University of Michigan, and plays the violin. Latessa holds degrees from the Peabody Conservatory and Northwestern University and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the Johns Hopkins University.

We, older women, sought to fit our music into the broader pattern of family and community life. We had neither the time nor energy to seek all-consuming, full-time careers, and all of us seemed to blossom after our children were grown. The younger women approach music with more academic training and more emphasis on technical excellence. There are more opportunities available to them, such as fellowships and grants. And there is social media for boundless publicity.

The trio hope that their work serves as a model for other chamber music groups in reaching out to diverse communities. They are inspired by the Greek goddess, Iris, often performing as the Iris Trio. In Greek mythology, Iris used rainbows as a bridge between heaven and Earth. “We feel this symbol captures the spirit of our work,” Latessa said. “The whole life cycle should be filled with music.”

Building bridges between the arts and communities?  That’s also a Pen Women goal, according to national President Virginia Franklin Campbell. And by the way, Lauren Latessa will soon become a Pen Woman — her membership application is making its way to NLAPW for approval.