Ever walk past something a hundred times without having it register, then one day it catches just the right light and you are blown away by how lovely it is?
That kind of thing happens pretty frequently to me, because I go through life in a state of complete obliviousness 90% of the time, followed by periods of complete wonderment.
On Saturday, Salem College celebrated composer Margaret Sandresky’s 90th birthday with a symposium and a concert. I’ve known Margaret for about twenty years, and I think I realized from time to time that she was or had been a composer, but I never gave her much thought. Or, to be more precise, when I thought of her, I thought of her as a very pleasant person who often had astute things to say about my music at concert intermissions.
Turns out she’s the fourth of five generations of professional women musicians, a truly extraordinary feat in more ways than I can count. She got her Master’s at Eastman in the 1940s, studying with Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers, and followed it up with studies in Frankfurt under the tutelage of Kurt Hessenberg. She taught at Oberlin and UT Austin before coming to Salem College, the oldest college for women in the country.
When I saw there was a concert devoted to her works scheduled by a school that’s a stone’s throw from my own, curiosity and collegiality teamed up to get me in the door.
In the afternoon, Margaret was the centerpiece of a composers symposium alongside her daughter Eleonor Sandresky, Kenneth Frazelle and Charles Fussell. The topic was an age-old standard, Whither Music, or What Should We Expect from the 21st-century Composer? On the surface, posing this question to a composer in her tenth decade might seem a bit odd, but Margaret caught this audience member’s attention right away with her opening remarks about technology. “We have to remember,” she cautioned, “that music and science have gone hand-in-hand for thousands of years.” She cited Pythagoras and Plato in her insistence that there is nothing new – and nothing to fear — about the partnership of art and technology.
The evening concert featured nine of Sandresky’s works, all composed since she was in her 50s, and most composed in the last twenty years – the time I’ve known her. They were all lovingly crafted, mostly post-tonal creations. My favorites were an organ mass on the l’homme armé melody that felt like a 20th-century conjuring of the spirit of Dufay, and a pair of piano pieces, beautifully played by the composer’s gifted and resourceful daughter Eleonor. But all of the music was delightful, and made me wish I had been paying closer attention sooner.
Margaret Vardell Sandresky, half a lifetime ago and now.