She founded a pioneering group for women composers and a successful independent record label. She taught in Tennessee, Hawaii, Jakarta, and Vienna. But what made Nancy Van de Vate happiest was composing—for orchestra.
Nancy Van de Vate (b. 1930). Distant Worlds, for violin and orchestra (1985)Listen on Spotify
Hi everyone, I’m Kile Smith, and welcome to Fleisher Discoveries. Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection. There’s a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast up every month on SoundCloud and Spotify; search “Fleisher Discoveries” and find every one of our podcasts.
The composer Nancy Van de Vate has lived in so many places, that if I were to list them I know I’d leave some out. She was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, and studied at Eastman, Wellesley, the University of Mississippi, Florida State, Dartmouth, and the University of New Hampshire. So those were her studies, and she also taught all over, at Memphis State, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville College and Maryville College in Tennessee, and in Hawaii at the University of Hawaii and Hawaii Loa College.
And then there was Indonesia, where she lived for four years, and of course, Vienna, living there for decades and becoming an Austrian citizen, holding dual Austrian and American citizenship.
I mention all these places because they’re behind the work of Nancy Van de Vate we’ll hear today, Distant Worlds, for solo violin and orchestra. The title makes it sound as if it’s about other planets but Van de Vate says it was inspired by all the places she’s lived. She wrote most of Distant Worlds in Jakarta, completing it in Czechoslovakia in 1985, just before recording it in Poland.
Nancy Van de Vate has always traveled, and has always been busy. She composed Distant Worlds at a time when she was writing at least one orchestral work a year. She had decided that the orchestral palette was her natural medium and made her the happiest, and one orchestral work a year would be produced, whether there was a performance or a recording, no matter.
But as it happens, most of her works were recorded because she founded a record company, Vienna Modern Masters, with her husband Clyde Smith. They released dozens if not hundreds of contemporary music CDs, by composers from around the world. Much of her music, and that of many of their composers, garnered wide airplay in Europe and the United States on classical music stations.
In addition to her work for other composers through her record company, Van de Vate felt keenly the great imbalance in composing opportunities weighing against women composers, and decided to do something about it. In 1975 she founded and led the League of Women Composers, a trailblazing organization devoted to advocating for the inclusion of music by women composers in every aspect of the classical music world. Twenty years later it merged with two other organizations to become what is now the International Alliance for Women in Music.
The Fleisher Collection has worked with these organizations over the years to get the word—and the music—out, to promote the works of women composers as much as possible. On Fleisher Discoveries, in all our 21 years, we’ve aired works by Nancy Van de Vate and other contemporary women composers, as well as those going back in history. In fact, when we went over to podcasting in December 2018—four years ago now, hard to believe!—the very first composer we presented was Florence Price.
In the midst of all her work for others, we’re glad that Nancy Van de Vate found time to compose! Sometimes she would take weeks off at a time, without phone or later, email, to get her work done. Distant Worlds is for violin and orchestra, but the composer says that it isn’t, strictly speaking, a violin concerto. The soloist takes a significant role in the work but in one place where you might expect the cadenza to be, that’s taken over by the percussion section. She explains that the music is formed into an arch. It builds up to a middle section and then falls away from that—in letters, making it ABCDCBA.
Janusz Mirynski is the violin soloist, and the Polish Radio and Television Orchestra is conducted by Szymon Kawalla in Distant Worlds, by Nancy Van de Vate.
[Nancy Van de Vate. Distant Worlds, for violin and orchestra]
Distant Worlds, by Nancy Van de Vate on Fleisher Discoveries. Szymon Kawalla conducted the Polish Radio and Television Orchestra, and the violin soloist was Janusz Mirynski. This is the Fleisher Discoveries podcast, and I’m Kile Smith.
In one of her interviews with Bruce Duffie, Nancy Van de Vate recalls how wonderful the orchestras and players in Eastern Europe were with new music. Many companies were recording over there for economic reasons, but the good orchestras in Poland, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere, were very good, especially with contemporary scores, since they were doing so much of it. Van de Vate gave the music to the soloist Janusz Mirynski, who was the concertmaster of the Polish Radio and Television Orchestra. He lived in a small apartment with a wife, two children, one of which was a colicky baby, and one ill mother-in-law. Yet he learned everything in 10 days and had suggestions for interpretations and tempos in various places, all of which illuminated her music and all of which she was overjoyed to accept. Nancy Van de Vate discovering her Distant Worlds on Fleisher Discoveries.
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And again, thanks for joining me on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well and I hope to see you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.