Music@RushHour celebrates gay composers

Natalie Ng | Daily Trojan

USC Thornton School of Music’s Music@RushHour offers a weekly, late afternoon reprieve from the madness of 5 p.m. traffic through a concert series held on Wednesday evenings in Simon Ramo Recital Hall. This week’s program featured a celebration of gay composers by the Amicus Duo, a group comprising pianist Alin Melik-Adamyan and cellist Coleman Itzkoff.

A Los Angeles native, Melik-Adamyan began taking piano lessons at age 4 and attended USC for both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance. She is now in her final year of study for a doctor of musical arts degree in keyboard collaborative arts. Itzkoff is currently pursuing a graduate certificate in music performance and cites his family’s musical lineage as the catalyst for his 20 years of cello study.

Feeling an immediate connection as collaborators and sharing a passion for chamber music, the pair formed Amicus Duo in 2014 as a result of a last-minute call to perform together. Since its inception, Amicus Duo has made appearances in showcases, master classes, recording studios and concert halls across the United States and earned prizes in international competitions.

For Melik-Adamyan and Itzkoff, Music@RushHour has provided an opportunity to perform in front of friends and colleagues as well as to showcase their own creativity and passions through programming liberties. Wednesday’s repertoire was conceived a month ago and sparked by the duo’s mutual interest in showcasing the music of gay composers who were stigmatized and dismissed by society during their lifetimes.

The evening began with English composer Ethel Smyth’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in A minor, Op. 5. Throughout the piece’s three increasingly energetic movements, Melik-Adamyan and Itzkoff bore the emotion of the music in their body movements and facial expressions.

“Smyth was particularly underrepresented as both a gay composer and a female composer,” Itzkoff said. “In addition to being an accomplished composer, she was a suffragette who famously broke the windows of politicians who voted against women’s right to vote and spent two months in jail for her actions. Yet still to this day, she is tragically unknown in the music world, making her Sonata even more of a hidden gem.”

The program continued with Pezzo Capriccioso, Op. 62 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a dramatic piece that reflects the conflict between Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality and the hostility of Russian society in his time.

“The works of Tchaikovsky are frequently performed, but he is rarely ever acknowledged or even presented as a gay composer,” Melik-Adamyan said. “In performing these works this week, I want to say it loud and clear that these composers are gay and are amongst some of the most influential people who have ever lived.”

Melik-Adamyan then took the stage for a solo rendition of the fourth movement of Gargoyles, Op. 29 by Lowell Liebermann. Playing with passion and concentrated veracity, she powerfully captured the angst and frustration Liebermann imbued in the piece.

In closing, the Amicus Duo reunited on stage for the entirety of Benjamin Britten’s five-movement Sonata for Piano and Cello in C Major, Op. 65. The first two movements saw Melik-Adamyan and Itzkoff’s respective instruments engaged in a call and response musical dialogue while movement three called for slower melodies. With a sharp inhale signaling the downbeat, Itzkoff launched into the opening cello sequence of the livelier final movements as Melik-Adamyan followed suit with mounting enthusiasm on the piano. The pair finished the piece, and the concert, with a resonating flourish to ardent applause.

“These are four of the greatest musicians in history,” Itzkoff said of Smyth, Tchaikovsky, Liebermann and Britten. “Their lives and works of art are remembered and celebrated to this day, while the lives of their oppressors have long been forgotten. Then as now, those who fight on the side of justice, of love, of art and equality for all will find themselves on the right side of history.”

The Amicus Duo will perform the same program on Sunday at “Stop the Hate,” a pride event hosted by the Uptown Gay & Lesbian Alliance, continuing its mission of spotlighting and honoring all that underrepresented gay composers stand for.

As Melik-Adamyan put it, “For the love of music, let’s stop the hate!”