Painting in Sound 

Composer Mary Howe returns to Richmond in music.

click to enlarge art08_music_howe_100.jpg

Mary Howe is the most noteworthy Richmond-born musician you've never heard of. That will change, at last, when two of her best works, "Stars" and "Sand," are revived this weekend by the Richmond Symphony.

Howe was one of the pioneer female American composers and an active performer and patron in the music scene of Washington, D.C., her home after leaving Richmond around the turn of the 20th century. She studied piano in Germany and composition at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. In the 1930s she joined the scores of American composers who trekked to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger.

Howe is not heard as widely as Amy Beach and Ruth Crawford Seeger, the two best-known female composers of the time, possibly because her style is not as easy to peg as Beach's romanticism or Crawford Seeger's modernism. If any -ism fits Howe's music, it's impressionism.

In the two miniatures the symphony will play, both dating from the late 1920s, Howe paints environmental sound pictures that don't so much illustrate as explore the nature of her subjects — much as the great French impressionist Claude Debussy evokes the sea in "La Mer."

"Howe's music is definitely informed by the French impressionists," says Mark Russell Smith, the symphony's music director. "I would say she's more direct, less ephemeral," in the sounds she crafts.

"Stars," Howe wrote, is "a miniature tone poem inspired by the gradually overwhelming effect of the dome of a starry night — its peace, beauty and space." She described "Sand" as an "imaginative piece on the substance itself — its consistency, grains, bulk, grittiness and its potential scattering quality." S

The Richmond Symphony performs the works of Mary Howe, along with music by Haydn and Judith Shatin and Brahms' "A German Requiem," at Second Baptist Church Friday, Feb. 23, and Saturday, Feb. 24, at First Baptist Church; Monday, Feb. 26, at St. Michael Catholic Church. All shows at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20-$60. Call 788-1212 or visit www.richmondsymphony.com.

Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at

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