WALTHAM -- Men and women write music, but composer Ned Rorem likes to say music doesn't have sex.
Historically, women composers have had to struggle to do what they wanted to do. New England has been more hospitable than other places and has produced capable and prominent women composers for more than a century. Today in at least one of America's leading conservatories, women occupy half the places in composition classes, which promises much for the future. Many of Boston's resident soloists and ensembles regularly program works by women. But there is still a point to organizing a festival of music by women, like the one at Brandeis University on Saturday, because it brings works of merit to public attention.
History was represented at Saturday night's sold-out concert by works written in 1890 (the solemn "Kyrie" from Amy Beach's Mass in E-flat) and 1912 (Lili Boulanger's ecstatic "Hymn to the Sun"). Pauline Oliveros is still alive, but the work of this indomitably experimental composer already belongs to history. Her "Sonic Meditations" (1971) is an aural cloud-
scape which converges on a single pitch, which then spreads out to where it began. The 25 well-trained singers of The Boston Secession under conductor Jane Ring Frank sang all three works superbly, and the tuning and dynamics in the Oliveros piece were so precise that they made the ears ring. Later, Frank and the group returned for Minnesota composer Janika Vandervelde's "O Viridissima Virga," a vernal and charming piece propelled by a Latin beat (a drum and castanets in the chorus, the excellent Vytas J. Baksys at a prepared piano), and for performances of two movements from Ruth Lomon's "Testimony of Witnesses." This oratorio-in-progress represents Lomon's response to poems from or about the Holocaust.
The world premiere was "Lokomotywa," based on a poem by the Polish writer Julian Tuwin about trains. This was the one work for which the program booklet did not supply a text, so it was not possible to follow it closely. It was nevertheless easy to delight in the composer's imaginative reproduction of the sounds of a steam engine and to be disquieted by the subtext of the musical journey to an unknown destination. Another movement, "Bore Ad Ana," is the opening of the oratorio -- a Hebrew prayer, accompanied by tom-tom and alto flute (Jill Dreeben). This music, too, bears musical witness in a way that is strong, personal, and dramatic.
The two winners of a competition named in honor of composer Rebecca Clarke were present to hear the premieres of their works. The Lydian String Quartet made an eloquent case for "Shifting Landscapes" by Ellen Harrison, music of mingled grief, remembrance, and celebration. Martha Callison Horst's "Cloister Songs" are based on 18th-century texts from a religious community in rural Pennsylvania. The music speaks for those who are rooted in a time and place but yearn for the infinite and otherworldly. The stylistic idiom suggests the Vienna of a century ago, and there is a rapturous quality in the music that was matched in the steady, radiant singing of soprano Nancy Armstrong, sympathetically assisted by Baksys at the piano.
Whether anyone can tell the sex of a composer from the sound of the music alone is at best an open question. What listeners can judge is the quality, integrity, and interest of what they hear; this concertgoer left Slosberg Recital Hall well satisfied, full of sounds to remember and ponder.
A Festival of Women Composers
At: Slosberg Recital Hall, Brandeis University, Saturday night