[Blackstudies-l] Black Composers Matter

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Wed Oct 5 08:55:40 EDT 2016


lisaparavisini posted: " A review by Liane Curtis for The Boston Musical
Intelligencer. In a season when major Boston institutions such as the BSO
and Handel and Haydn Society continue to assert that women and minorities
wrote no music worth hearing (with the BSO offering only"
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<http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/> Black Composers Matter
<http://repeatingislands.com/2016/10/04/black-composers-matter/> by
lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>

[image: Screen Shot 2016-10-04 at 8.10.15 PM.png]

A review by Liane Curtis for *The Boston Musical Intelligencer*.
<http://www.classical-scene.com/2016/10/03/black-composers-matter/>

In a season when major Boston institutions such as the BSO and Handel and
Haydn Society continue to assert that women and minorities wrote no music
worth hearing (with the BSO offering only occasional tokens as exceptions
that prove the rule), it is important to notice the efforts being made by
organizations that celebrate the works of usually marginalized groups. Castle
of Our Skins <http://www.castleskins.org/> is such an organization,
offering both concerts and educational programming. On Saturday at the
Boston Public Library (McKim Building), they offered an “edu-tainment”
string quartet event of just over an hour that was mostly concert, but
framed with insightful and lively remarks by violist Ashley Gordon
(Artistic & Executive Director). The other musicians were Megumi Stohs
Lewis and Mina Lavcheva, violins, and Michael Dahlberg, cello. COOS’s name
is drawn from the 1972 “Poem (for Nina)” by Nikki Giovanni, that urges a
celebration of black identity.

Valerie Coleman’s *Umoja* came first and also gave its name to the concert.
In Swahili “Umoja” means “unity” and is also the first day of the holiday
of Kwanzaa. Coleman, the flutist with the Imani Winds, has also composed a
number of well-known works for that ensemble. She has arranged *Umoja* in
several versions, and it was very effective for string quartet. The short
melodic phrases move from instrument to instrument, like a sung call in
antiphonal treatment, supported by an undulating accompaniment, that also
moves from instrument to instrument. As the opener it instantly engaged.

Then followed two movements from the third quartet by Joseph Bologne,
Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), known as the first classical
composer of African descent. Saint-Georges’s extraordinary life ought to
draw attention to his music, but perhaps it instead does the opposite. How
could a French nobleman with African heritage, acclaimed fencing champion
and colonel who organized and led a cavalry brigade on behalf of the French
revolution, also be a composer and violinist of the first rank? While I’ve
collected recordings of the Chevalier, I believe this was my first
opportunity to hear a live performance of his music. It was completely
delightful. In the graceful and elegant* Allegro Assai*, while the first
violin dominates the musical fabric, the other instruments do have an
active role, sometimes echoing or responding to the swirls of melody of the
first. The *Rondeau* felt sprightly and energetic; the antecedent phrase of
the main theme used an expansive and unexpected rhythm, and the repetitions
of the sections were not formulaic, so it varied *Rondo* conventions in a
refreshing way.

Jessie Montgomery, whose music I know through her wonderful CD, *Strum
<http://www.jessiemontgomery.com/strum-album>*, won the Sphinx Organization
<http://www.sphinxmusic.org/sphinx-competition/> competition (as a
violinist), and performed in its orchestra and string quartet. Sphinx was
founded 20 years ago “to address the stark under-representation of people
of color in classical music,” so Montgomery can be counted as one of their
successes. *Voodoo Dolls* begins with a with a frenetic Latin ostinato;
first tapped and then bowed, this rhythmic pulse propels the entire piece.
The first violin enters with a jazz infused melody, sliding and wailing
evocatively, the other instruments join in fervently. Eventually the
ostinato moves to a ghostly upper register, with the melody decaying to
fragments, mournfully repeated and varied. The rhythmic vigor returns again
before the peroration. This piece, like much of Montgomery’s music, is
genre-defying in its influences. It was at times haunting and always
compelling.

Based on folk melodies, William Grant Still’s very pleasing *Dances de
Panamá*  date from 1948, when Still completed his opera “Troubled Island,”
about the Haitian revolution, so the dances can be understood as part of
this Caribbean preoccupation.

“Taborito” (meaning small drum) began four-piece-set. An intimate couple
dance with intricate footwork, the Taborito is described by some as the
national dance of Panama. Still’s version had the musicians tap their
instruments to serve as percussive introduction, followed by exchanges of a
lush, sensual melody. The more sprightly middle section also included some
heavy accents.

The second dance, “Mejora y Socavon” is named for folk instruments of
guitar family. A lilting triple-meter melody (accompanied by strumming
effects) is countered by a brusque duple meter section, which is also
recalled for a rousing coda. “Punto” was next, and had the strings don
their mutes for some melancholic and sweet exchanges. The vigorous finale,
“Cumbia Y Congo” recalled the tapping percussion followed by driving
repeated-note ostinati. The simple melody was at first rustic, and then
more syncopated, and finally vigorous and bold, and rousing. The set was
meaningful as a group and the performers infused it with exhilarating
energy. While Still is best known for orchestral music such as his
Afro-American Symphony, these pieces for string quartet certainly suggest
that a wider range of his music should be better known.

The first African American woman to have her music performed by a major
orchestra, Florence Price (1887-1953) pioneered in many ways. Both her
piano concerto and her symphonies were widely performed, and Marian
Anderson kept several of her songs in her repertoire. For a very long time
I’ve been curious about Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint; nearly
eight years ago I got to hear the Lydian String Quartet perform two of the
movements at Brandeis. That only intensified my desire to hear the whole
set; thus I was very nervous when Gordon suggested that they would have to
cut out some of the movements in order not to go over their allotted time
slot. Fortunately, both the library staff and the audience urged the group
to proceed with the full set. The two outer movements, “Calvary” and “Swing
Low, Sweet Chariot,” were the most serious, in keep with their origins as
spirituals. The melody of “Calvary” is short, two phrases, but these
received a reflective and thoughtful treatment. “Clementine” reminded me
about Price’s training in organ (at the New England Conservatory) and her
practice as a church organist (and also as a cinema organist and pianist),
with its many inventive turns and twists of harmony with this melody; the
modulating passages between the stanzas were adventurous and even
developmental. The grandiose ending was done with tongue-in-cheek. “Drink
to me only with thine eyes” offered warmth and sweetness, but also some wry
humor, as in the virtuosic phrase ending that violin I flicks off, or the
momentary turn to impressionism with the theme stated in an exotic whole
tone form. “Shortnin’ Bread” was lively but still replete with chromatic
twists, with the richness of the harmony contrasting with the simplicity of
the tune. “Swing low” began with a stirring cello solo and then moved on to
emphasize the contrapuntal, with fugal passages and fragments of the melody
heard in augmentation and inversion. Finally, Violin I recalls the theme in
bold octaves, and the quartet joins in magnificent flourishes to end the
movement with grandeur. Written in 1951, they reveal Price in full command
of her lush, post-romantic vocabulary.

A drizzly and dreary Saturday afternoon did not deter a sizable audience,
which filled not only the 50 chairs, but also stood, and sat on the benches
in the back. The audience highly diverse audience included very attentive
children as well as elders, not to mention a range of ethnicities.

Noise from patrons passing by in the hallway and a hum of a ventilation
system in the BPL’s Gustavino Room plus the lack of any acoustical shell
under the high patented-tile ceiling resulted in some notes of Stohs’s high
register seeming thin. The performers otherwise brought an excellence of
great energy and excitement to their music making. I applaud them for
seeking out important repertoire and sharing these discoveries.

If this program intrigues you, catch it at the Isabella Stewart Gardner
Museum’s Opening Our Doors Day, Monday, Oct. 10 at 10:30 a.m. and again at
11:30 AM. On this free admission day, lines form early.
Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is President of Women’s Philharmonic
Advocacy and The Rebecca Clarke Society, Inc.  Her website is here.
<http://www.wophil.org/blog/>
*lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>* |
October 4, 2016 at 8:10 pm | Categories: News
<http://repeatingislands.com/?cat=103> | URL: http://wp.me/psnTa-reE

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