Black Conductors, a belated addendum


Due to the popularity of my earlier black conductors article I was feeling the need to expand this piece a bit.  Again this is by no means comprehensive and I welcome comments, additions and corrections.

 

The original article was just an occasional piece, far from comprehensive so I have decided to add a few names.  First the black conductors who are no longer with us:

 

Charles-Richard Lambert (d. 1862)- Born in New York (no date given), settled in New Orleans and was a music teacher and conductor for the Philharmonic Society (the first non-theater orchestra in New Orleans).  He died in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Edmond Dédé (1827-1903) Born in New Orléans, he moved to Europe to study music and settled in France where he had a career as a conductor and composer.

Edmond Dede

Edmond Dede

William Grant Still photographed by Carl van Vechten

William Grant Still photographed by Carl van Vechten

 

William Grant Still  (1895-1978)- In addition to being a major American composer and the first black composer to have a symphony played by a major symphony orchestra to have an opera premiered by a major company (Troubled Island, written in 1939 was premiered by the New York City Opera in 1949), the first black composer to have an opera broadcast on television (Bayou Legend, 1941, not performed until 1974 and broadcast 1976 by the Mississippi Educational Television Authority) he was also the first black conductor to conduct a major American orchestra in the deep south  (New Orleans Philharmonic, 1955)

Calvin E. Simmons

Calvin E. Simmons

 

Calvin E. Simmons (1950-1982) The first black conductor to be appointed conductor of a major American orchestra (Philadelphia Orchestra).  He died in a canoeing accident near Lake George in New York.  The Calvin Simmons theater at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center in Oakland, CA is named in his honor.

 

 

 

And now to those who remain on the earthly plane:

 

-Thomas Jefferson Anderson (1928- ) Better known perhaps as a composer is an educator he is also an accomplished conductor, educator and orchestrator.  He is well-known for his orchestration of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha (unfortunately this has yet to be recorded).

 

-Leslie B. Dunner (1956- )Born in New York City, he attended the Eastman School of Music, Queen’s College and received a Master’s Degree in 1979 from the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.  He was the first American (of any color apparently) to win the Arturo Toscanini International Conducting Competition in 1986.  Currently a conductor for the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, Mr. Dunner has conducted the Chicago Symphony, the Grant Park Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony, L A Philharmonic and many others world-wide.

 

Leslie B. Dunner

Leslie B. Dunner

 

William Eddins

William Eddins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

William Eddins (1964- ) Both a pianist and a conductor, Eddins was a founding member of the New World Symphony in Miami, FL and is currently the principal conductor of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra since 2005.  He regularly performs music by 20th and 21st Century composers and host a podcast called Classical Connections.

 

 

 

-Robert Keith McFerrin, Jr. (1950- ) Better known as “Bobby McFerrin” is a ten time Grammy award winner.  He is also a popular guest conductor with orchestras such as the San Francisco Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony, Israel Philharmonic and many others.

Bobby Mc Ferrin in 2011

Bobby Mc Ferrin in 2011

 

As I said this is hardly comprehensive but these omissions have bothered me more each time I see that the original post has been read again.  Hopefully this will assuage my guilt and provide useful information.

 

Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain


Primjous Fountain (1949- )

Primjous Fountain (1949- )

I first encountered the work of this composer in 1982 in a broadcast concert of the Milwaukee Symphony that featured his Symphony No. 1. He was billed then as, “Primous Fountain III”.  I listened and, as was my obsessive practice, I recorded the work on a cassette tape so that I could listen again and not have the experience fade into obscurity.  I have listened many times to this wonderful piece and now in the age of social media one can find more of his music on his web page and his Facebook page.

Fountain was born in Chicago in 1949 where he attended Wendell Phillips High School and after graduation completed an orchestral piece Manifestation (1967) which was performed by the Chicago Symphony.  He has also had performances by the Boston Symphony and the New England Conservatory under Gunther Schuller.  I was fortunate recently to make the acquaintance of Mr. Bill Doggett who is a lecturer and marketing representative for black composers who is in touch with Mr. Fountain.  He informs me that Mr. Fountain is alive and well and living in his native Chicago.

Fountain with Hans Werner Henze

Fountain with Hans Werner Henze

Though largely self-taught he later studied with Hans Werner Henze and Gunther Schuller and these experiences seem to have been absorbed into the composer’s palette. In a 1972 interview with Charles Amirkhanian, conductor Harold Farberman and composer Charles Shere the then 20 something Fountain seems to react with disinterest to the apparently sincere  but rather uncomfortable efforts to address racial issues in music.  He speaks as though he feels his music to be so natural a part of his life that he reports his amazing abilities are simply normal to him. He seems unconcerned with the political aspects of being a “black composer”.   His instinct for complex things like orchestration are like walking or breathing, second nature.  His identity is in his music.

Fountain with Gunther Schuller

Fountain with Gunther Schuller

After hearing his youthful work Manifestation none other than Quincy Jones commissioned Fountain’s Symphony No. 2.  There is a performance by the Lugansk Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine under the baton of Miran Vaupotic available for listening on the composer’s web site as well as on You Tube which now sports a performance of the first two movements of his fourth symphony along with the second movement of his Cello Concerto and selections from other orchestral works.

His idiom might be called conservative in that it incorporates a standard orchestra and uses well-known forms such as Symphony and Concerto but his skill at writing is the point much as it is with other composers trained in schools like Julliard, Curtis, Berklee and the New England Conservatory.

His work sounds at times like a latter day Stravinsky with jagged rhythms and rich orchestration.  There is a passionate post-romantic intensity to the pieces I have heard.  I definitely want to hear more.

Fortunately there is now a YouTube channel dedicated to this composer’s work.  There are, however, no commercial recordings of this man’s music that I was able to find.  Here we see a prodigy who was embraced by many in the world of serious music and whose star appeared to have been rising.

But for all the love and attention that prodigies sometimes get it hardly guarantees exposure beyond their youth.  Fountain is not well-known but that has nothing to do with the quality of his music from what I have been able to hear.  And as sincere as the performances are in the MP3 and YouTube selections they are hardly the pinnacle of musical interpretation.  His music is complex and challenging to performers and I have no doubt that a major symphony orchestra with an insightful conductor could better demonstrate the power of his music.

One hopes that the body of music of this American composer will find an audience in his native country some day but limitations of arts funding and the plight of the black minority composer suggest that this will not be an easy path.  I hope that some enterprising young musicology student might take on the cataloging and analysis of his work to help this process.  Any takers?

Maybe the people at Naxos records or one of the many fine and creative independent labels who have recorded so much neglected music might take on the task of bringing some of this music to classical audiences.  It would be a loss to allow it to languish under-appreciated and largely unheard.  We truly don’t know what we’re missing and I think that is a terrible shame.

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