Black Notes Matter: Lara Downes’ America Again


laradownes

Sono Luminus DSL-92207

The lovely cover photo for this album by San Francisco born pianist Lara Downes is reminiscent of any number of socially conscious folk/rock stars of the 60s and 70s. It would seem that this is no accident.  This delightful album of short pieces by a wide variety of American composers takes its title from the Langston Hughes (1902-1967) poem, Let America Be America Again (1935).  By so doing the pianist places this interesting selection of short piano pieces firmly in the context of black racial politics and the artistic expression of black America as well as those influenced by this vital vein of American culture (both musical and literary).  It is a graceful and deeply felt effort and I hope that the metaphor of the title of my review is not too tortured a one to reflect that.

This is also a very personal album.  Downes seems to share some deeply felt connections with her materials.  This artist, born to a white mother and a black father, invokes a careful selection of short piano pieces steeped sometimes in jazz and blues but also the political directness (and optimism) which was characteristic of the inter-war years that brought forth the Hughes poem.  There is both sadness and celebration in these virtuosic and technically demanding little gems (most apparently recorded for the first time or at least the first time in a while).  The pianist’s comments on each individual piece are also critical to the understanding of this disc as she shares the impact and meaning that the music has had for her.

There are 21 tracks by 19 composers in all and the selections themselves are quite a feat. They range from the 19th to the 21st centuries and are composed by both men and women of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.  All seem to share the sort of  populist charm befitting the idealized America yearned for in the poem which is to say that they represent a kind of idealized or hopeful nationalism.  Downes is well acquainted with a large variety of American music and recognizes no distinction between classical and so-called “vernacular” traditions.

In fact none of these things are atypical for this artist.  Her previous albums Exiles Cafe (2013) featured music by composers exiled from their homelands, A Billie Holiday Songbook (2015) celebrated the life of this iconic black artist and her American Ballads (2001) demonstrated her deep mastery and affection for populist (but not jingoistic) nationalism.  Her tastefully issue oriented albums define a very individual path and the present album appears to be a very logical and well executed next entry into her discography.

This disc shares a similar heritage to that of Alan Feinberg’s four discs on Argo/Decca entitled, The American Innovator, The American Virtuoso, The American Romantic and Fascinating Rhythm: American Syncopation.  Another notable antecedent is Natalie Hinderas’ groundbreaking two disc set of music by African-American composers.

And now on to the music:

Morton Gould (1913-1996) was a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and conductor with a style informed by his study of jazz and blues in a vein similar to that of Bernstein and Copland.  He is represented here by American Caprice (1940).

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)  was a composer, conductor and teacher.  He was a modernist and an innovator in the promotion of non-western musical cultures.  His New York Waltzes (1944-1994) are three brief essays in that dance form.

The traditional folk song Shenandoah (apparently in the pianist’s transcription) is next.   This tune will be familiar to most listeners as a popular selection by choral groups and the melody is a common metaphor for things American.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was one of the first successful female American composers.  Her “From Blackbird Hills” Op. 83 (1922) is representative of her late romantic style and her incorporation of Native American (Omaha) elements in her music.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is a English composer with Creole roots, a black composer, known as the “African Mahler” in his day.  Deep River (1905) is his setting of this spiritual which also was one of Marian Anderson’s signature pieces.

Dan Visconti (1982- ) was commissioned by the International Beethoven Festival to write his Lonesome Roads Nocturne (2013) for Lara Downes.  It receives its world premiere recording in this collection.

Swiss-American composer and teacher Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) is certainly deserving of more attention.  His At Sea (1922) is used here to represent the sea voyages of the many immigrants (willing and unwilling) whose journey defined in part who they were.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) mastered both the vernacular tradition (as one of the finest song writers of the 20th Century) and the classical tradition in his too few compositions written in his sadly abbreviated life.  His opera Porgy and Bess (1935) is contemporary with the Langston Hughes poem mentioned earlier.  Downes most arrestingly chooses the arrangement of “I loves you, Porgy” by the classically trained iconic singer, musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone (1933-2003).  Quoting from Downes’ notes (Nina Simone expresses what she knew) “…about being a woman, being black and about being strong and powerless all at the same time.”  Indeed one of the most potent lines of the Hughes poem reads, “America was never America to me.”

Angelica Negrón (1981- ) was born in Puerto Rico and  now lives and works in New York. Her Sueno Recurrente (Recurring Dream, 2002) is a lovely little nocturne which is here given its world premiere.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) held credentials as composer, conductor, teacher and ardent civil rights supporter.  His Anniversary for Stephen Sondheim (1988) is one of a series of Anniversary piano pieces he wrote.  Bernstein did much to help modern audiences (including this reviewer) comprehend the vital musicality of jazz and blues. Like Downes, he drew little distinction between popular and classical and celebrated all the music he believed was good.

David Sanford (1963- ) is a trombonist, teacher and composer who works in both classical and jazz idioms.  His work Promise (2009) was written for Downes and this is the world premiere recording.

Howard Hanson (1896-1981) was a conductor, teacher and Pulitzer Prize winning composer (though not at all an advocate of ragtime, jazz or blues).  His brief but lovely piano piece Slumber Song (1915) is a nice discovery and one hopes that it will be taken up by more pianists.

Scott Joplin (1867/68-1917) was discovered largely due to the scholarship and recordings of musicologist Joshua Rifkin (who incidentally did some arrangements for folkie Judy Collins) whose three volumes of piano rags on Nonesuch records introduced this wonderful black composer’s work to a wider audience once again.  Marvin Hamlisch famously incorporated Joplin’s music into his score for the motion picture The Sting (1973).  Downes chooses the Gladiolus Rag (1907) to represent this composer.

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline 1888-1989) is another of the greatest song composers this country has produced.  In another characteristically clever choice Downes chooses the arrangement of this hugely optimistic song, “Blue Skies”(1926) by the great jazz pianist Art Tatum (1909-1956).

Florence Price (1887-1953) was a black female composer (the first to have one of her orchestral works programmed by a major symphony orchestra) whose work is only recently getting some much needed exposure.  Her Fantasy Negre (1929) is based on a spiritual, “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass”.  Price was involved in the New Negro Arts Movement of the Harlem Renaissance and was professionally connected with Langston Hughes among others.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is perhaps the most iconic American composer.  Dubbed the “Dean of American Composers” his earliest work has strong jazz influences and his later work created the American romantic/nationalist sound incorporating folk songs and rhythms.  For this recording the artist chose the first of the composer’s Four Piano Blues (1926) which also appeared on her 2001 album of American Ballads.

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) was a composer and band leader whose sound virtually defined the Harlem Renaissance during his tenure at the famed Cotton Club.  Melancholia (1959) is the piece chosen here, again a nice little discovery.

Roy Harris (1898-1979) was, like Copland, a populist but the Oklahoma born composer studied Native American music as well as American folk songs.  His American Ballads (1946) was included on Downes’ American Ballads album.  Here she includes an unpublished work from a projected (but never finished) American Ballads Volume II.  This piece is a setting of the spiritual, “Lil Boy Named David”.

The album concludes with one of the ultimate hopeful dreamer songs, Harold Arlen’s (1905-1986) Over the Rainbow (1939) from his score for The Wizard of Oz (1939).  The adolescent yearning of Dorothy for something better than her dust bowl farm life touched a chord in many over the years and it is a fitting conclusion to this beautiful and hopeful collection.

As mentioned earlier the insightful liner notes by Lara Downes complement this production and tactfully position its politics.  She shares a personal journey that is as American as the proverbial apple pie.  The album is dedicated to the artist’s ancestors in recognition of their struggles as well as to her children in hopes that dreams for a better future can become their reality.

This beautiful sound of this album is the result of work of Producer Dan Merceruio and Executive Producer Collin J. Rae along with Daniel Shores and David Angell.  The lovely photography is by Rik Keller and as with the previous release Skylark: Crossing Over (reviewed here) the graphic design by Caleb Nei deserves special mention for its ability to truly complement this disc.

It is scheduled for release on October 28, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A shamanic effort to raise consciousness and further socially progressive ideas.

Blackness, Race and Music, What I Have Learned So Far


Two years ago, when I was just at the start of my blogging adventures, I decided it would be a good idea to do a few articles in honor of Black History Month. I am not black and I have no expertise in the area of black music but, in keeping with the personal perspective of this blog, I decided that my interest in these subjects is sufficient reason to express some opinions and ideas.  I chose Carl van Vechten’s portrait of William Grant Still, considered by many to the first major black composer to receive recognition in the 20th Century as my symbol for this article.  Much of his music remains unknown and little performed though there have been some significant recordings released in the last few years.

I called that first set of articles “Black Classical”. Curiously my brief article on black conductors has been one of my most read pieces (947  views as of the time I write these words).   So I continued to write on this subject in the following year. For my second set of articles I took the opportunity to look at the 50 year anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by all measures a landmark piece of legislation. I asked a question, in part rhetorical because I had a basic idea of the answers I expected, but also to elicit opinions and to discuss issues of race and music.

I sent queries to a random set of composers and conductors and received a few very gracious replies. Comments ranged from carefully worded egalitarian musings on how black music and music by other racial minorities should be integrated and heard throughout the concert seasons to seemingly careful statements suggesting that this might not even be the right question or that it shouldn’t be asked. Not all comments were published but I am grateful to all who replied. And I have been able to continue this discussion in the various groups on Facebook.

I learned in a (yet to be published) interview with Anthony Davis some fascinating perspectives. Professor Davis did not address my question as I originally asked but he provided some valuable food for thought. It is worth noting that Davis is a composer whose politics are frequently very much in evidence in his music. In a discussion of the current state of music he commented regarding John Cage‘s apolitical stance by saying that, “John Cage’s silence is the silence of white privilege.” One could argue that taking an apolitical stance may have contributed to Cage’s ability to get grants and commissions.  Politically charged music generally does not fare as well.

In general I found more or less what I expected. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has had little, if any, benefit for black musicians and composers. And given the ongoing killing of unarmed black men by police one must wonder if we have been going backwards as a society. But I don’t want to do a grand social critique here. That is a subject for another blog and is a bit outside of my scope at least for now.

I found some musicians who did not want to address racial and discriminatory issues. It seems the issue is too “hot” and that one could face consequences for even asking the question. And some did not feel sufficiently well-versed in Civil Rights history to make a truly informed assessment of this issues.  Perhaps it is a form of white privilege that allows me to ask such a question. We shall see if any reactions result in verbal attacks or (not likely I think) in a reduction in my readership.

What I have learned is that black classical musicians (who are not in short supply) occupy very few prominent positions in academia, in the public sphere of conductors and performers and in the representation in recorded performances of what is a rich but virtually untapped repertoire.  The inequality remains with perhaps some progress but not enough to pronounce the issues here as resolved to a truly significant degree.  But there is a vibrant community of black musicians who are working as did their predecessors to contribute to our collective culture and the discussions are both lively and stimulating.

In 2014 there was a performance by the Cincinnati Symphony of an Oratorio, “The Ordering of Moses” (1937) by R. Nathaniel Dett. The premiere performance of the piece (a beautiful and listener friendly piece of music) was broadcast live. But that broadcast was truncated, leaving out the finale when white listeners complained about music by a black composer getting so much airtime. Happily the entire piece was broadcast uninterrupted and made available in streaming format. However there is no commercial recording of this grand biblical choral work.

I was pleased to be able to review the fully staged performance in May, 2014 of Zenobia Powell Perry‘s opera Tawawa House (1984) in the unlikely venue of Modesto, California by Townsend Opera.  It was a heartfelt and beautiful production and was reviewed here.

Another interesting event in 2014 was the first appearance of three black counter tenors in a performance of a Purcell Opera in Los Angeles.  My blog on this subject can be found here.  I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Mr. Bill Doggett who has been very helpful in keeping me up on the latest developments with black musicians and composers and was the person who alerted me to this historic event.

Coming up in March at the Other Minds festival there will be performances by Errollyn Wallen and Don Byron.

I have been able to dialog with various black musicians on Facebook most notably through the groups Black Composers, The National Association of Negro Composers and Opera Noir.  Composer, performer and conductor Anthony R. Green is posting the name of a black composer every day for the month of February with examples of their work.

Some recent films have done much to tell the very unpretty history of black people in the United States including: 12 Years a Slave (2013), after Solomon Northrup‘s harrowing memoir,  Fruitvale Station (2013), a retelling of the execution style shooting of Oscar Grant at the hands of police in Oakland, California, Selma (2014), a dramatization of the 1965 march in support of voting rights (musical direction by Jason Moran).  And this trend, happily, seems to be on the rise providing artistic historical narratives to aid in the processing of the complex, shameful and painful histories depicted.  The lack of recognition by the motion picture industry supports my arguments for the poor representation and acknowledgement of black artists in general.

I have to mention that the wonderful set of recordings by Paul Freeman originally released on Columbia records remains available as a boxed set of 9 vinyl records with notes from the College Music Society now being offered at only $17.50 (that is not a typo either) via mail order.  I’m going to buy a couple of extra copies to give away as gifts.  It’s a really nice set.

Perhaps the most useful thing I learned is the egalitarian approach by conductor Michael Morgan who stated his desire that music by ethnic groups be integrated into programming on a regular basis rather than being highlighted in a given month.  (I am pleased to report that maestro Morgan will be receiving an award for his service to new music from the American Composers Forum.)  I am now using that approach with this blog in which I will continue to highlight the work of musicians and other artists whose work I find interesting and worth promoting.  So please stay tuned.

 

 

Black Composers Since the 1964 Civil Rights Act


In this, the 50th anniversary year of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights act I have decided to do a survey of black composers who have come of age in the aftermath.  The push for equal rights in the way people are treated, given access to voting, education, business and financial opportunities was the spirit of that legislation.  Though many speak of a “post-racial” America it is clear from any fair analysis that we have a long way to go.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil R...

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, James Farmer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am beginning a series of articles in honor of Black History Month and in honor of this legislation which attempts to address this inequality. Each article will feature a composer or composers whose work I personally find interesting and worth promoting and which was written or premiered in or after 1964.  I will not necessarily limit myself to Americans both because that would be unnecessarily constricting and inconsistent with the spirit of Black History Month and because non-American black composers suffer similar obscurity and may have even benefited from the 1964 legislation.

Civil Rights Act of 1964

Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whether the legislation has improved the opportunities for black composers is, of course, open to debate but the quality of these artists stand alone on their own merits.  They may have had opportunities not available to their predecessors and this may be a positive result of this legislation.  But the fact that awareness of their work is limited and promoted in relatively obscure contexts such as this blog suggests that true equality in the area of recognition of artistic merit remains elusive (though the availability of recordings of the music of black composers has certainly increased) .  Curiously the United States has chosen the shortest month of the year to celebrate Black History whereas England, who abolished slavery before the U.S., celebrates it in October.  Yes, it’s only 3 days, but the irony is hard to miss.

The pioneering work of musicologist Dominique-Rene de Lerma has done a great service in promoting the work of black composers internationally.  He was involved in the production of the landmark series for Columbia Records along with the great (now retired) conductor Paul Freeman recording a variety of music from black composers world-wide. I had discussed this set in a blog last year and it is worth mentioning that the complete set of recordings has been reissued on 9 vinyl discs as a result of a Ford Foundation grant and remains available through the College Music Society in Missoula, Montana for $35.  This beautifully produced box set deserves an honored place in any record collection.

This pioneering set has inspired similar series by Albany Records and Cedille Records which have made recordings available of some very attractive music of black composers which deserves a wider audience.  It is largely these sets and the writing of Professor de Lerma which serve as the source for the series I am doing on this blog.

The internet site africalssical blog is also a very useful resource which is updated frequently and reports the work of black musicians working in the so-called classical world.  It is difficult and perhaps superfluous to try to separate jazz and classical so I will include composers without concern for specific genre categories except, perhaps, pop composers whose work is well-represented in the mainstream.

Pioneering black musicians like Natalie Hinderas, Martina Arroyo, Marian Anderson, Dean Dixon, William Grant Still and their like paved the way for their successors such as Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, Paul Freeman, George Walker and others whose stars became visible to the casual onlooker.  Of course there are fine black classical artists whose talents remain too little known.  How many people know Awadagin Pratt, Mark Doss, Michael Morgan and other active black musical artists?  It takes much more work for listeners to find and appreciate their talents.

It takes even more work to find black composers, especially if they are not also performers.  Most people, even most musicians, would have difficulty naming a single black classical composer.

I contacted several prominent black musicians to pose the question of how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has impacted black classical composers.  To date I am pleased to say that I have received two gracious replies.  The first is from Michael Morgan who currently serves as conductor of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, the Sacramento Philharmonic and the Festival Opera in Walnut Creek.  He has numerous recordings to his credit as well.  Maestro Morgan replied as follows:

Michael Morgan (1957- )

Michael Morgan (1957- )

“I don’t believe the 64 Civil Rights Act has impacted black composers directly, however, the national conversation it inspired did cause performing arts groups (and their philanthropic supporters) to look for new ways to expand their audiences into communities not traditionally as well represented in concert halls. Orchestras are still making efforts (some more sincere than others) to connect with various minority communities. Unfortunately, rather than sprinkle such efforts throughout their seasons, some have opted for the annual Martin Luther King or Black History Month (or Cinco de Mayo, or Chinese New Year, etc. etc.) concert resulting in less sustained contact than might otherwise be possible. Such concerts have, however, been something of a boon for black composers, performers and conductors who find themselves at least included on orchestra programs on those annual occasions.

There may have been a more direct impact on the integration of some concert halls in particularly segregated cities, but the performing arts have historically been somewhat ahead of society in general in terms of promoting fully integrated events, at least in communities where there was significant acceptance of such integration.”

Morgan’s practical approach to programming is evident here and the point is well-taken that consistent programming of minority composers would result in a more sustained impact than simply having focused efforts during given months or weeks.  In fact this notion has convinced me that my blogs on the subject might be more effective if I were to spread them throughout the year, something which I will now incorporate.  My previous blog post on black classical conductors which included Maestro Morgan has been one of my most frequently viewed posts and I will expand on that subject in the months to come.

Adolphus Hailstork

Adolphus Hailstork

The second reply was from eminent composer Adolphus Hailstork who was the subject of my first blog post for black history month from last year.  He replied very thoughtfully as follows:

“Fifty Years After the 1964 Civil Rights Act

Having grown up in New York State and not experienced “legalized” segregation as practiced in the South, I had enjoyed as a youth, all the rights and privileges of American citizenship due me. There were no “colored” this and “white” that signs or classrooms, or lunch counters, etc. So the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not have a direct effect on my life at that time.

(I much later came to appreciate the value of the changes in the south when I came to live there as a working adult.)

Actually, it was the assassination of Dr. King that opened doors to my beginning my doctorate degree that same year when I got out of the army (1968).

Also, that tragic event influenced the unfolding of my career, because it led to an interest in the music of African-American classical composers for the honoring of Dr. King’s birthday celebration in January and, by extension, the heightened interest in such music during the February Black History Month observance.

I believe the history of African-Americans is tragic, heroic, triumphant, and, of course, filled with awesomely dramatic stories. It is an honor to attempt in some small way to pay tribute through music to our story.”

Clearly Dr. Hailstork notes the difference between his experiences in the north where he was born and was able to see the profound contrast he experienced working in the south at Old Dominion University in Virginia particularly during the early civil rights struggles and their aftermath.  The emotional impact of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in the same year he concluded his military service  is noted as a formative issue as well.

One can easily hear the deep emotional impact of which he speaks in works like his second symphony from 1999 which reflects his feelings after having visited the slave markets of West Africa and his American Guernica (1983) which is about the Birmingham 16th Baptist Church bombing which killed 4 little girls in 1963.  Other works such as his Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed, In Memoriam Martin Luther King, Jr. (1979) also reflect the impact of these events on him personally and reflect what he describes as his feeling of honor in being able to pay tribute to these tragedies describing them aptly as “our story”.

I think it is important to begin to see the tragic and triumphant events of the civil rights era as our American story and not just as the story of black Americans.  Indeed these events are part of our collective history as human beings and as Americans.  These are stories that need telling and re-telling as a part of the healing process and the exorcising of the evil deeds of our collective past.

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