“Dreams of a New Day”, a Landmark Recording Project from Cedille


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I have always made my admiration clear regarding Chicago based Cedille Records. They release quality recordings of unusual but intelligent choices of repertoire. This recording continues that formula but here achieves what is likely to be seen as a landmark anthology (or at least sampling) of Art Song by Black Composers. It speaks on many levels, as poetry, as music, as a collaboration between an incredible baritone, an amazing pianist, in a beautifully recorded and produced album. I was left throughout with the feeling that this is a loving collaboration. It is an integrated collaboration between many people who worked well together. It is a beautiful document and a timely one.

Baritone Will Liverman, the young rising star baritone who is slated to perform at The Met in the world premiere of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” scheduled for fall of 2021 is clearly at the heart of this production. His intelligent choice of repertoire is both pleasing and revelatory. (the poetry of the song texts are published in one of two booklets that come with this CD). And Liverman’s voice is an admirable instrument that he wields with power and nuance. His commission of fellow rising musical star, composer Shawn Okpebholo whose “Two Black Churches” receives its world premiere recording. The pianist who manages to navigate significant demands with confidence and artistry, is Paul Sanchez, an excellent pianist, composer, and a fine collaborator.

The beautifully packaged CD (you gotta buy the CD) consists of 19 tracks representing 8 composers. The recording is billed as “Songs by Black Composers” but one can hardly miss the justly sad or angry tone of the texts and this was recorded July 22-24 of 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and amidst social unrest over the epidemic of modern day lynchings. (2020 was also the year that Anthony Davis won the Pulitzer Prize for his protest opera, “The Central Park Five”) The moving rendition (“put together”, as Liverman quips in the liner notes) of Richard Farina’s 1964 song is played and sung by Liverman connecting this release with the tradition of protest music of another era. The struggle continues.

Before discussing the music I must supply a disclaimer of sorts. My working knowledge of art song in general is fairly limited and my knowledge of black art songs even more so. I know none of this music and have only in the last year or so came to know of the work of Shawn Okpebholo. I had read about the historical significance of Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh and Margaret Bonds but have heard little of their music.

In about 61 minutes listeners are given a survey, a sampling of art song by black composers ranging from Burleigh (who studied with Antonin Dvorak) to Okpebholo whose compositional talents continue to get much deserved recognition. It is a learned sampling of a huge repertory that deserves attention.

The opening song is I Dream a World (2017) by Damien Sneed (1979- ). This setting of the Langston Hughes (1901-1967) poem strikes a somber but cautiously optimistic note. It is followed by “Five Songs of Laurence Hope” (1915) by Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949). The name Laurence Hope is the pseudonym of Adela Florence Nicolson (1865-1904), a British poet who spent much of her life in British India where she developed an interest in the culture of the land. Fascination with the literature and culture of India was strongly in evidence in the early twentieth century. These five songs are reminiscent of Debussy and the impressionists and is but a small sampling of Burleigh’s art song output.

Harrison Leslie Adams’ (1932- ) setting of his own lyrics in “Amazing Grace” is yet another iteration of the abolitionist song. Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-1972) is represented by her “Three Dream Portraits” (1959), a song cycle on Langston Hughes poems. Bonds’ style put this listener in the mind of Copland’s Dickinson Songs though notably darker. This cycle is contemporary with the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

Next is “Riding to Town” (1943) by Thomas Kerr (1915-1988) who chose to reach back to the late nineteenth/early twentieth century poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) for his text. Dunbar was for the 19th century what Langston Hughes would be for the early to mid twentieth century.

“Two Black Churches” (2017) is the work commissioned by Liverman for this recording. It is a setting of two poems and one of the musical highlights here. The first, “Ballad of Birmingham” to a text by Dudley Randall (1914-2000) is a contemporary reaction to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four little girls. The second song, “The Rain” to a text by the Poet laureate of Charleston, poet and musician Marcus Amaker (1976- ). It is about the Charleston Church shooting of 2015 at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal in which a lone gunman killed nine people. Okpebholo is modernist but accessible and these settings are among the most devastating and powerful statements on this recording.

“Mortal Storm” Op. 29 (1969) is a song cycle by one Robert Owens (1925-2017). It is a powerful cycle set to Langston Hughes poems. Owens left the United States in 1968-9 in response to the racial violence and moved to Europe where he had studied music under the GI Bill from 1946-1957. Owens died in Munich having never returned to the land of his birth. This work deserves to be better known and thanks is due to Liverman and his associates for bringing this sad masterpiece to contemporary listeners.

The album concludes with Mr. Liverman’s arrangement of “Birmingham Sunday”, a 1964 song by writer and composer Richard Farina (1937-1966). Liverman plays and sings on this final track which is an homage to a previous generation of song writers and protestors as well as a reminder that that generation’s work in Civil Rights is hardly complete. The song was notably used by Spike Lee in his elegiac film, “Four Little Girls” (1997).

The lucid and detailed program notes by Dr. Louise Toppin are a welcome addition to this production and help to provide a context. The design by Bark Design ties this little gem together. This one has Grammy and “collector’s item” written all over it.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Blogger, a Reacquaintance


First let me say that the title of this blog and its contents is presented as both apology and explanation. It is an apology for the intervening 12 months during which this blog was on unplanned hiatus. Indeed the ongoing requests for reviews were certainly a factor in getting this venture up and running once again and I am grateful for the persistence of musicians and their representatives. It is also a brief explanation of some of the reasons this has happened. Nothing here should be construed as being a lament or request for assistance of any kind (except for encouraging more readers). This blog post is also intended as an announcement that there is much more to come.

2020 was a year which one which has been a long and strange time for most of us. I took on an extended contract in February, 2020 which required me to move to Tacoma where I pursue my “day job” of working as a registered nurse. My place of employment is a state psychiatric facility and my first few months were consumed with training and other pre-employment hurdles. While I enjoy my work I found the transition to a city far from home and the learning process of dealing with this facility and its clientele impacted me in ways I could not predict. Add to that the overwhelming onset of the Covid 19 pandemic began to eclipse and alter so many things.

Clyde

To ease my transition going approximately 1000 miles from home I brought my little 12 year old Maltese dog, Clyde along for the adventure. This wound up being a most pleasant learning experience about the meaning of “emotional support animal”. He continues to do his job.

As it was most practical, I chose to drive to my new assignment so I packed the car with clothing, a few books, a kindle, a computer, and a small flock of CDs for the drive time. Traveling long distances is a wonderful opportunity to listen to lengthy or multiple pieces of music. Of course this is best appreciated in the long freeway segments between towns that dominated my itinerary.

My listening program consisted of (in no particular order): Ives- Concord Sonata played by Rene Eckhardt, Alvin Curran- Crystal Psalms, the two disc Chicago Blues album by AACM, Charlie Haden- Not in Our Name, several private recordings of music by Primous Fountain, Daniel Bjarnason- Collider, several private recordings of music by David Toub, Peter Maxwell-Davies- Symphony No. 1, Wilfred Josephs- Requiem, and occasional forays to sample the local broadcast spectrum (ew). An eclectic program to be sure, one which benefits from solitude from other homo sapiens. My little companion took the passenger seat and easily accessed the little cup of water in the console, happy regardless of the music selections. It was a satisfying listening experience augmented by some truly eye candy vistas (I did bring my camera but…driving.)

It was jolting to see the post fire-ravaged sections of forest that dotted the landscape in this journey but it remains visually stunning if not in the most beautiful way. It was about 22 hours of leisurely drive time calculated to give me a couple of days to find my residence and figure out my daily driving route. My little companion and I ensconced ourselves in an Extended Stay America hotel arranged by my contract agent.

The planning I had done was pretty good actually. We arrived as I had planned where my companion immediately began his ambassadorial responsibilities by attempting to meet (and charm) all who crossed his path. All signs suggested a smooth transition.

However the unpredictable reared its presence in a variety of forms including licensure delays (not the fault of Washington State), subsequent training delays, a camera in need of repair, a failed hard drive, a rather challenging work environment (this state facility is long term and functions largely as a forensic facility dealing with illness too severe for the jail system), and the onset of the Covid lockdown as well as an actual Covid infection (which I survived with minor consequences and have since been vaccinated). All these did not occur at once but I’m just summarizing. Most of these events could neither be foreseen or prevented but they presented challenges.

One of the most curious effects on my psyche was an extended period of time when I lost my ability to focus on many things other than the job. I had brought a box of CDs for review fully expecting that I would be able to continue my blogging with my readers getting no clue as to the chaos of the writer’s mind. As a Rabbi once told me, “Man plans, God laughs”, a less than comforting chestnut of wisdom which applies as it doubtless will again. So why worry?

Mount Ranier as seen from my hotel window.

My lack of ability to focus manifested in an inability to read for leisure (one can partly blame the toxic writing habits that plague “orientation materials” for numbing my brain) but also in a seemingly selective ability to hold my attention on the musical genres that had been my soundtrack on the trip to get here. I found myself craving jazz and blues and in a serendipitous gesture of fate I was more than pleased to find that my local broadcast options included two NPR stations, one of which (KNKX), plays a masterfully curated selection of jazz and blues most of the day excepting news breaks. That music continues to soothe my soul but I’m happy to say my focus seems to have returned to its accustomed wider spectrum of genres.

From Cahill’s web page.

I lament the fact that I have missed the opportunity to write about the “Year of the Woman” in 2020 during the actual year but the impact of the sundry musical celebrations and creations will continue to resonate and the cause will continue to deserve attention. One of the few new music events which grabbed my resistant attention was the series that Bay Area pianist Sarah Cahill produced on YouTube. The series on women composers features short works (2-8 minutes) played in the artist’s Berkeley home. It is a virtual manifesto collecting a variety of too little known solo piano works by women (here’s hoping there’s an album in the offing). Of course the listener shouldn’t stop with the women composers. Cahill’s site offers of wealth of lesser known male composers interpreted with the same passion.

Linda Twine from Google Images.

I quite reasonably expected a sharp decline in readership given that my last blog post was published on March 7, 2020. There was initially at least a 50% fall off in readership but I was delighted to find that I ended the year with about 9300 hits, only about 4000 less than the previous year. A large part of that readership sought out my articles on black musicians and composers. Now, I focus on new music and just about any music which I think deserves an audience so the inclusion of black musicians is, of course, a given. So it seems particularly apt that I am returning to the blogosphere during black history month. This small portion of my output has driven more than its share of traffic to this site. The article on composer/director/producer Linda Twine was written in 2018 and has gotten well over 1500 views. I hope that means her star continues to rise. Other older articles, some written for Black History Month, also performed remarkably well. Indeed this can certainly be attributed in part to the Black Lives Matter movement and the continuing civil rights struggles in our purportedly “Post-Racial” era.

The blogger with composer Anthony Davis at a house concert in 2018

I was particularly pleased when composer Anthony Davis (whose work I have long admired) was awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for his opera The Central Park Five. Like much of Davis’ work this opera is focused on civil rights issues such as, in this case, the miscarriage of justice against five black men falsely accused of a rape in Central Park. At least I got to say this during Black History Month.

I continue to reside in Tacoma where it is only a twenty minute drive to work. I have become accustomed to my daily duties and have found a surprisingly warm welcome for me and my skill set. I truly enjoy my day job.

We are still firmly in the time of Covid, in the time of serious social unrest, now transitioning with excessive drama to a new president as the world seemingly plunges toward fascism, hate, and economic disaster. But musicians have risen most heroically to the challenges of their art, performers trying to maintain a presence during a time in which live performances are severely restricted for public health reasons. But there are now fascinating concerts online, wonderful new music being released and I need to get back to talking about that.

Gourmet Vegan with Solo Bass


Chef and host Philip Gelb (left) introduces Rashaan Carter

Friday August 17th was one of the last of Mr. Gelb’s famed Masumoto peach dinners incorporating the incredible peak of the harvest peaches into his magical vegan creations.  It is ostensibly among the last of his famed dinner concert series which has now run about 13 years.  Whether the series is ending remains to be seen but the opportunity to partake of Gelb’s culinary art should never be missed and this night we had the opportunity to hear a fine young musician as well.

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Phil started me with this tasty IPA, perhaps the only item that was not peach related.

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Dinner for about twenty happy diners began with this delicious corn soup.  Gelb has an eye for artistic presentation.

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A little peach based salsa added a bit of fire for those of us who enjoy spicy things.

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And on to the Baiganee (eggplant fritters) with peach kuchela and peach chutney.

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The main course was Jerk Stewed Tempeh, Rice, and Peas Calaloo.  Unfortunately my eating got a bit ahead of my picture taking but you get the idea.

Peaches are, as I said earlier, from the Masumoto family farm near Fresno where three generations have been producing some of the finest fruit in the state.  The tempeh is also locally sourced from Rhizocali Tempeh of Oakland.  It doesn’t get better than this.

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The tradition here puts the musician on stage just before dessert.  Rashaan Carter is an American musician from Washington D.C. who now resides in New York.  He was passing through the bay area and Philip Gelb extended an invitation which he graciously accepted.

He began with an improvisation which he had initially done for a dance piece depicting the lynching of a black American woman Laura Nelson and her son in Oklahoma in 1911.  Now this could really bring down the mood of the evening but for the fact that Carter spoke of and subsequently played this piece with such passion that all one could really feel is the tragedy of the act and the heroic expression of what is essentially protest music dedicated to her memory.

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Rashaan has no small bit of the Blarney.  His running commentary during the performance was as entertaining as that of a stand up comic as he engaged most thoughtfully with the evening’s clearly appreciative audience.

He graced us with what he said was originally intended to be a performance of a Charlie Haden piece but decided he wanted to do his own piece as a sort of homage.  Indeed he captured Haden’s spirit oh so well in another virtuosic and passionate performance.

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He ended with another sort of tribute, this time to Henry Threadgill.  Again his gift of gab provided just the right segue into the next piece and his familiarity with Threadgill was immediately apparent.  His facility with the acoustic bass produced nearly vocal sounding lines in a performance that did honor to Threadgill and left the evening’s audience very pleased.

We concluded with Blueberry polenta cake with peach ice cream and blueberry raspberry sauce, all vegan, all absolutely delicious.

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And we will all keep an ear out for Rashaan Carter from this point on.  Bravo!

Black Classical Part One


Adolphus Hailstork

Adolphus Hailstork

In honor of Black History Month I want to bring attention in this blog to black music that is not a part of popular culture. I want to highlight some of the black classical composers whose work I find most satisfying and accomplished.

I will begin with the music of Adophus Hailstork. I had been aware of some of this man’s work for some years but it was when I purchased the Naxos recording of his 2nd and 3rd Symphonies that I came to appreciate the power of his work.

Hailstork was born in 1941. He studied piano, organ, voice and violin. He is another of a long line of composers who studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. As one would expect, some of his music is concerned with significant events of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 70s. ‘American Guernica’ of 1983 is his response to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church which killed four little girls. Similarly his 1979 composition, ‘Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed’ is an homage to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1968.

I purchased the Naxos disc to become more familiar with this man’s music. The first work on the disc is the 3rd Symphony of the late 1990s struck me as a highly entertaining and accomplished work that deserves a place in the symphonic repertoire. It is a joyous and inventive work which, to my ears, echoed the likes of orchestral masters such as William Schuman and Vincent Persichetti as well a hint of minimalist repetitive structures. It is a lavish neo-romantic work with a depth and complexity that demands several hearings but one which has an immediate appeal. The somber 2nd Symphony is imbued with the composer’s reactions to having visited the historical slave market areas of West Africa which, I imagine, must be not unlike visiting the death camps of the former Nazi Germany.

As time and finances permit I intend to pursue more of this American composer’s works. There is precious little reference material to be found on the Internet regarding this prolific masterful composer (as is the case with all the black classical composers i have so far encountered) though, thankfully, there are more recordings.

Paul Freeman

Paul Freeman

Africlassical.com and its related blog provide some information on about 50 composers and musicians. The now retired daring black conductor Paul Freeman recorded a significant series of music by black composers issued on 9 LPs for Columbia records in the 1970s. He recorded another 3CDs of music by black composers on Chicago-based Cedille records. He founded the Chicago Sinfonietta (billed as the world’s most diverse orchestra) and was its principal conductor for 24 years and continues in its mission of diversity presenting unusual concert repertoire.

More about some of the composers on those Columbia LPs and Cedille CDs as well as others to come in future blogs during this month.