The United States (unlike England who use the 31 day month October) has chosen the shortest month of the year to celebrate Black History but I have managed to get 30 days to celebrate this year by starting a day early in this leap year. Basically I cheated, deal with it.
This is the year of the last term of our first black president and, while that is a historically significant fact, so are the facts of the police killings that demands the development of interventions like “Black Lives Matter” to remind society of a fact that should be obvious but clearly is not, that we have a serious human rights crisis here. However, rather than getting into yet another acknowledgement of our racist society, I am interested in sharing a wonderful positive experience that I hope will provide as much inspiration to my readers as it did to the fortunate folks who attended this night’s festivities.
Friend and colleague Bill Doggett kindly made arrangements for me to attend this annual fundraising event at the Eastside College Preparatory School and sponnsored by the African American Composer Initiative and the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music. The featured guest was composer/pianist Valerie Capers (1935- ) a Julliard trained pianist and composer. She was joined by a wealth of highly skilled musicians in a fascinating program of music and arrangements by Capers, John Robinson and several others.
The well attended evening began with a couple of vocal numbers done by the Eastside Preparatory School Choir followed by the playing of the beginning of a documentary film about Ms. Capers (Dr. Valerie Capers: Dream Big, 2015). In the excerpt she talks about her life, losing her sight and the importance of music to her. She is a delightfully positive, optimistic and energetic person and, as we saw later, a powerful and inspiring musician. This became even more evident when we were treated to the live interview conducted from the stage by LaDoris Cordelle, herself an accomplished pianist and singer as well as a respected lawyer, judge and activist.
LaDoris Cordelle (left) interviewing Valerie Capers
Participating this evening were the Eastside Preparatory School Choir conducted by David Chaidez, soprano Yolanda Rhodes, vocalists/pianists LaDoris Cordell and Deanne Tucker, pianist Josephine Gandolfi, violinist Susan C. Brown, cellist Victoria Ehrlich, and clarinetist Carol Somersille along with guest artists Valerie Capers, John Robinson (bass, composer), Jim Kassis (percussion), Rufus Olivier (bassoon), Stephanie McNab (flute), John Monroe (trombone), John Worley (trumpet) and Lauren Sibley (narrator in “Ruby”). I must say that the musicians this evening were truly spectacular and seemed to work even harder in their homage to guest of honor Valerie Capers.
The musical program properly began with the performance of John Robinson’s Fanfare for an Uncommon Woman (2015). The work whose title echoes Aaron Copland’s populist Fanfare for the Common Man (1941) and was written in honor of Ms. Capers. This was followed by several of Capers’ Portraits in Jazz (1976) compositions and her take (not at all like Vivaldi’s) on the four seasons in her, Song of the Seasons (1987).
Valerie Capers with John Robinson acknowledging the grateful applause.
The first half of the program concluded with Capers’ Winter Love, her gloss on Wagner and her arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing”.
The second half began with Bird Alone, an Abbey Lincoln song arranged by Capers. This was followed by another composition from Mr. Robinson, “Tarantella with a Twist of Lime” (2015), a catchy somewhat humorous piece, and then “Doodlin'” by Horace Silver.
Next up was a work in a genre of great interest to this reviewer, that of a political classical piece written to express political ideas. Ruby (2013) with text and music by Valerie Capers is a work for narrator, vocalists and ensemble that tells the story of Ruby Bridges who, in 1960, became the first black child admitted to the the all white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana. She had to be accompanied by Federal Marshals under orders from then President Eisenhower. Bridges was the only black student and was taught by the only teacher willing to teach a black student, Barbara Henry who remained Bridges teacher for the entire year and there were no other students in that classroom though some white families did eventually send their children back to the school where they were taught in their accustomed segregated fashion (ironic here too because New Orleans had had the beginnings of an integrated school system prior to the civil war). Bridges and her family suffered many indignities as a result of her participation in this landmark event, a critical step in the Civil Rights Movement. This was a powerful and touching piece performed with reverence, sympathy driven by the hindsight of the accomplishment itself as well as the frustration and sadness that even some 50 years later the struggle still continues.
The Grand Finale
The evening concluded with a group performance of Capers’ arrangement of the iconic spiritual, “Eyes on the Prize” whose strains provided some of the soundtrack of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. It is a hymn which still offers much inspiration. It was a joyful and optimistic evening much like the times 50 years ago whose struggles now rest on the shoulders of yet another generation hoping, praying, working and performing amidst adversities that seem to never end. But even a progress measured in inches is still progress.
The reception which followed was catered by apprentices from a group called, “Worth Our Weight” (based in Santa Rosa) which teaches culinary and catering skills to minority students. Various tasty little sandwiches, meatballs and pastries tended to our palates while we took advantage of the opportunity to meet the performers.
I took the opportunity to meet and talk briefly with Capers whose energy was unabated belying her 80 years as she greeted a wealth of appreciative audience members. I commented to her that I thought her vocal writing sounded a bit like Mahler Capers paused oh so briefly before stating with her characteristically good humor and a knowing smile, “I think that’s compliment.” Indeed it was.