Florence Price: Lost Chamber Music


Azica

I’m a couple of weeks late for Black History Month but right in the middle of International Women’s Month. Both of these groups are woefully under represented in the arts, hence the need to put more energy and funding into the promotion such as we see in this fine release from Azica records..

This is the second volume by the enterprising Catalyst Quartet‘s project to find and record chamber music by black composers. The first volume focused on the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) and the present album focuses on Florence B. Price (1887-1953). Price was the first black woman to have a symphony performed by a major symphony orchestra when the Chicago Symphony under then music director, Frederick Stock performed her 1932 Symphony in E minor in June, 1933.

In fact Price’s music had nearly been lost when, in 2009, a cache of her scores was discovered in her abandoned summer house near St. Anne, Illinois (by the structure’s new owners). Price had written nearly 300 works which, until recently, had been all but forgotten. Since then three of her four symphonies (the second one is lost) have been recorded along with many of her smaller works. This recording marks the most comprehensive presentation of her extant chamber music: Two string quartets (one apparently unfinished), two piano quintets, and two sets of contrapuntal variations on folk tunes for string quartet.

This digital only release is the equivalent of two CDs. And, while the digital only status is a reflection of the lack of funding for music of blacks and women, it is very important that recognition be given to this very fine effort of musical archeology rescuing important American art from oblivion. The Catalyst Quartet consists of Karla Donehew Perez, violin; Abi Fayette, violin; Paul Laraia, viola; and Karlos Rodriguez, cello. They are joined by pianist Michelle Cann in the piano quintets.

The recording starts out mightily with the Brahmsian Piano Quintet in A minor of 1935. This is a major work which can hold its own with similar works by Brahms, Schumann, Faure, Franck, Dvorak, etc.

The work is cast in four movements. The opening movement, marked “Allegro non troppo”, immediately affirms Price’s mastery of compositional technique with a lengthy elaborate development and some virtuosic writing for both quartet and piano. The “Andante con moto” which comprises the second movement is also evidence of Price’s skills and talent. It is a lyrical essay which provides a respite from the intensity of the opening movement and demonstrates the composer’s melodic prowess.

There are two shorter movements that follow. Juba is the name of a dance form which was imported along with the slave trade from the African continent. It is known variously as “juba”, “djouba”, “pattin juba”, and “hambone”. Price was fond of using this form in her work and the inclusion of folk and vernacular music in classical compositions was very much in fashion during this era as evidenced by the work of Dvorak, Bartok, Kodaly, Copland, Dawson, and Still. Price used the form in her symphonies, the present piano quintet, and the A minor String Quartet. The work concludes with a brief scherzo movement, another device which Price used to conclude several of her works.

Next we hear another example of Price’s use of folk music in the first of two sets of arrangements for string quartet. Actually the term, “arrangements” carries a too simple connotation for these works. They are in fact contrapuntal elaborations more in the tradition of Bach in his chorale preludes.

This first set, titled, “Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet” which dates from about 1949. It consists of four separate movements: “Go down Moses”, “Somebody’s knockin’ at yo do'”, “Little David play on yo harp”, and “Joshua fit de battle ob Jericho”. This is the world premiere recording of another substantial Price work.

The next work is another world premiere recording, her String Quartet in A minor which received its first public performance in 1936. It is cast in four movements, Moderato, Andante cantabile, Juba, and Finale. With the exception of the Juba movement this is pretty much a standard classical formula. The quartet is another of Price’s major works and, like the Piano Quintet, can stand with its contemporaries in the string quartet repertory. Of course the fact that it had to wait over 80 years to receive a commercial recording serves as part of the preponderance of evidence that the neglect of this music was willful.

The “Five Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet of 1951 is similar in style and structure to the earlier folksong elaborations this time with five songs: “Calvary”, “O my darlin’ Clementine”, “Drink to me only with thine eyes”, “Shortnin’ bread”, and “Swing low sweet chariot”.

The last two works featured in this fine set are also world premiere recordings but these are works that were unknown until that serendipitous find in 2009. These works appear to be incomplete, works that the composer likely set aside and never revisited. They are entirely competent and entertaining works but not on the level of the preceding pieces on this recording. In fact the dates of composition have not been reliably determined and the work of the musicologists must begin in earnest.

The two movements (Allegro and Andante moderato) of the String Quartet in G major are quite satisfying but the expectation of two more (perhaps a Juba and Scherzo?) will forever identify this as an unfinished work.

There are three extant movements in the Quintet for Piano and Strings (Allegro, Andante, Allegretto) suggest the possibility that this work may have been considered complete by the composer. But the level of quality in this work is not up to that of the A minor Quintet. Again it is time to alert the musicologists that there is work to be done and, of course, the possibility of finding more lost scores but having these so lovingly documented does a great deal to secure the composer’s legacy as one of America’s great composers.

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.