“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.

Holes in the Sky, Lara Downes Channels the Collective Artistry of the Feminine


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Sony/Portrait

Lara Downes has proven herself as a virtuoso pianist in solo, chamber, and with orchestra.  She has demonstrated facility with standard repertoire as well as an intelligent selection of contemporary composers.  In this sort of mid-career place she has begun releasing a more personal kind of album of which this is the third incarnation.  The “series’ to which I refer is the perception of this reviewer, not one defined as such by Ms. Downes but stick with me. Her previous releases have been organized on one level or another on themes just like most album of any stripe.  The difference is a more sociopolitical focus.

One look at the eclectic musical choices here and one sees Downes sharing her spotlight with kindred spirits (composers and performers both) while her themes take on more socially conscious ideas.  The first of these was America Again (2016) which is a beautiful collection of short piano pieces predominantly though not exclusively by black composers.  It is a very personal choice of repertoire reflecting her profound knowledge of the repertoire as well as the neglect of black composers.  The second was Lenny (2018), a tribute to Leonard Bernstein.  It includes a marvelously varied group of guest artists and, much as Lenny did, blurs the line between the “classical” and the “vernacular”.  It was a love song to a cherished artist (this writer included in the cherishing).

She does something similar here in this album whose title is taken, appropriately enough, from Georgia O’Keefe, “I want real things, live people to take hold of, to see, and talk to, music that makes holes in the sky, I want to love as hard as I can.”  In the essay that opens the program booklet Downes speaks briefly of her relationship with women in general and women as composers and as performers.

The album opens with a 1949 piece by Florence Price, a black American composer much of whose whose work has recently been rediscovered and recorded.  Her work was also featured on the America Again album.  This is a mid-century romantic piece for solo piano.

The second track, and the one that hooked this listener big time is this recording of Judy Collins early song, Albatross (1966) which appeared on her album Wildflowers which in turn provided some of the design elements of the album.  The liner notes to the present album also note this connection.

In place of detailed liner notes there is a fascinating conversation between two of the women involved with this album, Lara Downes and Judy Collins.  A lovely black and white portrait is included in the liner notes.  Their discussion centers primarily on the Albatross song but also touches on the nature of political activism in which Downes laments not being active in marches.  Collins tells her (and this writer agrees wholeheartedly) she belongs at the piano.  Indeed her activism, though of a gentler nature, gets ideas out most effectively utilizing her incredible talents as a pianist, historian, and fellow musician.

Rather than go through an analysis of each of these pieces I am simply going to provide a track list.  It appears that this album is designed to be heard and contemplated as a sonic document first and as a research project at a later time (one hopes for more detail at some point because these are interesting pieces).

1. Memory Mist (1949) by Florence Price

2. Albatross (1967) by Judy Collins

3. A Tale of Living Water (2010) by Clarice Assad

4. Dream Variation with Rhiannon Giddens (1959) by Margaret Bonds and Langston     Hughes

5. Ellis Island with Simone Dinnerstein (1981) by Meredith Monk

6. Don’t Explain with Leyla McCalla (1944) by Billie Holiday

7. Willow Weep for Me (1932) by Ann Ronel (arr. by Hyungin Choi)

8. Venus Projection (1990) by Paula Kimper

9. Morning on the Limpopo: Matlou Women (2005) by Paola Prestini

10. Farther from The Heart with Hila Pittman (2016) by Eve Beglarian and Jane Bowles

11. Favorite Color (1965) by Joni Mitchell (arr. by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum)

12. Noises of Gratitude (2017) by Jennifer Higdon

13. Arroyo, Mi Niña with Mogos Herrera (2018) trad. arr. by Lara Downes

14. Music Pink and Blue (2018) by Elena Ruehr

15. Idyll (1946) by Hazel Scott

16. Blue Piece with Rachel Barton Pine (2010) by Libby Larsen

17. Bloom (2018) by Marika Takeuchi

18. Just for a Thrill with Alicia Hall Moran (1936) by Lil Hardin-Armstrong (arr. by               Hyungin Choi)

19. Agwani (Doves) (2009) by Mary Kouyoumdjian

20. What Lips My Lips Have Kissed (2014) by Georgia Stitt

21. Rainbow (n.d.) by Abbey Lincoln and Melba Liston (arr. by Laura Karpman)

22. All the Pretty Little Horses with Ifetayo Ali-Landing and The Girls of Musicality (Trad. arr. by Lara Downes and Laura Karpman)

In these 22 tracks all the music is by women composers and, most charmingly a selection of women performers who appear as sort of cameos on different tracks.  The music ranges from the mid-twentieth century to the present and embraces a variety of genres (classical, folk, blues, etc.).  The end result is a charming and very intimate document but also one which is somehow gently subversive as it presents the best in musical and performance quality as an acknowledgement of the accomplishments of women in general, (to paraphrase Ms. O’Keefe) making music as hard as they can.

 

 

 

Black Notes Matter: Lara Downes’ America Again


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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.