Rachel Barton Pine: Black and Blue


Cedille CDR 9000 182


Rachel Barton Pine is one of the brightest lights of the solo violin in Chicago and worldwide. Her partnership with Cedille records (also a venerable Chicago based institution) has been both fruitful and revelatory.

In addition to the standard virtuoso repertoire such as Brahms and Beethoven this soloist has demonstrated a passion and a genuine interpretive feel for music by black composers. Were we living in a less racially charged time this focus would be of minor interest. But the fact remains that music by black composers, regardless of the composer’s national origin or the quality of the music, have been seriously neglected.

Indeed this soloist has become a sort of shepherd of the lost and neglected. Her recorded catalog is testament to her achievements in a really wide range of repertoire from the Bach solo violin music to neglected concertos and occasional pieces ranging from the 17th century to the present.

The present disc was an October, 2018 release I am reviewing for Black History Month. And it is a gem. No fewer than 11 composers, 5 of whom are still living. It is both an acknowledgement of some of the classics produced by black composers over the last 100 years and an introduction to new and emerging voices.

The recently deceased David N. Baker (1931-2016) is represented here in the first track, Blues (Deliver My Soul ) and provides a context immediately. The word “blues” is used to refer to the uniquely black musical form which consists of a poetic form in which the first line is repeated. The vocal styles that are the blues are probably the most recognizable aspect of this musical form. But one can’t miss the persistent subtext of the neglect of such fine music as yet another insult to widen the racial divide.

In fact many of these pieces are not, strictly speaking, blues. But that is not the main point here. Pine, along with her quite able accompanist Matthew Hagle, present a beautiful and wide ranging selection which presents some wonderful music and, for those with a conscience, illustrate what can be lost when listening choices are hampered by prejudice.

The Baker piece helps to create a context. It is followed by Coleridge-TaylorPerkinson’s (1932-2004) Blue/s Forms for solo violin. This man’s career alone is worth a book at least. His eclectic and learned musical style found him writing music for movies, television, and the concert hall. He was also versed in jazz and blues and even played drums with Max Roach for a while. These solo violin songs are a beautiful example of the composer’s melodic gifts. One can easily imagine these pieces programmed alongside the Bach solo music.

William Grant Still (1895-1978), truly the dean of black American composers, is next. His Suite for Violin and Piano is happily performed with some frequency and deserves to be recognized as one of the masterpieces by this really still too little known composer. The piece is in three movements, each a representation in music of a painting.

Noel Da Costa (1929-2002) is a new name to this writer. He hails originally from Nigeria but made his career in New York City. His “Set of Dance Tunes for Solo Violin” makes a nice companion to the Perkinson pieces. This is one of the world premieres on the disc. Here’s hoping we get to hear more of this man’s work.

Clarence Cameron White (1880-1960) is another unfamiliar name. His Levee Dance is next. He was one of the lesser known of the group of early twentieth century black composers which included R. Nathaniel Dett, Dorothy Rudd Moore, Florence Price, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

By far the best known name here is Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974). One out of eleven here has “household name” status. He is represented by Wendell Logan’s arrangement of, “In a Sentimental Mood”. This is the premiere of this arrangement.

Now to the living black composers. This is a forward looking recording which pays homage to the past but also acknowledges a living tradition. Dolores White (1932- ). Her “Blues Dialogues for Solo Violin” add admirably to the solo violin repertoire.

Belize born Errollyn Warren is next with her brief, “Boogie Woogie”. Warren is a composer with a wide range and, while this is a fun piece, she has composed a wealth of music for various sized ensembles including orchestra. She was the first black composer to be represented at the famed Proms concerts. Wallen was a featured composer at Other Minds in San Francisco.

A slightly longer piece by Billy Childs (1957- ), “Incident a Larpenteur Avenue” gives the listener a taste of the work of this prolific composer. This is a world premiere which was written for the soloist. Childs won a Grammy for his jazz album, “Rebirth” in 2018.

Daniel Bernard Roumain is of Haitian roots and works in New York City where he works with turntables and digital sampling to augment his classical compositions. His work, “Filter for Unaccompanied Violin” is given its world premiere recording here.

Charles S. Brown (1940- ) concludes this amazing recital with, “A Song Without Words”.

This is a rich and rewarding recital which will take the interested listener into wonderful new territories. Listen, read about these composers, enjoy their artistry. This is just a beginning.

Lara Downes Making Magic at Noon in San Francisco


cordell0007

Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco

A much needed light rain fell as I ventured out to hear Lara Downes play at the noontime concert series at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood.  I had just recently reviewed this artist’s new CD release (here) and I jumped at the opportunity to hear her live.

The trip from my home in Alameda to this venue, a distance of some 15 miles took me almost two hours.  Construction rules right now.  In the course of the concert Ms. Downes commented that it took her 45 minutes to get there from her hotel in San Francisco (no doubt less than 2 miles).

Being familiar with this trip I managed to arrive at about 12:15PM.  When I arrived I was a bit surprised to find a service in progress so I sat quietly observing this beautiful little church.  Though raised Catholic I haven’t ventured into a church in some years.  The experience did place a sort of spiritual context on my concert experience.

cordell0002

Priest saying mass at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral

The service ended a little after 12:30 and, after some of the congregants left I moved closer to the front.  Technicians moved the piano in place and Ms. Downes was introduced.

cordell0004

Downes intensely focused as she plays Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces

She chose to open with Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) Op. 12 Fantasy Pieces Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 5 (1837).  I have but a passing knowledge of Schumann’s music.  It is highly virtuosic romanticism. Beautiful melodies, classical harmonies with just a dash of dissonance and a very high level of technical difficulty which characterizes these pieces.  Downes played them with confidence and ease seemingly casting a spell as she did.  She played the set without interruption and received much deserved applause from the somewhat sparse audience of perhaps 50 or so people.

She followed with a selection from her upcoming release America Again, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s (1875-1912) setting of the spiritual Deep River Op. 59 No. 10 (1905), one of a set of 24 so-called “Negro Melodies”. Coleridge-Taylor was a black British composer of the late 19th century sometimes referred to as the “African Mahler”.  This setting, very much in the same spirit as the Schumann was pretty much what one might have expected had Schumann encountered black spirituals.  This selection added again to the spiritual dimension.  Deep River is a majestic and celebratory piece which, like the Schumann, was well received.

Downes deviated from the printed program to play another selection from that forthcoming album, Morton Gould’s (1913-1996) American Caprice.  This short piece was a delightful foray into jazz reminding us of Gould’s connections with his contemporaries like Aaron Copland and George Gershwin.  Gould is a composer whose work deserves more attention and this listener is grateful to the artist for bringing this little masterpiece back into the light.

cordell0006

Downes making Rhapsody in Blue sound anew.

In some ways this functioned like a precursor to the next piece on the program, Gershwin’s (1898-1937) Rhapsody in Blue (1924) in the composer’s arrangement for solo piano. Downes, whose speaking was as comfortable and natural as her playing, asked the audience to try to hear this oh so familiar piece with new ears.  Indeed her fluid and dynamic playing put her own stamp on this popular gem and demonstrated again her seasoned virtuosity.  She played the work with passion but also with ease and confidence.

The ample applause and standing ovation brought her back for a wonderful encore.  It was Gershwin again for sure but this time in an amazing arrangement by Nina Simone (1933-2003) whose spirit seemed to be channeled by Downes.  “I loves you Porgy” from Porgy and Bess is featured on her new CD and it brought the afternoon to a very pleasing close.

I took the opportunity to meet and thank Ms. Downes who was, in turn, gracious and pleasant.  I went back out to the ordinary world charmed and invigorated and that is what I had hoped for.

 

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.

Black Classical Part Four


As promised in a previous blog I am here continuing a little personal survey of recordings of music by black classical composers in honor of Black History Month. I suppose it is worth adding that I pursue these recordings because they present interesting and exciting repertoire that has not gotten the circulation it deserves. Sadly this is most likely the result of the failure of producers, performers audiences and investors to look at the value of the art itself, looking instead through the lens of racial prejudice. I hope that readers of these blogs will avail themselves of this music, these performers, these recordings and maybe come to realize that those old prejudices serve only to limit one’s world view and prevent a rewarding artistic experience. Art, like people, must come to be valued by its own merits, not limited on the basis of skin color. MLK definitely phrased that more elegantly.

20130218-185316.jpg

And further proof of such valuable art can be found in a series of recordings on the Chicago-based label Cedille. In fact their website cedillerecords.org contains a link to the six albums of music by black composers they have thus far issued.

Building on the work he had begun with the Black Composers series for Columbia in the 1970s conductor Paul Freeman released three CDs in the Cedille series called ‘African Heritage Symphonic Series’. With the orchestra he founded Freeman presents music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Fela Sowande, William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay, George Walker, Roque Cordero, Adolphus Hailstork, Hale Smith, David Abel’s, David Baker, William Banfield and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Freeman released a CD dedicated exclusively to the music of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson as well.

Violinist Rachel Barton-Pine released a disc of violin concertos by 18th and19th century black composers on Cedille and there is a disc of choral music which includes music by black composers.

Let’s turn now to the Albany www.albanyrecords.com label where you can find more of the artistry of Paul Freeman in 18 albums where he presents neglected music of the 20th century by a wide variety of composers black and white. Most of it is by American composers and much of that in styles related to the mid-century styles of the likes of William Schuman, Aaron Copland and their students. While these discs include music by many of the previously mentioned black composers there are no duplications of works or performances. I have heard but a few of these discs but what I have heard is enough to convince me to plan to purchase the others. Freeman, in addition to bringing the music of black composers to the listening audience has done a fine job of documenting many whose work has been little heard until now.

20130218-183122.jpg

Another composer who fits more or less into the context of the conventions of the western concert traditions whose work has informed my listening is that of Anthony Davis (1951- ). While he has played with musicians from more experimental traditions the influence of the western concert traditions is more easily heard.

His study of jazz as well as western classical and eastern gamelan are all evident in his work (though not necessarily all at the same time). The New York City Opera produced his, ‘X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X’ in 1986 and the Lyric Opera of Chicago produced ‘Amistad’ in 1997. He has written concertos for piano and for violin as well as music for orchestra and smaller ensembles. At the time of this writing he is professor of music at the University of California San Diego.

So far the music we have discussed has been of the sort more commonly heard in concert halls these days. Freeman’s efforts have seemingly jump-started the recording industry to pay some attention to the music of black and other neglected composers. Certainly there is much more gold to be mined there. But we have yet to address the contemporary scene, the new and creative artists who are bringing innovative ideas and sounds and advancing the musical arts for subsequent generations. Following on the innovations of great jazz artists such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman (among many) there was increasing focus on techniques being used by contemporary “classical” composers

20130218-190530.jpg

To these ends there is no better place to start than with the AACM, the American Association of Creative Musicians. Founded in Chicago in 1965 this collective has strived to bring various elements of black culture in an incredibly eclectic and experimental milieu which has had and continues to have an influence on music, musicians and audiences. This collective was finally given a proper overview in George Lewis’ book, ‘A Power Stronger Than Itself’. Lewis, a trombonist, composer and currently professor of music at Columbia University in New York was a member of the AACM.

The AACM was not the only such collective but it was one of the most visible, at least to me. And it continues to develop and evolve bringing the complex and innovative musical ideas evolving from the black roots of jazz to a level of recognition and respect formerly accorded pretty much exclusively to European academic models. The AACM, dubbed “Great Black Music” also strives to retain the identity of black music by black peoples of the world looking to non-western models that predate European colonialism marrying them to the best of European models as absorbed by the diaspora. Many of their members now hold academic positions including Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith and Nicole Mitchell.

20130218-190751.jpg

Perhaps the best known ensemble to come out of the AACM is the flexibly-membered Art Ensemble of Chicago. Their album ‘Third Decade’ released in 1984 is representative of their work and also marks a sort of end to one creative era for this flexibly-membered group. Most listeners will hear this as progressive jazz and it certainly has those elements. But repeated listenings reveal many layers to this work. And this is but one of a large catalog of albums as diverse as they are numerous (about 50 albums and still counting). More on their work at their website www.artensembleofchicago.com.

20130218-190928.jpg

Another prominent figure that was a member of AACM is Anthony Braxton, saxophonist, composer, chess master who dislikes the term ‘jazz’ in reference to his music. He is currently professor of music at Wesleyan University. And indeed his music which ranges from solo saxophone work to small ensemble and orchestral music and opera are difficult to classify. His experimentalism is related to but not derivative of the work of John Cage. It would be impossible to represent his musical output in a single album but the solo saxophone ‘For Alto’ (1968) and ‘Creative Orchestra Music’ (1976) are good places to start in his discography of well over 100 albums. His website tricentricfoundatio.org offers many of his recordings for sale and even offers free downloads of bootleg recordings.

20130218-185224.jpg

<a

For the sake of brevity I will discuss only one more artist in this blog entry, Julius Eastman (1940-1990). He was a composer, vocalist, pianist and dancer. As a vocalist he sang and recorded the music of Meredith Monk, Peter Gordon, Morton Feldman, Arthur Russell and Peter Maxwell-Davies. He was very much a part of the avant garde downtown scene in New York of the 1970s.

At the time of his sad death from a heart attack at the age of 49 there were but a few recordings of his work (collected in a nice 3 CD set on the New World label). And many of his scores were lost when he was unceremoniously evicted from his apartment. The composer Mary Jane Leach is attempting to collect and preserve his legacy and has made many of his extant scores on her website http://www.mjleach.com/eastman.htm.

Without a doubt there are many more black classical and avant-garde artists I have yet to discover. I welcome suggestions and I hope that the preceding ideas will stimulate and encourage others to explore these artists and works.