Thursday, April 17, 2014

Dominique-René de Lerma: Composers on 8th 'Black, Brown and Beige': Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Jeffrey Mumford, Hale Smith, Alvin Singleton & Roland Hayes

Jeffrey Mumford (Ronald Jantz)

Dominique-René de Lerma:

Black, Brown, and Beige Concluded
            The eighth program within Bill McGlaughlin's fascinating series, Black, Brown and Beige, was dedicated to five Black composers: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Jeffrey Mumford, Hale Smith, Alvin Singleton, and Roland Hayes.  The 100th anniversary of Coleridge-Taylor's death in 1912 did not stimulate the revival of interest in this country it should have but, if Maine's Longfellow Chorus had proper competition, it would doubtless still have come out on top (the commemoration by the University of Houston missed our notice).  In Coleridge-Taylor's own country, Hilary Burrage managed to stimulate international attention, but even her efforts did not produce the results one would have hoped. This Brit's visits to the United States, especially the first in 1904, was one of two major events from abroad that were to stimulate the subsequent Harlem Renaissance (the other being the visit of Dvořák in the previous decade).  American public schools were soon named for Coleridge-Taylor (in Baltimore and Louisville, for example), but how many of their staff or students could identify the composer or know any of his works today?  His choral treatment of Longfellow's Hiawatha text was next to Handel's Messiah and Mendelssohn's Elijah in popularity during the years following his early death in 1912 and the first of these -- Hiawatha's wedding feast -- ranks with his clarinet quintet not only as the promising blossoms of true talent, but as works fully deserving attention as mature compositions.  But what happened?  I doubt  that he was as incredibly precocious as Mozart or Mendelssohn but, like Mendelssohn, the development was not consistent.  Do you agree that the Reformation symphony  is not on the same level as the string octet or the overture to A midsummer night's dream?  I think it was a lessening of the creative spark in Coleridge-Taylor's case that produced the Petite suite de concert; even though this five-movement suite is certainly charming, it belongs on the pop concert program, not the subscription series.
            Jeffery Mumford served as advisor to Bill McLaughlin again for this series of programs on Black music.  His is a distinctive orchestral voice, sometimes pointillistic, but always original.  We had lunch together in Oberlin when I had been asked to complete the semester for Wendell Logan's Black music class, and I totally forgot to ask Jeffrey about the fanciful titles, always in lower case, that he gave his works.  They certainly are evocative and sensual, but I wonder if the composer and his audience conjure up the same impression, and if it matters.
            I'm sorry Bill and Hale Smith never met.  Our beloved Hale was a real talker, and always a stimulating one.  No wonder his classes at the University of Connecticut were so popular!  He once took his audience aback for the moment when he said he worried when the orchestra's harpists were male and the garbage collectors were Anglo.  Quite apart from being a charming autocrat on panels, he was a splendid master of composition who seemed delighted by providing titles to his works that gave a clue to their organization, but he was no neo-classist at heart.
            Alvin Singleton firmly established his reputation initially in Europe, where he stayed for 14 years, first with a Fulbright grant, but not failing to comment on social matters taking place back in the United States.  When he returned in 1985, he was appointed composer-in-residence to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (a position held years earlier by T. J. Anderson) and in 2008 was active in Albania.  Commissions and performances of his works are frequent -- not only throughout the U.S., but in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Vienna, Cologne, and Rotterdam.
            The program's fifth composer was the venerable tenor, Roland Hayes (1887-1977), whose extraordinary gift as both singer and guardian of the spiritual had been a model for Marian Anderson and all who followed.  He had been a student at Fisk University, but was expelled from the university for giving an off-campus performance without the school's permission.  In 1923, he was the second Black soloist to appear with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (the first had been José White in 1876, excused because he was latino). The tenor's life story, MacKinley's Angel Mo' and her son (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1942) ranks high among biographies of musicians and in its depiction of  the era.
            André Watts was included with his brillant performance as a teenager in the Liszt E-Flat major piano concerto.  Ever to be enormously admired, he always fills the house (and his fee, so it is said, even then obliges additional patronage).  He had been born in Germany in 1946 to a Hungarian-German pianist mother and an African-American soldier; he thus had the "disadvantage" of a typical Black American child.  Even though his parents moved to Philadelphia when he was quite young, his life was not typical -- by age nine he was already demonstrating his uncommon gift.  Perhaps as a result,  he is not known to have music by a Black composer in his vast repertoire -- Gershwin is as close as he has come.  Liszt was held by Watts' mother as an idol.  In more recent times, Liszt's stock has not fared well, being a composer of seriously difficult music (designed to show off the composer's dedication to virtuosity that often ventured into gross flamboyance), but has risen somewhat with consideration of his lesser known treatment of innovative harmony and with the respectful tribute given by Jorge Bolet.  This concerto has not made it into the more elevated status.
            Program nine sampled three additional composers: Olly Wilson, Roberto Sierra, and Anthony Davis.  The Boston Symphony Orchestra provided Wilson's example with the second movement of his Sinfonia, a memorial tribute to the composer's father and conductor Calvin Simmons (whose early death cut short a career already international). Wilson is a very major figure, incapable of writing inferior music or of ignoring his ardent social stance.  Sierra, a rriqueño now on the faculty of Cornell University, is a remarkably prolific composer, ever true to his roots and with such a brilliant reputation that we should be ashamed for not having given him overt notice within our primary  agenda.
            And then there is Anthony Davis who, as a opera composer, won our notice initially with X, the life and times of Malcolm X, in which he charts his path for opera's future.  The work readily was noticed when it was given its formal première by the former new York City Opera in 1986.  The leading role was taken by Ben Holt, who configured his entire persona to that of the hero.  The story was that the opera was such a success, it would be presented the next year for a less restrictive run, and would tour.  This was not to be. The work was recorded after Ben's death, and dedicated to his memory (and, by the way, Bill McGlaughlin as conductor did have the chance to work with Ben).
            The broadcast of the final program of the series was preempted on WFMT.  Here was a catch-hall pot pourri that juxtaposed Langston Hughes, King Oliver, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Charlie Parker with Darius Milhaud, exhibiting what I felt to be a lack of organic unity of the two weeks.  But let's not be too critical: Bill merits our deep appreciation for this second series of programs dedicated to Black musical culture -- a world so diverse that it is easy to lose focus.
            If we were to be treated to a third two-week tribute, what composers would we recommend for introduction?  This series brought us Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Anthony Davis, Adolphus Hailstork, Roland Hayes, Jeffery Mumford, Roberto Sierra, Alvin Singleton, Hale Smith, and Olly Wilson, all of whom could benefit from return booking.  The horizon was expanded with a few performers of  "art" music (as our African figures term "classical" music): Anne Brown, Todd Duncan, Paul Freeman, the Howard University Choir, Natalie Hinderas, Jubilant Skyes, Wynton Marsalis, Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price, Robert Sims, André Watts, Karen Walwyn, and William Warfield. 
            What other composers might we recommend without hesitation?  Michael Abels, H. Leslie Adams,  T. J. Anderson, Harry Burleigh, David Baker, Ed Bland, Leo Brouwer, Margaret Bonds, William Banfield, Arthur Cunningham, Will Marion Cook, Edmond Dédé, R. Nathaniel Dett, Akin Euba, James Furman, Mark Fax, Primous Fountain, Felipe Gutiérrez y Espinosa, Talib Hakim, Francis Johnson, J. Rosamond Johnson, Thomas Kerr, Ulysses Kay, Tania León, Vicente Lusitano, Dorothy Rudd Moore, Undine Moore, Gary Powell Nash, J. H. Kwabena Nketia, José Maurício Nunes Garcia, Fred Onovwerosuoke, Robert Owens, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson,  Florence Price, Julia Perry, Daniel Roumain, Howard Swanson, Joshua Uzoigwe, George Walker ...  And there are those classic giants who dedicated most of their attention to the spiritual: Edward Boatner, Lawrence Brown, William Dawson, Moses Hogan, Hall Johnson, Charles Lloyd, John Work ... As for performers, we would start with Dorothy Maynor and Paul Robeson, but after that we'd be buried with stellar figures like George Shirley, D. Antoinette Handy, Florence Quivar, Grace Bumbry, Lawrence Winters, Shirley Verrett, Reri Grist, Robert McFarren, Ben Holt ... those of the recent past are too many to list, and the currently active stars (Darryl Taylor, James de Preist, Terrance Wilson, Lecolion Washington, Kevin Short, the McGill brothers, Eugene Moye, Leslie Dunner, Denise Graves, Anthony Ellliot, Audra McDonald, Kevin Maynor, virtually all the Sphinx laureates, and what about those choral ensembles from Morehouse, Morgan, and Fisk?) ... one becomes too dizzy! 
            When time permits, Bill, remember us again.  No other latitude on radio gives us such attention, and we are most grateful that you are alerting your thousands of ardent fans to this enormous world we love.
Dominique-René de Lerma

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