Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Dominique-René de Lerma: Satan In The Conservatory

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Dominique-René de Lerma

            My years at Morgan State University (1975-1990) had been a salvation; I was rescued from an intolerable racist and political environment and brought into one where the same musical potentials were present, where being African American could be a source of great pride (Leontyne Price called it "the luxury of being Black"), but only achieved often with victories over sociological disadvantage and philosophical misdirection.   This was in Morgan's first really golden age, before Eric Conway fell heir to the firm foundation established by Nathan Carter, carrying the school to even greater international importance.  It has just been raised to university status when I arrived.  While the college's history included Shirley Graham DuBois,  Eva Jessye,  Lonnie Liston Smith, and Anne Brown, it was the Choir, starting in the 1970s, that shot the school's musical reputation from performances at Baltimore's churches to concerts and recording sessions in London, Copenhagen, Helsinski, and (almost) Leningrad --  why the Soviets cancelled the concerts when we were all ready to be bussed to the event was never explained.
Quite soon I became sensitive to the perestroika between the singers and the instrumentalists -- a division that has not been exceptional at other music schools, where the jazzers are absent from the song recital and the singer has no temptation to give notice to the other world.  This was brought home to be particularly when a bandsman made contrasting reference to the "musicians and singers."  My comment, as kindly as I could express it, was that this instrumentalist would spend all of his life trying to perform as a singer, but might never make it.
Instrumentalists, very much a part of the written tradition, observe that singers usually perform without music (but for choral performances, where the notation has become irrelevant) and often need to be coached in their rhythms as undergraduates, that they learn even more from the oral tradition than their counterparts.
When I studied with Marcel Tabuteau at the Curtis Institute, I was not alone in being introduced to his concept of phrasing, rationally represented by numbers.  Had Tabuteau been more alert to singers, he would have been aware of the natural phrasing that results from the text's rhetoric.  He insisted that all music had an upbeat which, in a text, would be an article, perhaps with an adjective.  When the theory teacher assigns s strong beat to the start of a measure, he might notice this is where the previous harmonic motion has reached a pause, however temporary, with a consonance, but neglect to alert his class to the performance implications; one always moves from dissonance to a resolution, just as articles and adjectives must be followed by a noun.  This can be observed by looking at Beethoven's dynamics.
There is more behind the instrumentalist-singer dichotomy, especially in a Black school.  The singer is found in church on Sunday mornings, while the instrumentalist spends the previous night in the jazz club.  There's the rub.
Morgan was loaded with vocal talent, certainly in equal proportion to that found in the nation's most celebrated schools.  It was from this foundation that Morgan produced such stars from Betty Ridgeway's studio as Kevin Short, Maysa Leak, Kishna Davis...  These were among those whose careers became possible, not only from talent, but from a willingness to study all that the profession demanded -- requisites not even imagined by the naively gifted.   As I told Kishna after she astonished the faculty at her freshman audition with a Puccini aria, her talent was her cross.  There were many others with an extraordinary gift, but who lacked the courage to go the rest of the way, who felt they were ready immediately, right then and there.
Most painful during my stay was an exceptional and true contralto, one whose voice was wonderfully rich, with a thrilling texture.  When she sang Schubert's Der Tod und das Mädchen, so she needed more work with her diction, but the final low bass-clef D was as glorious as anything I had ever heard.  We met in my office, and she expressed a curiosity about Marian Anderson, someone she had only heard about briefly.  I told her Mahler and Brahms were impatient for her, even if she never heard of them.  All this was totally new to her, and there is nothing more exciting than a young person just finding out what a superb career in the arts talent would make possible, if they met the demands.
I left Morgan as she was to enter her second year, urgently called by Samuel Floyd to become director of the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago.  I had little difficulty following the evolution of the careers of Kevin, Maysa, Kishna (check the internet!), and the others who had won my devotion and support, but what of the contralto?  Alas, her church convinced her that Schubert, Mahler, and Brahms wrote the devil's music and, like Mahalia Jackson, she left the poorly identified secular world behind.  She could certainly have continued singing in church, but her ill-informed advisors won with no compromise.  How I would have wished they knew music well enough to realize the godliness of that music which also was so beneficial to the soul!. 

Dominique-René de Lerma

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