Monday, July 27, 2015

Dominique-René de Lerma: 'Ben Holt: Apostle of Musical Enlightenment,' as related from Mrs. Mayme Wilkins Holt, author, to Nevilla E. Ottley, co-author

Dominique-René de Lerma

Ben Holt, apostle of musical enlightenment, as related through personal manuscript from Mrs. Mayme Wilkins Holt, author,  to Nevilla E. Ottley, co-author.  Largo [P. O. Box 7584, Largo MD 20792]: Christian Living Books, Inc., 2015. xi, 140p.  Paperback ISBN 9781562290757; eBook ISBN 9781562290764.  $16.99.

Benjamin Edward Holt, Jr., 1955-1990.  He was 34 when he died. But he was already with the Metropolitan Opera -- not just for Porgy and Bess -- and had a major career for almost a decade -- and the male voice only begins to reach maturity at that age.  Had his life span been what one would expect, he would have soared as the principal baritone with any opera company in the world, enduring for at least three decades of world-class artistry of  exceptional fame, with shelves of best-selling recordings of definitive performances of repertoire ranging from Monteverdi to composers not yet with finished educations.  But why a book?  No matter what would have surely been in store, Ben Holt created a monument of superb musicality and defined for others what is expected of an artist, of a noble human being, a matter of noblesse oblige.  A quarter century since his death, his influence remains solid, and now with this book the potential exists for its continuation.
It does not matter that he was a musician.  Whatever career he might have selected -- including that in medicine as his father initially hoped -- he would have left an indelible imprint.  No, he was not just a musician.
An advantage of an autobiography or a life story related by a family member is having access to unique materials and memories.  The former is particularly well served in this instance: a flourish of family, school, and studio photographs from 1960 to 1989 visually demonstrate Ben's warm personality and his uncanny portrayal of his opera roles -- including perhaps his major accomplishment as Malcolm X in the opera of Anthony Davis, and that whimsical picture climbing up a Central Park lamp post with Kathleen Battle.  Other documents amplify the biography.  A disadvantage is omission, either from oversight (Battle never neglected graciously to provide Mayme Holt with a ticket to her DC performances, even including post-concert dinners) or intent (mention is barely made of Ben's father or when the separation took place).  Dr. Holt was enormously proud of his son, seemingly not fully aware of Ben's status, and wished to be provided with copies of works Ben had sung (only in English, however).  He sent me a collection of his poems, including an elegy on Ben's death, but the publication was misplaced by an over-ambitious house care-taker during my prolonged absence about 2009.  When the anthology surfaces, the poem will be made available to the public.
Those engaged in the education of youth should translate the biography's drama for young minds -- the story can place Ben Holt's life as a model, particularly when comprehensible illustrations are drawn from available recordings and videos.  The impact would be most immediately strong in the instance of Black youth, but it should not be overlooked that Ben's heritage was also visibly Choctaw.  His life was not the time for selfishness or ego, it was the time to dedicate his gift to uplift the spirits of others, not just the concert-goers but those in homes for the aged and prisons for the inmates.  In his own way he was both missionary and civil rights activist.
The manuscript was originally proposed to a major publisher, but the typically long process of evaluation had not even begun when it was decided to offer it to a local firm.  It was issued in a few weeks, and it is handsomely produced.  Marketing will be a problem, in that the publisher has no known existing audience apart from its parochial orientation (not overtly evident, however), while its some of its regular customers might be lost in the citations of repertoire.  A mainstream publisher would have caught the split infinitives, repeated phrases and anecdotes, and asked for an expanded coverage.
The back matter lacks an index, which might be superfluous what with the brief chapters bearing identification of its contents.  There is the inevitable bit of name-dropping (Luciano Pavarotti, Thomas A. Dorsey, Lawrence Winters, Eileen Cline, Mary Europe), but there are meaty data from Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Andrew Frierson, Kevin Short, Cliff Jackson, Patricia Prattis Jenkins and other musicians of renown.  Offered, however, are appendixes whose reference value would have been intensified if organized into a composite unit -- a task that is projected to be undertaken: repertoire, roles, venues, and recordings.  This will be the time to add missing video materials, including at least one interview and an "informance" before a California audience in which Ben communicated so warmly by his words and performance to a highly receptive lay audience.
The publication also makes very abbreviated mention of the Ben Holt Memorial Concert Series at Lawrence University (it was quite incorrect to indicate funding was not provided by the campus; this is built into the Conservatory's annual operational budget).  Far more satisfactory is the "History of the Ben Holt Memorial Concert Series." A 16-page document covering 13 seasons, is readily available at, yet even this needs to be updated to include, for example, the performance by Audra McDonald in 2013.  This is one of many websites on Ben whose consultation might have been thought outside the scope of the narrative, but should all have been included in the bibliography (also missing).  There is enough material now for a true biography, to be supplemented and augmented by additional research. 
Because Ben was frequently sponsored by Wendell Wright (whose concerts were presented in a high Episcopal church, located in the heart of west Baltimore's deep ghetto), a large collection of his materials is within the Wright Collection of the Archives at Chicago's Center for Black Music Research.
This publication readily belongs within the holdings of all academic and public music libraries, and might well be appropriate for many school libraries. It will also be welcome in private collections, most certainly everyone in the worlds of opera and Black studies.

Dominique-René de Lerma

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