Monday, July 30, 2007

Congratulations to All Performers at Prom Concert on 15 July 2007

(The Sir Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, or the Proms, are daily orchestral concerts presented by the BBC each summer, primarily in London's Royal Albert Hall. Mike Wright is Chair, International Society African to American Music.)

Congratulations to All Performers at the Landmark Henry Wood Promenade Concert on 15 July 2007

by Mike Wright

Prom 3 was perhaps the most exciting performance of music that few people know about, let alone know. There are always dangers of filling a programme with such material – and in a weekend slot - that may discourage those who are expecting the usual baroque fare, period instruments and all. Quite often, 'period instrument' ensembles and the Royal Albert Hall just don’t get on too well together. However, one can always expect Sir John Elliot Gardiner to come up trumps. In previous Proms, he has tended to include big choral works always performed in a most exciting way. In Prom 3 this performance, starting with Campra's Messe de Requiem in the first half, I suspect that many in the audience were totally unprepared for what was to follow.

The music of Jean Phillipe Rameau (1683-1764) is not heard anything like as much as deserved, well certainly that is the case in the UK. He was a ‘cutting edge’ composer of his day and surely as inventive as JS Bach or Georg Philipp Telemann in Germany. However, Rameau’s operas were in a class of their own, a huge development from those of Lully. His ideas on harmony were published in “Nouveau système de musique théorique” in the 1720’s. It was considered contentious in its day but nevertheless, is still a standard reference. Now I hear you say ‘what has all this to do with Prom 3’?

In my view, Prom 3 did everything that Sir Henry Wood would have endorsed. It also did it extremely well and in a way that one feels would not have been out of place in the French Opera houses in the 18th century. However, whilst that is just conjecture, nevertheless, the English Baroque Soloists have for long been a very fine Ensemble that have moved so-called ‘authentic period performance’ movement into mainstream. However, I must say that I feel the term ‘authentic period performance’ is an oxymoron, and with all due respect to those who claim authenticity, such performances can even now by some lesser musicians still seem to forsake musicality.

This is where I move on to the Buskaid Soweto Ensemble which I have been aware of for some time now from CD recordings published. They are so frighteningly good that they could put many established string bands into the shade. I am not aware that these players had been especially versed in the rights and wrongs of playing French baroque music but it seems likely that the players entered into the music with few pre-conceptions. However, at this point, and for the benefit of perhaps most people who would attend concerts such as this, I should point out that the performance style the Buskaid Soweto Ensemble when playing South African music shares much in common to the style of string playing that is supposed to represent an authentic baroque period instrument ensemble. It follows that those who attended Prom 3 must have immediately become aware of the fine quality of the Ensemble and the synergy they shared with the works they performed and later with the English Baroque Soloists.

One hopes that further collaborations with Sir John Elliot Gardiner materialise in the not too distant future. In my view, Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble are going to become a leading force which could soon be as well known as the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. One sincerely hopes that this Ensemble will have the opportunity to open up the ears of Europeans to the art music of Africa. This is music that perhaps nearly everyone who attends the Proms is likely to be totally unaware of. I would certainly like to introduce the Ensemble to a number of African composers who may have material that they would like to consider. I even have information and valuable contacts who can provide details of works by composers of African descent that go back to the 18th Century, some works I am aware of are not outside the bounds of being of possible interest to Sir John Elliot Gardiner and have high musical value.

Finally, I welcome interest by all who performed at Prom 3 including the very talented Dance for All ensemble.

Mike Wright


International Society African to American Music

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Black and Latino String Players at Carnegie Hall

The life and career of the violinist Aaron P. Dworkin have been honored for several years at his page at,

Aaron Dworkin was born to White and Black parents and was adopted by a White couple in New York City at the age of two weeks. He began playing the violin at age five. When Aaron was 10, the family moved to Hershey, Pennsylvania, which had only one Black family. Racism made life difficult for him there. He graduated from the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, and received his Bachelors of Music and Masters of Music in Violin Performance from the University of Michigan.

Dworkin is Founder and President of the Sphinx Organization, which held its 10th Annual Sphinx Competition for Black and Latino string players in Ann Arbor and Detroit earlier this year. Last year, The Sphinx Chamber Orchestra gave a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. Anthony Tommasini reviewed the concert in The New York Times, Oct. 27, 2006:

The concert at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday evening offered typical fare: a string chamber orchestra playing works by Mozart, Villa-Lobos and others. But the audience, far from the typical classical music crowd, was overwhelmingly black and Latino, and most were children. Onstage as well, all the players were young black and Latino musicians. It was a sight you rarely encounter at Carnegie Hall.
In addition, Sphinx runs a successful competition for string players, also supported by JPMorgan Chase. Every member of the 20-piece Sphinx Chamber Orchestra that performed on this occasion, as well as each impressive soloist, was a past or current prizewinner.

On the heels of its sell-out success in 2006, the Sphinx Organization has proudly announced the Sphinx Laureates Concert at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday, September 25, 2007 at 6 p.m.:

Sphinx Returns to Carnegie Hall

The Sphinx Organization, celebrating 10 years of building diversity in classical music, is excited to return to Carnegie Hall on Tuesday, September 25th, 2007. The Sphinx Laureates concert will feature the Sphinx Chamber Orchestra comprised of top alumni of the Sphinx Competition under the direction of Maestro Chelsea Tipton II, as well as the Harlem Quartet and top Laureates performing as soloists.

Inspired by Sphinx’s artistic mission, the program will offer standard repertoire along with masterpieces by Black and Latino composers. The significance and value of this performance is immeasurable as it represents not only the incredible performance opportunity for young musicians, but also, a strong impact on diverse audiences by exposing them to the highest level of artistry reflected within the minority community.

JPMorgan Chase has given more than $100 million through grants and sponsorships to thousands of not-for-profit organizations around the world, including the Sphinx Laureates at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Support for the Sphinx Organization is given through the Community Life program, which emphasizes offering a culturally rich life for residents in order to create communities where people want to live and work. JPMorgan Chase’s long-standing support of community arts and culture includes arts giving, civic enhancement and programs that address cultural enrichment and diversity.

The mission of the Sphinx Organization is to increase the participation of Blacks and Latinos in music schools as professional musicians, as classical music audiences, and to administer youth development initiatives in underserved communities through music education. Sphinx works to address this mission through five main program areas:

  • ARTIST DEVELOPMENT (highlights the Sphinx Competition for young Black and Latino string players and the Sphinx Symphony, along with a series of scholarship initiatives)

  • SPHINX PREPARATORY MUSIC INSTITUTE at Wayne State University (provides Detroit area youths with yearlong classes in performance, music theory/ear training and music history). Overture Division of Sphinx Prep provides free instruments and group and individual violin lessons to young people in Detroit and Flint, MI)

  • SPHINX PERFORMANCE ACADEMY at Walnut Hill School (offers intensive summer training to aspiring Black and Latino musicians who lack access to quality music education)

  • SPHINX CLASSICAL CONNECTIONS (helps teachers implement music education in their in-class curriculum)

  • SPHINX PRESENTS! (offers professional performance and exposure opportunities to Sphinx solo artists and ensembles including the Harlem Quartet, New York school residencies and highlighting the Sphinx Artist Series at Carnegie Hall)

Sphinx Organization

646-429-1987 x710

Friday, July 27, 2007

Blog Poll Today on Calliope's Saint-Georges CD

The very popular classical music blog "On An Overgrown Path",

is conducting a poll today on objections made here to racially insensitive cover art of Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges on Calliope 9373 (2007). The blog links to a reply from Calliope and to a response from AfriClassical. Readers are invited to make comments on two possible views of the art work:

'Bordering on ridicule' or 'giving classical music a younger image'? Over to you, readers ....

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Calliope: 'cover is the work of two great artists'

In the post "Black Composer In Polka Dots" I explained I had sent a respectful message to Harmonia Mundi USA, the U.S. distributor for the Calliope record label, in which I urged that the cover picture of Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges on Calliope 9373 (2007) be replaced. I received a reply today on behalf of Disques Calliope (Calliope Discs); it is reproduced here in its entirety:

Dear Sir,

I am Alain Guédé, the author of Monsieur de Saint-George: A Biography, which has been published in France and the United States, and the president of the association ‘Le Concert de Monsieur de Saint-George’, which aims, through its work, to obtain greater recognition for this composer. Calliope has passed on your letter to me.

Saint-George was completely unknown before I decided to do something about that. Only a few rich plantation owners in the West Indies, or their auxiliaries, continued to have his music performed. But their intentions were not truly noble, their objective being to show, through the existence of a man like Saint-George, that slavery was not entirely a bad thing. We must be wary of such so-called ‘friends’ of Saint-George. If you remember, there was not a single website devoted to him in 1999. My book and the work of my association to communicate, distribute scores, raise awareness among artists and concert organisers, have helped to rescue this composer from oblivion. Since the book was published in 1999, there has been, on average in France, two new CDs per year and two concerts performed each week. His works are played in Russia, where I gave a lecture tour, in the USA, where we have many friends and agents (including Ms Bisa Williams), in Canada, where we now have a delegation, and in China, Japan, and so on. This month we have invited Spanish, Russian and Slovakian orchestras to play works by Saint-George in Paris.

The above is just a brief summary of my experience, which, I believe, qualifies me to answer your letter.

Firstly: the kind of respect we owe to Saint-George is above all that of playing his music well. The first imperative set by the association ‘Le Concert de Monsieur de Saint-George’ and myself was that his works should be performed by the best musicians available. The Orchestre des Archets de Paris, which recorded the CD we are talking about, is one of the finest ensembles in the world today. Notably, it has toured the USA. Their recording is marvellous, and Saint-George would have been proud of it.

Secondly: in France (and several other European countries) our efforts to revive Saint-George have had a wonderful ‘collateral’ effect. People who never usually set foot in concert halls for classical concerts have been encouraged by performances of Saint-George’s works to go to such concerts without inhibition. Over the years we have been able to present Saint-George to thousands (possibly millions) of French people of African or West Indian origin. On 10 May this year, we organised a concert at the French Parliament, to which we invited several hundred children and young people from the poorer Paris suburbs.

We could have chosen a picture by Fragonard (as we did for the last Saint-George CD by Les Archets de Paris) or by Desportes (like the cover of my book in France and of the CD recorded by the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana). But this time, seeking something with wider appeal, we decided to ask Cabu to illustrate the cover. He is the most famous cartoonist in France (the recent exhibition of his works at the City Hall in Paris attracted more than a million visitors). It was an honour to us that he accepted. The artist Wozniak is well known, amongst other things, for his paintings of famous American jazzmen. Our idea was to use the cover as a means of bringing Saint-George – and through him, classical music in general – to an even wider public, of people from all different backgrounds. We want to give classical music in France a younger image. And I feel that the same thing can be done in the States.

Thirdly: I thank you for mentioning the elegance of Saint-George, which is something I have brought out in my biography. Your observation, however, poses the problem of aesthetics. Given that the cover is the work of two great artists, how does one judge its aesthetic qualities? Was Marilyn Monroe pleased with her portrait by Andy Warhol? Can one consider the works of Basquiat as ‘beautiful’? Did Picasso do justice to the beauty of Dora Maar?

Wozniak’s colouring, I notice, evokes the ‘Beatles period’. And that is not just a coincidence. The drawing pays a faithful tribute to the life of Saint-George, in showing him surrounded by pretty girls.

How would Saint-George dress if he was alive today? In smart Smalto style? Or with a mixture of elegance and originality, in clothing by John Galliano or Jean-Paul Gaultier? Would he be dressed like George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac, or like Prince? Taking into account his very modern, even provocative personality, Cabu and Wozniak chose a very new and original approach. And the success of this CD in France shows that their opinion is widely shared by people from every walk of life.

This interpretation may come as a surprise, and I understand that. But that was one of our intentions.

Finally I would like to say, in the friendliest possible way and with all due respect, that I think it would be a good idea if, rather than joining in with those who would like to use Saint-George for their own dishonourable ends, you could take part in the vast task of reviving his work, by supporting this CD.

I invite you to take a look at the work we at the association ‘Le Concert de Monsieur de Saint George’ have carried out. You will find us at:

My best regards to you,

Alain Guédé

BP 40433 - 60204 COMPIEGNE cedex

Some of the points made in the reply do not relate to the Calliope CD cover art, and will not be addressed in detail. Alain Guédé is well known to me. I have read his French and English biographies of Saint-Georges, and have visited his website. It is difficult for me to accept Guédé's claim that "Saint-George was completely unknown before I decided to do something about that." His book appeared in 1999. The late Emil F. Smidak wrote an excellent biography, "Joseph Boulogne called Chevalier de Saint-Georges", which was published by the Avenira Foundation in Lucerne in 1996 in French and English versions.

The Arion record label in France originally released at least three of its fine recordings of the music of Saint-Georges between 1974 and 1978: Arion ARN 55425, 55445 and 68093. Another recording, ARN 55434, was issued in 1982.
The CBS Black Composers Series of the 1970s was recorded under the direction of Paul Freeman, conductor, and included music of Saint-Georges as well.

To pick one crucial example, a divergence on the date of birth of Saint-Georges exists between the Saint-Georges biography of Alain Guédé and those of Prof. Claude Ribbe, published by Perrin (2004), violinist Gabriel Banat, from Pendragon (2006) and Pierre Bardin, issued by Guenegaud (2006). Alain Guédé writes that the date of birth was 1739; the other three biographers find the correct date to be 1745.

There is no dispute about the fact that many concerts and recordings of the music of Saint-Georges have been the result of the activities of Alain Guédé and Le Concert de Monsieur de Saint-George. The 2003 CBC Television documentary "Le Mozart Noir", which has been on DVD since 2005, has been shown often in France and many other countries. It may be credited with making a contribution to greater awareness of Saint-Georges. In the interest of full disclosure, I provided the producer with research assistance for the documentary; my name is listed in the credits of the documentary and the DVD.

Alain Guédé asks "Given that the cover is the work of two great artists, how does one judge its aesthetic qualities?". The objection I and others have raised is one of racial insensitivity recalling the demeaning portrayals of Black entertainers in the past. Dr. Joshua S. Nemith put it this way in his own letter to Harmonia Mundi, reproduced at AfriClassical on July 25, 2007:

"I think it would be against the interests of all parties to distribute this album with its current art cover, which depicts Saint-Georges in a caricature-like manner reminiscent of racist 'blackface' techniques used decades ago. Saint-Georges is presented in clownish polka-dot attire...".

How Saint-Georges would dress today, and what fashion aesthetic might apply, are irrelevant questions. The CD cover portrays an 18th century scene, not one from the 21st century. There is nothing inherently wrong with a decision to produce a new image of Saint-Georges, as an alternative to the paintings done in his lifetime, but novelty is no excuse for an illustration which demeans Saint-Georges, and does so in a manner which recalls the insulting minstrel performances.

Alain Guédé writes: "Finally I would like to say, in the friendliest possible way and with all due respect, that I think it would be a good idea if, rather than joining in with those who would like to use Saint-George for their own dishonourable ends, you could take part in the vast task if reviving his work, by supporting this CD."

Who are these people I am accused of joining, who wish to use the composer for "their own dishonourable ends"? I am completely unaware of the existence of a group of people who wish to do such a thing, and I have certainly not participated in aiding such a group. The allegation is absurd!

I will briefly note that my website was founded in the year 2000 with the intention of reviving awareness of Saint-Georges. It profiles his life, fencing career and recorded works on six pages, beginning with an English home page at:

and a French counterpart at:

The reply on behalf of Calliope does not change my firm belief that the cover art of the CD Calliope 9373 (2007) is demeaning to an elegant, fashionable and dignified Afro-French gentleman who reached the top of the French musical scene
as an innovative composer, virtuoso violinist and conductor of the two best orchestras in Paris. I have no doubt that the Orchestre des Archets de Paris has added a first-class performance to the recorded repertoire of Saint-Georges' music, and the CD is listed at my website, but the cover art does not appear at I am very disappointed by the attempt made on behalf of Calliope to justify such a demeaning portrayal of the greatest Afro-French composer of the 18th century.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Joshua Nemith On Calliope's Saint-Georges CD

Dr. Joshua S. Nemith is a piano teacher and author of the blog Joshua Nemith's Cincinnati Pianist. He has written to Harmonia Mundi USA, the U.S. distributor for the Calliope record label, concerning the cover art on the Saint-Georges CD Calliope 9373 (2007), and has made his letter available to AfriClassical:

Subject: Cover art on Calliope 9373 (2007)
Date: Wed, 25 Jul 2007 11:56:00 -0400

To Whom it may concern:

I am writing to express an opinion about the cover art on the following album: Monsieur de Saint-George: 4 Concertos pour violon, Calliope 9373 (2007), performed by Les Archets de Paris.

I understand that Harmonia Mundi USA is Calliope's US distributor. I learned of this relationship via William Zick's blog and companion website AfriClassical ( and

I think it would be against the interests of all the parties involved to distribute this album with its current art cover, which depicts Saint-Georges in a caricature-like manner reminiscent of racist "blackface" techniques used decades ago. Saint-Georges is presented in clownish polka-dot attire which does not reflect accurately when compared to the portraiture of this artist in his own time. In my opinion, it is easy to interpret Saint-Georges' depiction as an "eyesore", admired as a talented entertainer by "normal" whitefolk who nevertheless see him as a freakish inferior.

While I remain adamantly against any condonement of censorship, I see this as addressing a different issue: one of sensitivity to the reality of racial injustices and prejudices of our recent history. Cover art like this reveals astonishing insensitivity and will convince too many that the classical music business continues to marginalize people of color.

Harmonia Mundi has an opportunity here to show the world that it is ready to move into the 21st century with renewed respect and admiration for musicians of color from any time period. I hope that Harmonia Mundi and Calliope will make the right decision by removing and replacing the current cover art on this album (Calliope 9373).


Dr. Joshua S. Nemith
Visit my weblog: "">Joshua Nemith's Cincinnati Pianist

Monday, July 23, 2007

U.S. Distributor of Calliope Record Label

This post is a response to two comments about my post Black Composer In Polka Dots, concerning the CD Monsieur de Saint-George: 4 Concertos pour violon, Calliope 9373 (2007). The U.S. distributor for the Calliope record label is Harmonia Mundi USA, whose E-mail address is:

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Music of William Grant Still at St. Roch Festival

Pianist Greg Kostraba is Music Director of Toledo's Public Radio station WGTE 91.3 FM, and a strong advocate of the music of William Grant Still. He will be performing William Grant Still's Pastorela and Suite for Violin and Piano with Steven Lubiarz on Sunday, July 22, 2007 at the St. Roch Chamber Music Festival in Caseville, Michigan. More information is available at

Friday, July 20, 2007

Black Composer In Polka Dots

As webmaster of, I have closely followed CDs of the music of Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799). He was born to a slave of African descent, on a Caribbean plantation owned by his father, a French aristocrat. Incredibly, this son of a slave rose to the top of French society through his mastery of fencing and his genius for classical music!

Monsieur de Saint-George: 4 Concertos pour violon, Calliope 9373 (2007), copyright of the Calliope label, is a new CD by the ensemble Les Archets de Paris. I find its cover art disturbing and bordering on ridicule. It clearly departs from the norm for CDs of the music of Saint-Georges.

Contemporary portraits of the Afro-French composer show him impeccably dressed in the finery of an 18th century aristocrat. A red jacket is entirely compatible with period portraits, but the Calliope cover art depicts Saint-Georges in a red jacket covered with white polka dots.

What is the historical basis of polka dots? They are absurd! The outfit resembles a clown suit more than a gentleman's formal attire! Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges is still unknown to many fans of classical music. Someone seeing his image for the first time in this cover art would have a highly unrealistic idea of him.

I have not yet seen the recording on sale at websites based in the U.S., but it is widely available on French websites. Calliope has a U.S. distributor, so it won't be surprising if this disc shows up soon at U.S. stores and websites.

Saint-Georges was educated in elite schools in France. Famous first as the finest fencer in France, he later emerged as a virtuoso violinist, a fashionable composer, and conductor of the best orchestras in Paris. Marie-Antoniette invited him to play music with her at Versailles on a regular basis, beginning in 1779.

It is only fitting that Les Archets de Paris and soloists Bertrand Cervera, Christophe Guiot and Thibault Vieux should lend their talents to interpreting four fine violin works of Saint-Georges. Dozens of CDs of his music have been released by other ensembles; the new recording is a welcome addition to the composer's works in print.

The best known portrait of Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges was painted by the American artist Mather Brown in London in 1787. To illustrate his two careers, the artist depicted Saint-Georges in formal concert attire, but holding a sword in place of a conductor's baton. This portrait is found on the above CD Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Concertos pour violon, Arion 68093 (1990), copyright of the Arion record label.

Calliope is based in France. I have respectfully informed its U.S. distributor that I believe the cover art on Calliope 9373 (2007) should be replaced.