Thursday, January 20, 2011

'St. Louis American' on Fred Onovwerosuoke's CD 'Libera': 'Africa meets art song'

[Fred Onovwerosuoke produced Libera by Marlissa Hudson, with Peter Henderson on piano, featuring six of FredOs own compositions along with spirituals and European art songs.]

Posted: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 Updated: Thursday, January 20, 2011
By Chris King
Fred Onovwerosuoke adopted the nickname 'FredO' because of the notorious difficulty of pronouncing his family name, but it is actually appropriate that it's hard to say the man's name. That is because it is difficult to put into words his many talents and accomplishments as a composer, conductor, publisher, arts organizer, folklorist and tireless promoter of new and innovative music. This Ghanaian of Nigerian descent who has made St. Louis his home has a new release on his African Music Publishers imprint that spotlights one of St. Louis' native daughters: the soprano Marlissa Hudson. The CD is titled Libera - no, that is not a misprint for 'Liberia' - and like everything else FredO touches, it is not simple to describe.

“We can start with what is somewhat easy to account for. Marlissa Hudson, who now lives in Washington, D.C., has a fascinating voice that carries intense emotion at the high end of her range and moody soul on the low end. This is art song, not soul or gospel, so she sings with an intonation and phrasing heard in the concert hall, rather than the church pew. To FredO's credit, he has worked hard to open this more formal music to African-American audiences in St. Louis, and in Hudson he has found a talented accomplice. She is backed on Libera by Peter Henderson on piano. In the classical music crowd in St. Louis, Henderson is a name to conjure with - up there with David Robertson, the musical director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, who makes use of Henderson's talents often. Onovwerosuoke, who produced and executive-produced this recording, selected an exciting variety of tunes and tempos for Henderson's expert hands. If the soprano and the songs steal the show, that is because the accompaniment provides the perfect basis for the singer to soar.

“Describing the material takes us into the complexity always associated with FredO's work. Nearly half of the record - six of its 14 songs - could be described as African-American classics, except that a white man, Mark Hayes, composed four of them. These deeply felt spirituals, drawn from Hayes' 10 Spirituals for Solo Voice (accompanied on piano here), treat familiar biblical themes and should please lovers of church music. The same can be said of African-American composer Margaret Bonds' arrangement of 'He's Got the Whole World in His Hand,' which concludes the record. FredO also has selected another Bonds composition, 'Minstrel Man,' from her Three Dream Portraits, in which she scores poetry by the great Langston Hughes. This effort by Bonds has a hint of musical theater to it.

“Onovwerosuoke could have rounded out the record with more tunes like this and gone the relatively easy route of couching this as an African-American culture record. But his style - his mission - is to expand and mingle traditions. That is why the other half of the record is drawn from high European classics - Puccini and Mendelssohn - and African idioms interpreted by FredO himself, who knows one sure way to get your own material performed and recorded is to commission and produce the recording! It's important to emphasize that this is anything but a vanity project for the composer/producer. Indeed, Onovwerosuoke's six compositions provide some of the most exciting and memorable moments on Libera. The African ideas translate beautifully into art song, and you can hear the musicians diving into them with joy and delight.

"These six songs are taken from Onovwerosuoke's 12 African Songs for Solo Voice and Piano, which draws from folktales, lullabies, dirges and healing dances from all over the African continent. The piano lines in his songs are lively and catchy - indeed, though their sources are more exotic than African-American spirituals or Langston Hughes, FredO's African songs have the most popular appeal of all the material on this recording. You may not know exactly what you are singing, but once you have heard Marlissa Hudson sing FredO's songs over the energetic piano playing of Peter Henderson, you may find yourself singing along - and still singing his songs after the recording has spun to a close.

"The music for 12 African Songs for Solo Voice and Piano is due for publication this spring from Oxford University Press, though individual songs are already available through African Music Publishers. Libera and several other FredO productions on CD also are available through AMP. Call 314-652-6800, email or visit" [Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-1972) is profiled at, which features a complete Works List compiled by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma of Lawrence University Conservatory]

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