Sunday, January 22, 2012

Althea Waites Interview Covers Feb. 4 Recital in Long Beach and Forthcoming Cambria CD, 'Celebrations'

[Black Diamonds: Althea Waites Plays Music By African-American Composers; Cambria CD-1097 (1993).]

When John Malveaux announced that Althea Waites would give a piano recital in Long Beach, California on Feb. 4, 2012 we asked if an interview could be arranged with the pianist, whose work we have known for many years.  The above CD is pictured on the pages of Florence B. Price and Margaret A. Bonds at  The website features complete Works lists by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma,  John communicated our request to Althea Waites, and she promptly agreed. The interview was done by phone on January 16, 2012. Here is a transcript:

Hello, this is Bill Zick, calling for Althea Waites.

Oh, it's very nice to be in touch with you. And I realize that it's a lot earlier where you are than lunchtime here!
Well that's okay, I'm an early riser! I'm kind of used to getting up at the crack, 6:30, to get my day going.
It looks like it's a pretty full schedule that you're keeping up, with teaching and performances and so on! Just by way of background, Althea, what part of the country are you from?
Well I grew up in New Orleans; I was born in '39. You can figure out my current age!
I lived through all of the great Civil Rights Movements of the Sixties. I was educated at Xavier University in New Orleans. It was at that time, and I think still is, a predominantly Black Catholic university. Then I have a Master of Music in Piano Performance from Yale, and did further study at the Paris Conservatory. I was very successful early on in that I had excellent training at both schools, and was able to have a really great career as a teacher and was able to do concerts. I think I was very fortunate in that regard. I was teaching at various schools not only in the South but of course I moved to the East Coast in 1975 and continued to do that, and I juggled, as you indicated, careers around. I think if you simply perform, you still have to find a way to either receive support or support yourself in order to earn a living. I don't think that that has really changed. 
So you have to have a balanced career?
Yes, you do. I think anybody who is in teaching, whether it is today or 50 years ago, you are still faced with the same challenges of how you educate the next generation. 
You seem to have a focus on both new composers and composers of African descent and other minorities; am I correct?
Yes, I do focus on new music and I have to say too that I don't only focus on the music of African American composers. Throughout most of my career, I have been doing a considerable amount of that. When I was at Xavier, for example, William Grant Still came to our campus to conduct one of his operas...
Is that right!
Yes, this was back in the Fifties. I think you probably know from your own research that he did come to the Deep South, and that he conducted symphony orchestras there. That was kind of a milestone for him, but at the same time, we also had other well-known conductors like Julius Rudel of the New York City Opera come in conducting master classes and things like that. I was exposed at that age to a wide variety of training and ideas. I have been focusing on that, but I also do a lot of music of composers for example of every ethnic group whose music has simply not been heard on a broad scale, and I feel very strongly about that. I am kind of into mainstreaming all music, not just music of African American composers, because I feel that it's important.
Your second recording, Along the Western Shore, is excellent evidence of the broad approach, with some world premieres by lesser-known composers who don't happen to be minorities; the program, however, seems to fit together well with William Grant Still's Seven Traceries.
Yes, that's an excellent set! I'm glad you mentioned that. I love that music! Verna Arvey, Dr. Still's widow, introduced me to that. She gave me a copy of the score. You know they lived in Los Angeles in the West Adams district for a number of years. When I met Mrs. Still I was working at one of the L.A. Cultural Community Centers, where students and people can come in and have workshops and things like that, and I had a wonderful time visiting with her although she was in poor health at that moment. We talked a lot about why it was important for this music to be heard. I took my cue from her and was really inspired by the things that she had to say about her husband. So we got everything going, and I learned the music and I thought well, the pieces themselves are really quite beautiful and I really enjoyed working with them for that reason.
They are quite diverse, it seems to me?
Yes! You know I should mention something to you; you probably know of this. Eileen Southern had a wonderful collection of essays and various articles called Readings in Black American Music and one of the things that really struck me as being significant was Hale Smith's essay called Here I Stand. I met him at a symposium many years ago along with Dr. Southern. He talks about the mainstreaming of Black American Music, and I think that was one of the things that sort of fired me up, about not putting women, or African American composers, or Latin American composers into a sort of ghetto. He really felt very strongly that if we're going to all be recognized, then this music should be mainstreamed, not just performed in February or African American History Month.
That does sound familiar. After Hale Smith's passing, I did an extensive interview with Regina Harris Baiocchi, whom he mentored for many years.  What she said about his philosophy of including Black Music with the standard repertoire is definitely compatible with what you're saying.

Yes! Let's say you listen to a classical radio station, KUSC, I know they play a lot of music, and I know this weekend, because it's Martin Luther King's birthday celebration and we honor him for all of the great work that he did. But I don't want to hear just certain pieces that happen to have been written by African American composers on this day, and then for the other 364 days in the year, I have to search to find something that happens to have been written by a Black composer! It shouldn't have to be, “Oh well, they happen to be Black, so we're doing it today.” Put it on with Mozart! Put it on with Beethoven or Sibelius or Messiaen, or anyone that you want to name, it's okay! I feel strongly about what Hale Smith had to say!
You know that actually is the approach that I understand is effective in France. I have a series of French recordings that pair works of Mozart and Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and I don't see that done here.

Yes, wonderful!

So both in performances and recordings, there is a tendency to put Saint-Georges in the context, not just as somebody who was very unusual.

Yes, absolutely, I completely agree with you! I think it's important that people realize that there were other composers out there who lived during that era when Mozart was alive! It shouldn't just be that “Oh well, he was just somebody who was unusual.”

There's not the progress in some ways that one might have hoped for.

Yes, I am disappointed to some extent by that. I see little pockets of progress here and there, but not enough. I keep asking myself after all these years, what is the problem? At the same time I look at Gustavo Dudamel, who is an amazing artist who is now Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic...

The Philharmonic has been programming music of Latin American composers. Okay, fine. Well, what about Curt Cacioppo, who's not Black, he's Sicilian by background; he is being performed widely in other areas. He's written wonderful pieces. What about doing his music or Adolphus Hailstork and William Grant Still? Why not?
Adolphus Hailstork seems to be performed as much as anyone other than William Grant Still. I see his name every day in my list of Google Alerts for concerts and recordings.
He is just very well received. Often it's in areas where there are not many minorities either.
That's true. In fact I just performed the other day with a singer from Michigan Hailstork's cycle, Songs of Love and Justice. This was a commemorative concert in honor of Martin Luther King, and it was a program at a church in Los Angeles. This was one of the featured pieces on the concert.

Yes! A slightly different angle on the success of the people of African descent in classical music, I have been happy to see in the last few years people like Kelly Hall-Tompkins in New York City who was the Concertmaster for the new Respighi Violin Concerto.

It was a world premiere!

Yes, she's doing very, very well!

Eliesha Nelson and John McLaughlin Williams did the terrific project on the music of Quincy Porter for viola!

More recently, she did Russian Viola Sonatas, with Glen Inanga, who is from Nigeria.


I think those three artists set some example of what is possible to make the artists part of the mainstream performances. 

Yes, absolutely! I met Eliesha several years back, I think it was 2001. She played at a festival in the Eastman School. She was just one of the stars of that festival! I so enjoyed meeting her and working with her! I think again, that's one of the ways that we can get the music out. I just think that we need to bring those artists here! I don't think we can accept as an excuse, “Oh, well they're hard to find.” No, they're out there! 
Kelly is an unusual example, but an excellent one, in that she is the Founder of the tremendously successful Music Kitchen program of music at homeless shelters and soup kitchens in New York City!
She has brought musicians from all levels to contribute to this, and people are drawn into it. 
Yes, I heard about that when she first started doing it. I think this is such a great way...
Kelly and her Music Kitchen program have been on all the major TV networks. It shows another way that a minority person who is entrepreneurial and wants to play a role in society, can do that! She's not putting on Black music; she plays Brahms.
Exactly! It doesn't have to be just one particular ethnic group's work. You play whatever you want to play. I just take my hat off to her because I remember when that project started. I think it is so wonderful that she's doing this in homeless shelters! People will listen! I've done quite a bit of work myself in retirement homes and prisons. You don't need a Ph.D. to understand music, because after all it is about emotion.
Exactly! I have to remark that you did quite a job in programming your two recordings! That must be one reason they are both still widely available!
Yes! Lance Bowling, who is the Cambria Records producer, has been very supportive in terms of getting the word out there, and the recordings, even though they came very early, that first one, Black Diamonds, was released in '93 and then the second one in 2004, and I'm working on a third one now. It's almost ready.
Are there any hints that you'd like to give us about the third recording?
Yes, I would be happy to! I can even give you the title! The new CD is called Celebrations. It is an album of music by American composers. This CD includes two pieces which have been written for me, dedicated to me.
One is by Curt Cacioppo, who I mentioned before. I've been performing his music a lot.
A longtime friend... It is called Fantasy Choruses on This Little Light of Mine. That is going to be on the album, and the other piece was written by a Dallas-based composer, a young man named Jeremiah Evans. It's called Metropolitan Express; a short piece using the urban jazz styles and idioms. They are all pieces which have never been recorded, with the exception of a little encore piece by Duke Ellington called Single Petal of a Rose.
So you are about expanding the repertoire once again?

Yes, I'm very excited about it! Right now everything has been done but I am now in what they call the “post-production” phase. I have been editing the material. 

Do you have any target date?

Yes, I am expecting that I should have all of this ready by early March. This will be after a long, long hiatus. 


You have to have unlimited free time; you need time to focus. You can't just go in after a full day of teaching and doing lessons and then you say “Oh, now I am going to sit down and practice, and then I am going to record tomorrow morning.” That's not the way it works! We're well on the way now with editing. We'll come up with a master copy. I am co-producing with a wonderful friend and colleague, Mark Uranker.

He has a piece on your more recent CD?
On the second one, yes. It's called Etcetera Variations. Mark and I have a duo called the “Orpheus Duo.” We perform a lot over here at Cal State Long Beach. We have been doing a lot of new music of course, and things from the standard repertoire as well. I tell everybody “If I was able to get a huge grant I would pick and choose what I want to do! That would be wonderful, but right now it's a way for me to support myself so that I can do these other projects. You can't just do everything. So I do say “No” quite a bit to things that I know I can't handle.

That is the only way you can do it!


If I could turn to the works that you will perform on February 4, you told me that you will do Scuppernong by John W. Work?

And William Grant Still's Three Visions?
And Troubled Water by Margaret Bonds?
Right! That's on my first album, Black Diamonds. I love that piece! It's a really wonderful setting of the spiritual! And then I am going to play Curt Cacioppo's work, which was done in 2008, called Philadelphia Diary. It is a suite that he wrote for the Chamber Music Society in Philadelphia. It incorporates his connection with Native American themes as well as other themes in modern Philadelphia life. Then I am going to play an early Beethoven Sonata, Op. 7 in E Flat. So it's a nice eclectic mix!
Beethoven is a major part of my listening also.
Oh yes, he's my hero! Anyone who can play any of those sonatas, they are all difficult, all demanding! And of course, we still teach Beethoven. 
I have several recordings by Awadagin Pratt with Beethoven, and one that's a combination of composers that he calls A Long Way From Normal, because he grew up in Normal, Illinois.
I like that A Long Way From Normal, that's great!
There is a universal appeal to Beethoven!
Yes, that's music that has stood the test of time! I always say to everybody, you don't have to have any kind of education... I remember going into drug rehab centers and prisons and playing Beethoven, and the audiences understood it! If you tell the listeners what the work is, and they can sit there and listen, and you ask them what they think, they will tell you! It's not like you have to have a Musicology degree or anything like that! They can relate to it, because it does speak to whatever it is that they are feeling.

In Europe on vacation I have experienced a concert in the park that drew all kinds of people!

I remember one afternoon I was in Milan, where they have concerts in the afternoon with small ensembles. People would just sit and have their tea or their lunch and listen to music. It was just one of the most enjoyable experiences that I have had! I really went through a big sea change many years ago about programming. I was often accused of “selling out!” “How come you don't do so-and-so?” I would say “Well, I don't feel I have to make a case for it! I'm doing what I feel is right and that's it!”

That reminds me of what the conductor John McLaughlin Williams said, he has made 11 CDs and some are Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges and some are Quincy Porter!

He doesn't feel that he has to be in any particular pocket!
Yes, I think that is really the only way that we can go now. If you look at the world community, the planet is small when you think about the way that art is created and produced. Now we've got all this sophisticated technology. We've got the iPod, we've got the iPad, we've got satellites. We can communicate instantly from one side of the globe back to the other. That means we can all experience music in many different ways. I don't want to be ghettoized! People used to say to me, “Because you are Black you should only play jazz.” You've heard that one before!
That is one of the most fundamental stereotypes of all!
Yes! Or, “How come you are playing Mozart?” Why shouldn't I! We have to become a lot more universal, I think, in our approach to bringing in composers and artists of every race! That's how I feel right now! That's what of course Martin Luther King addressed when he talked about the “beloved community.” Besides his work for Civil Rights and ending wars, he discussed that a lot!

I did a post yesterday from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where they are going to perform Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Florence Price and Fela Sowande. When I tweeted that, it was retweeted by a South African composer, Bongani Ndodana-Breen, who composed the music for Winnie The Opera.

Oh, yes!

They are keeping an eye on what we are keeping an eye on!

Yes, that's great! I am so excited to hear about that! That's wonderful! We have to start looking beyond our little backyards here. I think that that will greatly enhance the cause we are all involved in! I used to do concerts with just music of women composers, which is not a bad thing in and of itself! Now I do program music by women, but I put it on with everything else!
I've really enjoyed our conversation. I wonder if there is anything else that we need to touch on before we conclude it?
CalState Long Beach has a very fine Department of Music. Our Department has really grown, and hopefully the word will get out that this is the place to be! I think Los Angeles is becoming the cultural center of the nation!

I am very fortunate to have contact with John Malveaux! He's the one who tells me about what's going on in Long Beach and other parts of the Los Angeles region.

He's been working very hard through his organization, MusicUNTOLD, to bring these things out! John has really been out there, fighting the good fight! I do think a lot of people are coming this way because they want to be involved in everything that's going on in L.A. I would just say to everybody, "Come out to the West, check it out!"

And hear some of the concerts of Althea Waites!

Thank you so much, Mr. Zick, for interviewing me! I really appreciate it!
Well, I've enjoyed it! Thank you very much!
Bye now!

Comment by email:

Dear Bill: 
What a pleasure to read about someone whose work I've always admired, and whom I've always wanted to meet!  Peace, Regina [Regina Harris Baiocchi]

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