Sunday, January 15, 2012

'Morgan's Astonishing Ascendancy' by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma

[Kishna Davis and Kevin Short]

Today we present an article on the success of the Music Department at Morgan State University.  The author is Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma. is proud to have him as its principal advisor:

My first contact with Morgan State University came in 1972 when we were planning the first of what became a series of symposia on orchestral music by Black composers. I have no idea why Baltimore was selected for this event -- the decision rested with Dr. Paul Freeman, then on the conducting staff of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, with whom I had only recently established a long-term. Paul, a genius both on and off the podium, had enlisted support from area funding organizations and the three major schools: Johns Hopkins University, Goucher College, and Morgan. The events included panel discussions and the reading of selected orchestral works, as well as a formal concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Participants included George Walker and Ulysses Kay -- both already legends -- flutist D. Antoinette Handy (who was later to head the music program at the National Endowment for the Arts), and a student composer, Jalalu Kalvert Nelson (later to secure many multi-media performances while in residence in the Netherlands), while the unheralded auditors included Ornette Coleman). Morgan's choir was secured for a performance of William Grant Still's Sahdji. Nathan Carter had just began his tenure as the school's chorus two years earlier but was already leading the ensemble toward the international distinction it was to earn before Nathan's death in 2004.

The idea of my joining Morgan's faculty came up in 1974 when we were relaxing at our hotel in Helsinki, where the choir was engaged in a performance and Columbia Records's recording of my edition of the Nunes-García Requiem (at Finlandia Hall they also performed Prokoviev's Alexander Nevsky -- in Russian! -- some of the kids had never been outside of inner-city Baltimore and even fewer had ever flown before). I did not hesitate to accept the offer and began my stay the very next year, remaining until I was asked to join the Center for Black Music Research in 1990.

The physical facilities of the music department were then close to miserable, but a justified belief in the school's future justified secure loyalty. There was also the presence on the vocal faculty of Joseph Eubanks and Betty Ridgeway, who had begun turning out the vocal talents for the choir. Before I moved to Chicago, with my heart remaining at Morgan, Nathan had evolved from a modest conductor into a world figure, and the school had graduated some undeniably embryonic vocal stars.

Shortly before he died, Nathan invited me back. The rumors that had already reached me were confirmed when we met: he was not well, yet he retained a super-human schedule. Without comment, I knew my visit was a farewell. The cancer won in 2004. But this was a chance to let me see the new facilities. There is no music school I have ever visited in the United States, Europe, or the Caribbean, to rival the new Murphy Fine Arts Building (named for the publishing family of the venerable Afro-American). It remains in that class, but also a monument to the musician whose dream it makes manifest and an extraordinary stimulus for future students of this urban open-admissions campus. The season after my visit, the larger of the three concert halls was to be the venue for the Baltimore Opera Company.

Any anxiety about a short-lived Golden Age was quickly eased under the administrative guidance and baton of Dr. Conway, more than a brilliant pianist from the prestigious studio of Leon Fleisher, who had also enjoyed major experiences as conductor. As Eric's vision begins to move the music program and the choir to even greater contributions, he has now made plans for four campus performances in March and April of Porgy and Bess, with world-class soloists, Kishna Davis and Kevin Short, both graduates from Betty Ridgeway's studio and former Morgan choristers, in the title roles. This will be without question a major event in Baltimore's history and that of P&B, fully worthy of national notice. For reservations, call the ticket office: 443-885-4440.
Dominique-René de Lerma
[Conductor Paul Freeman (b. 1936), and Composers José Mauricio Nunes Garcia (1767-1830), Ulysses S. Kay (1917-1995), William Grant Still (1895-1978) and George Walker (b. 1922) are profiled at, which features Works lists for Ulysses S. Kay, William Grant Still and George Walker by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma.]

1 comment:

Gwen said...

If one lives long enough positive change can return. I am happy to learn of the "ascendency" of Morgan State. I am of the generation when "Negro" colleges were institutions that honored and perpetrated "school music." It is time we remember and celebrate that heritage, again. Remember, Dr. Dett, Dr. Gatlin, Orrin Southern, and performers such as Dorothy Maynor. I do