Saturday, December 29, 2012

MusicWeb-International on Marcus Eley, clarinet & Lucerne DeSa, piano: 'together they have created a disc of pure unalloyed joy'

But Not Forgotten – Music by African-American composers for Clarinet & Piano
Marcus Eley (clarinet), Lucerne DeSa (piano)

rec. at Endler Concert Hall, University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch, South Africa, July 13, 2009
Recording, Editing & Mixing Engineer: Gerhard Roux, Mastering Engineer: Jay Frigoletto.

Sono Luminus DSL-92156 [50:02]

...together they have created a disc of pure unalloyed joy.”

When I select which discs I wish to review I choose either music by composers I know and admire, trying to choose music I don’t know or don’t know well or I choose music by composers I don’t know at all to try and extend my musical knowledge. Therefore, when I spotted a disc in the list entitled Music by African-American Composers for Clarinet & Piano I was intrigued because I knew that it must contain music by composers I didn’t know. In the event of the 10 composers here I knew of only two, William Grant Still and Scott Joplin. Just as I was stupefied to learn just how many women composers there were I have also been similarly surprised to learn how many African-American composers there are as conventional “wisdom” has led us to believe that “serious” music is the province mainly of the white western male. How refreshing it is, therefore, to have our preconceptions challenged and often wrought asunder! 
This disc should certainly help in this process and, incidentally, apart perhaps from Joplin’s contribution, no one would guess the background of any of these composers solely by the music itself. So, ten composers and ten works; I feel like a contestant on the long-running British radio panel game “Just a minute” which requires talking for a minute on a subject without hesitation, deviation or repetition because I’m going to be hard pressed to avoid repetition. Why?, because the music is all uniformly excellent and I don’t know enough superlatives to choose different words each time. The disc opens with a short chamber work Night Fantasy by Dorothy Rudd Moore and it is one of the more “modern” works on the disc. It is a wonderfully evocative work conjuring up the spirit world as the clarinet first of all weaves a beautifully simple tune in the first movement, Largo, and then, with spiky rhythms, dances Puck-like in the second effusive and sparkling Allegro. The composer was yet another student of that doyen of music teachers Nadia Boulanger. 
The second short piece is taken from a larger chamber work and was arranged by the composer for clarinet and piano. It is very much in the spirit of the first work and could almost be a third movement of that and is a wonderfully playful piece in which both the clarinet and piano duet, almost mirroring each other in every note. New Orleans native Batiste was principally known and respected as an avant-garde jazz clarinettist who famously played with the likes of Ornette Coleman and ‘Cannonball’ Adderley and that will also be a surprise to any who may believe that jazz and classical music composers cannot exist side by side. Clarence Cameron White’s Basque Folk Song is a wonderfully descriptive piece with a simple beauty that is enchanting. A professor at Virginia State University for 40 years Undine Smith Moore’s Introduction and Allegro is another delightful work that, like the others, though short in length, makes up for it in the wealth of ideas within its brief span with a real dialogue between the two instruments that end their conversation in the middle of a “sentence”. 
The beautiful piece Pastorale from Scenes for Nigeria is by Samuel Akpabot, who, strictly speaking was not an ‘African-American’ composer but rather an African composer who spent a great deal of time pursuing a career in the USA. Be that as it may this extract from a longer work shows him to have been an extremely sensitive composer and this short piece is very emotive and quite melancholy in its treatment of the hymn like melody; a hymn to his native country. A complete change of tempo comes next with Quincy Hilliard’s Coty which is in three short movements, the first of which Daybreak, is a frenetic race for both clarinet and piano to reach its end before the other whilst the calm second entitled Sunset is relaxed and lyrical. The piece ends with Dance which is a jerky sounding duo. William Grant Still is a name I'm sure most listeners will be familiar with as he is probably the best known of all African-American composers and his Romance justifies that position as it is a gorgeous song without words that allows the clarinet to fully exploit its most attractive notes with a lovely piano accompaniment. Scott Joplin, whose rag The Entertainer made its composer famous through its use in the 1973 hit film The Sting with Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Robert Shaw and lead to its achieving hit status for its arranger and huge interest in Joplin’s music (at last!), composed Weeping Willow. It is a charming two-step that convincingly describes a swaying willow in that winning way that Joplin naturally possessed. 
Soul Bird by Todd Cochran is a beautifully soulful tune that perfectly captures the nature of a bird as the clarinet awakes and flies around against the background of the piano before finally resuming its sleep. Todd Cochran is yet another composer whose career has included a period in which he embraced jazz and he played piano with the great jazz multi instrumentalist Rashaan Roland Kirk, not that you’d guess from this lovely uncomplicated tune. The final piece on the disc is a really attractive arrangement of Amazing Grace attributed to H. Stevenson about whom nothing is written in the notes and about whom I could find nothing anywhere. The arrangement brings out the best elements of the tune and allows you to hear it afresh in a charming display of the attributes of the wonderful instrument that the clarinet is. Marcus Eley has done a great service to African-American composers and is a brilliantly talented advocate for his instrument who successfully exploits everything a clarinet can do while Lucerne DeSa is an extremely sympathetic partner and together they have created a disc of pure unalloyed joy. I sincerely hope that there will be more in the pipeline as he suggests this is only the tip of a musical iceberg in terms of similar works by other unknown composers.
Steve Arloff
[Samuel Akpabot, Scott Joplin and William Grant Still are profiled at, which features a complete Works List for William Grant Still by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma,]

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