Monday, July 13, 2020 Tanglewood Online Festival presents World Premiere of Ulysses Kay's one-movement "Sonatine for Viola and Piano" July 31

Ulysses Kay (1917-1995)



July 13, 2020

Forced to cease normal, in-person summer operation for the first time since World War II in response to the COVID 19 pandemic, the Tanglewood Music Festival nevertheless refused to be silenced, instead taking music into the digital universe and creating the 2020 Tanglewood Online Festival.

Comprised of newly recorded and livestreamed material, archival video and audio, and a host of peripheral discussions and presentations connected with the new Tanglewood Learning Institute (TLI), the 2020 Online Festival offers patrons almost daily events throughout July and August, most ticketed, but some free of charge.

One such series of events is entitled BSO Musicians in Recital from Tanglewood. For $5 each, or $32 for the full series, patrons can view Boston Symphony Musicians performing (mostly in Studio E in the new Linde Center) 8 recital programs containing a variety of chamber music from Bach to Berio and beyond.


On July 31, another world premiere will take place – very special in that the piece itself was written in 1939, but has (by all accounts) never been publically performed before this year. It is a single-movement work by the African-American composer Ulysses Kay, called Sonatine for Viola and Piano. BSO violist Mary Ferrillo will be joined by pianist Brett Hodgdon in the performance.

“It had been a while since I had taken stock of solo (viola) repertoire,” Ferrillo said in a recent interview. “With all the unexpected time on my hands due to the COVID shutdown, I began to dig into what I had and I asked myself how inclusive that repertoire was.”

“When the virtual Tanglewood series came up, it was important to me to address the discrepancies, and I researched and found lots of wonderful music (by African-American composers) including this Ulysses Kay Sonatine for Viola and Piano,” she said. “I also got in contact with the wonderful organization “Castle Of Our Skins” and their co-founder, the violist Ashleigh Gordon. Their mission is to celebrate Black Artistry through music, and address the lack of Black voices in classical music’s oft-performed canonical repertoire.”

Ferrillo was very grateful for Gordon’s guidance and is excited to tackle works like John McLaughlin Williams’ 2 Pieces for Solo Viola, (Pulitzer-Prize-winner) George Walker’s Viola Sonata, several works by Anthony R. Green (assoc. Artistic Director of Castle of Our Skins), and Adolphus Hailstork’s Sanctum.
But first, Kay’s Sonatine.

“It’s a welcome addition to the viola repertoire,” Ferrillo said. “(The piece) explores a lot of emotional ground. It is unabashedly romantic, but also combines virtuosic sweeps with some musical sweetness.” She detects the probable influence of Kay’s Eastman teacher Howard Hanson, but says, “It’s remarkably a self-assured musical voice for someone so young – Kay would have been 22 in 1939.”

Born in 1917 in Tucson, Arizona, Kay was the son of a singing cowboy barber and an amateur pianist, and the nephew of jazz cornetist Joseph “King” Oliver. Kay recalled his famous uncle’s advice to his mother - “…give the boy piano lessons, so he can learn the rudiments – and then he’ll find what he wants to do in music.”

Piano lessons proved fruitful, and Kay did indeed find what he wanted to do in music, sealing the deal with a visit to composer William Grant Still during his college years at the University of Arizona and the Eastman School of Music. At Eastman, several of Kay’s works were performed, including his Sinfonietta for Orchestra and Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra.

The summer following his graduation from Eastman, Kay won a scholarship to Tanglewood, where he studied with Paul Hindemith, and continued on to work with Hindemith at Yale during 1941-42.

Mary Ferrillo shares the Tanglewood connection with Kay. She was a Tanglewood Music Center Fellow for three summers, 2012-2014, and received the Maurice Schwartz Prize there in 2014. She returned to Tanglewood as a member of the New Fromm Players in 2016 and 2017, premiering compositions by John Harbison, Joseph Phibbs, Kui Dong, and Marc Neikrug among others.

The kinds of things she learned while working directly with those living composers to bring their music to premiere resonates with her work on the Kay Sonatine.

“Though this piece is technically 80 years old,” Ferrillo explained, “the fact that there were no performances to listen to meant that I had no preconceived ideas of what it should be, and it felt like a very collaborative experience even though I could never meet Kay. You may be physically alone in the room, but it’s a dialogue – you ask ‘Is this what you meant? Does this choice I’m making satisfy your vision?’ It’s as if Ulysses Kay was sitting in the room nodding or shaking his head.”

Kay would go on from the Sonatine and his student works at Arizona, Eastman, and Tanglewood, to write in every genre of classical music, producing symphonic works, band works, choral works, ballets, and several operas, including The Boor, The Juggler of Our Lady, Jubilee, and Frederick Douglass. He was the first African-American to win the Prix de Rome (he won it twice, in 1946 and 1949). Several Guggenheim grants, a Fulbright Scholarship, and a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship were among subsequent honors bestowed upon Kay. He held a position at Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) from 1953-1968, but turned down several teaching positions (from at least nine colleges and universities) in order to preserve his composing time.

In 1949 he married Barbara Harrison, also a musician, and Kay’s muse throughout the remainder of his life (he died in 1995). During Kay’s tenure at BMI, she taught music in Manhattan. During the 1960s, she was active in the Civil Rights Movement, participating in the Mississippi Freedom Rides, the New Jersey Englewood Movement, and the “March Against Fear.” The couple had three daughters.

For information on how to access this July 31 performance and any other part of the Tanglewood 2020 Online Festival, visit the Boston Symphony at

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