Saturday, February 13, 2021 3 New Albums Retell the History of Black Composers: Recordings by the pianist Lara Downes, the Catalyst Quartet and the baritone Will Liverman

Credit...Max Barrett; Ricardo Quiñones; Jaclyn Simpson

The New York Times

Music can’t survive on its own. Composers not entrenched in the canon need support: from publishers, from foundations, from performers. Without these champions, it’s all too easy to slide into obscurity.

Three projects — by the Catalyst Quartet; the baritone Will Liverman; and the pianist Lara Downes — consider another avenue for maintaining a legacy: recordings. Gone are the days when classical albums could be relied on as moneymakers. But in the age of streaming, they are endlessly accessible, easy to disseminate and, in the case of these new releases, ideal for spreading the word about overlooked composers of color, whose music often exists in varying states of disrepair.

Recordings have helped propel the recent revivals of Julius Eastman and Florence Price, whose works are held up by scholars and critics today but languished for decades — neglected for a variety of reasons, including race.

When a friend of mine, the musicologist Jacques Dupuis, programmed Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Endymion’s Dream” a few years ago for the Boston ensemble Calliope, the only full score of it he could find was a rare holograph at the Library of Congress. So he traveled to Washington and spent dozens of hours transcribing it and creating a performing edition. A video of the resulting concert is the only available recording of the piece.

“I’m not sure that would be sustainable as a regular practice without robust institutional support,” he said, “which speaks to some of the hurdles in bringing equity and diversity to music programming.”

The Catalyst Quartet’s Uncovered project began in 2018, growing from an initial idea of performing and recording a program of works by a few underrepresented composers. That quickly blossomed into something more ambitious: a series of focused surveys, beginning with music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Coleridge-Taylor, born to a white mother and Black father in Britain in 1875, wrote the pieces on “Uncovered, Vol. 1” while he was a student at the Royal College of Music in London. Although they reflect the influence of Brahms and Dvorak, as the violinist and scholar Matthew Leslie Santana observes in the album’s liner notes, they have the feel of “a new music project,” said Karlos Rodriguez, the quartet’s cellist.

“Except it of course isn’t new, and now it’s redefining the canon,” Rodriguez added. He pointed to the Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp minor: “You think of Brahms and Mozart clarinet quintets, but this is up there. It holds its own.”

“Uncovered, Vol. 1,” released earlier this month on the Azica label, features Catalyst — the violinists Karla Donehew Perez and Jessie Montgomery, the violist Paul Laraia and Rodriguez — in three early Coleridge-Taylor works, including quintets performed with the pianist Stewart Goodyear and Anthony McGill, the New York Philharmonic’s principal clarinet. (Montgomery, increasingly in demand as a composer, left the quartet last month and was succeeded by Abi Fayette.)

Preparation for the Coleridge-Taylor album — and future installments of Uncovered, which continues with a Florence Price recording — didn’t come as easily as, say, a recording of Beethoven quartets. The scores were not always readily available, and there wasn’t an established interpretation history.  

No comments: