Lucid Culture


The Catalyst Quartet Release Another Batch of Delicious Rediscoveries

The Catalyst Quartet are in the midst of a herculean project, resurrecting the work of undeservedly obscure Black American composers. At this point in history, it looks like we’ve finally reached the moment where the racist divide-and-conquer originally conceived to justify the slave trade has been pushed back under the rock from which it crawled. So the time has never been more ripe for rediscoveries like these. While the sinister forces who astroturfed CRT and BLM may be doing their best to weaponize the legacy of artists like Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, William Grant Still and George Walker for a different kind of divide-and-conquer, we mustn’t conflate those schemes with the artists. There are so many breathtaking moments in those composers’ music, and nobody knows that better than violinists Abi Fayette and Karla Donehew Perez, violist Paul Laraia and cellist Karlos Rodriguez.

Their next concert is on April 24 at 7:30 PM as part of the monthly Music Mondays free concert series at Advent Church at 93rd and Broadway on the Upper West Side, where they’re playing works by Florence Price as well as new arrangements of old spirituals, and a new setting of Langston Hughes’s poem, Kids Who Die. It’s a neighborhood institution: get there at least fifteen minutes before showtime if you want a seat.

The quartet’s latest record in their ongoing Uncovered series is the third volume – streaming at Spotify – which opens with Perkinson’s succinct three-movement String Quartet No. 1, “Calvary.” He was an interesting guy: a jazz pianist and one of the first Black American symphony orchestra conductors, who also did some memorable arranging for Marvin Gaye in the late 60s. The quartet launch into the allegro first movement with a steely focus, weaving a counterpoint around a terse oldtime gospel-flavored riff. Diffusely reflective figures, in the same vein as the Debussy string quartet, give way and then mingle with a bouncy forward drive fueled by Rodriguez. Perkinson’s subtle rhythmic shifts, up to an almost aching crescendo from the violins, are a treat.

The gospel allusions grow more distant in the adagio second movement, spiced with delicate pizzicato accents, fleeting pauses and a persistent, wistful reflection drifting on the wings of simple echo phrases. The allegro vivace conclusion is exactly that, with a muted, lilting joy that finally swoops down out of the clouds in a jubilant glissando from Fayette. It’s a translucent, fun piece that should be heard more frequently.

Next up is another terse triptych, William Grant Still’s Lyric Quartet. The use of simple, catchy blues-infused phrases and variations is similar to the album’s first piece, the group picking up with a Dvorakian blend of Americana and Eastern European chromatics in the first movement, an otherwise rather wistful portrait of a plantation – one would assume without slaves!

Movement two, a Peruvian mountainscape, is summery and even more minimalistically crafted. The third movement, presumably a portrait of an American pioneer encampment, captures an optimistic bustle as well as some deliciously fleeting chromatics.

The concluding and most challenging piece is the best-known one here, George Walker’s String Quartet No. 1. There’s a vivid, achingly Bartokian quality in the precise chromatics and sudden swells of the first movement. The molto adagio second – often played as a standalone Lyric For Strings – echoes Samuel Barber and gets a rewardingly meticulous, insightfully dynamic interpretation from the ensemble. Stormy striding motives juxtapose against moments of wary reflection in the concluding movement. Like the first two volumes in the Catalyst Quartet’s series, this has as much historical value as it does as sheer sophisticated entertainment.


April 20, 2023 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two New York Shows and a Gorgeous, Brilliant Recording of Rare Florence Price Compositions From the Catalyst Quartet

One of the most repulsive divide-and-conquer strategies in the DEI agenda is the implication that those who would advocate for undeservedly forgotten black composers are necessarily complicit in spreading WEF and UN2030 propaganda. Certainly neither this blog nor the Catalyst Quartet want you eating bugs, spending your life pilled up on antidepressants with 3D goggles welded to your skull while Bill Gates’ microchip monitors your social credit score. We just like obscure composers!

In 2021, the Catalyst Quartet – violinists Abi Fayette and Karla Donehew Perez, violist Paul Laraia and cellist Karlos Rodriguez – released a riveting collection of little-known works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the black British composer who’s recently enjoyed a well-deserved resurgence and whose output compares favorably with Dvorak. More recently, the group have put out an equally fascinating and historically important album of string quartets by 20th century black American composer Florence Price, streaming at Spotify. They’re playing some of that material on April 7-8, starting at 6 PM at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with three sets in the galleries throughout the museum. In order to catch them, you’ll have to follow the sound.

Then on April 24 at 7:30 PM they’re at Advent Church at 93rd and Broadway on the Upper West Side as part of the monthly Music Mondays free concert series, playing works by Price as well as new arrangements of old spirituals, and a new setting of Langston Hughes’s poem, Kids Who Die. How grimly appropriate for 2023!

Three of the Price quartets on the album are world premiere recordings, as is Price’s Quintet in A minor for Piano and Strings, where the ensemble are joined by pianist Michelle Cann. The five musicians open the record by bursting into the quintet, a dynamic web of blues phrasing mingled within a glittering High Romantic architecture. The quartet’s decision to opt for a stark, emotive interpretation in lieu of pervasive lushness pays mighty dividends, especially where Price’s endings and foreshadowing thereof is concerned: she is unsurpassed at those!

Increasingly triumphant violin motives take centerstage in the first movement; Price’s deft use of implied melody, particularly in the piano parts, will have you humming things that aren’t there. Shivery swells behind terse, often hushed piano cascades create a vivid nocturnal mood in the andante second movement. Movement three comes across as a more regally romping comparison to Gershwin, with a little boogie-woogie and Dvorak thrown into the mix. Emphatic triplets fuel the concluding march to a deliciously unexpected, chromatic peak: this piece alone makes the album worth owning.

Up next are Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet. She reinvents Go Down Moses in broodingly cuisinarted, understatedly slashing fashion. Then the quartet make their way from a stark initial theme to the intricate interweave in Somebody’s Knocking at Your Door. Little David, Play on Your Harp is the most lightheartedly bouncy theme here, followed by a brief, Grieg-ish dance through Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.

The initial, moody moderato movement of Price’s String Quartet in A minor follows a precise, steady web of voices and shows how much melodic impact she could make even while completely eschewing blues phrasing, until well beyond the midpoint where she introduces some subtle echo phrasing. She maintains a stern/hazy contrast in the second movement: the Debussy quartet comes to mind in places.

The group agilely follow the shifts from ragtime cheer to fleeting moments of reflection in Movement three, aptly marked “Juba.” The concluding movement circles along on a fast triplet groove with both subtle Balkan and Indian echoes. Like the other quartets here, this is a major work and deserves a place in standard repertoire.

From here the string quartet move to Price’s Five Folksongs suite. Calvary gets uneasy, airy harmonies before a steady, stern forward drive with an aurora of lightning-fast harmonics overhead, while Price’s variations on Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes stray far from the original theme (her take on My Darling Clementine is a swing-and-miss). The two most straight-up, familiar themes here are Shortnin’ Bread and Swing Low Sweet Chariot, although the latter has plenty of unexpected moments.

Price left her String Quartet in G Major unfinished. The first movement begins with tantalizing hints of blues-infused resolution, along with a seemingly tongue-in-cheek minuet and glistening, increasingly angst-fueled triplet figures. The second has a stately, spiritual atmosphere until descending to a creepy, mutedly marionettish theme and then a welcome return: masterpiece, interrupted.

The full ensemble wind up the album with the Quintet for Piano and Strings in E minor, following another of Price’s series of insistent triplet figures up to a quick piano coda. A starry Romantic waltz and then a lively, tropically-tinged dance follow in turn. This is a must-listen for anyone who loves brilliant rediscoveries.

April 2, 2023 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Catalyst Quartet Release the Most Gorgeously Memorable Album of 2021 So Far

For the most rapturously gorgeous piece of music released so far this year, cue up the Catalyst Quartet’s new recording of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Humoresque, streaming at Spotify (there’s also a live version at youtube). It starts as a quasi-Balkan dance. When the sun busts through the clouds and a chorus of sorts kicks in, it’s a gutpunch. The album it’s on, Uncovered Vol. 1, should come with one of those stickers that you sometimes see on old heavy metal and punk records from the 80s: PLAY LOUD.

The quartet’s mission in recording an all Coleridge-Taylor album is to resurrect the poignant and sublimely melodic music of this fascinating composer beyond the organ demimonde. where his works are still frequently played – at least in free parts of the world, one hopes, anyway. Coleridge-Taylor is sometimes referred to as the British Brahms, but the British Dvorak is a much better comparison (this blog rates Coleridge-Taylor a cut above both). He died tragically young. His instantly identifiable sound echoes Dvorak’s fondness for Romany riffs, but also the African-American spiritual tradition. Which is no surprise, considering that Coleridge-Taylor was black.

It’s a trip to hear the Catalyst Quartet, champions of some of the most acerbic and sometimes challenging contemporary composers, playing such unselfconsciously beautiful High Romantic music, right down to an understated, period-perfect vibrato trailing out on the longer notes and the somewhat muted sonics of the recording. And yet, this music is rich with irony and a woundedness that’s sometimes allusively vengeful. The group – violinists Karla Donehew Perez and Jessie Montgomery, violist Paul Laraia and cellist Karlos Rodriguez are joined by pianist Stewart Goodyear to open the record with Coleridge-Taylor’s Quintet in G minor for Piano and Strings, from 1893. The first movement reveals intriguing hints of both American Indian and Mexican music along with saturnine blues-tinged phrases woven into its dynamic shifts from the heroic to the pastoral.

Movement two has an opulent, tender, lullaby quality underscored by Goodyear and Laraia. The third movement has an elegant, Beethovenesque lilt but also a return to the gusty, bracing peaks of the opening theme. Goodyear’s emphatic, triumphant drive is matched by the ebullience of the strings in the conclusion, which manages to be as biting as it is cheerily catchy.

That delicious (and not necessarily amusing) Humoresque is the third movement of Coleridge-Taylor’s Fantasiestücke Op. 5, a string quartet work from two years later. The opening Prelude comes across as a comfortably dancing nocturne, the serenade of a second movement awash in rapt lustre. The Minuet and Trio are angst-tinged songs without words: it’s astonishing that nobody has ripped them off for pop songs in the century since they were written. The anthemic concluding dance is the most Dvoriakan moment here.

Anthony McGill is the soloist in the concluding piece, the Quintet in F sharp minor for Clarinet and Strings, Op. 10, from 1906. The opening movement begins with sharp contrasts between McGrill’s unassailable liquidity and the dark incisiveness of the strings, then calms, but the tension remains, Vienna versus Veracruz. The textural richness and tenderness of the second will take your breath away, while the balletesque cheer of the third prefigures Gershwin. In the conclusion, it’s fascinating to see how the composer handles his return to the conflict inherent in the introduction, for a deviously playful payoff.

Just as auspiciously, this album is the first in a planned series featuring the works of other underrated and undeservedly obscure black composers including Florence Price and William Grant Still, among many others.

February 8, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment