Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

An Entertaining, Energetic Mix of Rarities by Black Composers From Over the Years

Violinist Randall Goosby’s new album Roots, streaming at Spotify, is a fascinating, revealing and entertaining collection of music by black composers plus a couple of ringers whose most famous works were enriched by the influence of 19th and early 20th century black American music. Goosby and his inspired collaborators shift energetically through a wide expanse of styles, from rustic oldtime string band sounds, to thorny 20th century composition and a wealth of edgy blues.

He opens with Xavier Foley‘s Shelter Island, a new duo work where he’s joined by the bassist-composer in a leaping feast of minor-key blues and gospel riffage. It validates the argument that guys on the low end of the four strings are ideally suited to write for their fellow players further up the scale.

Next on the bill is Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s bracing triptych Blues Forms For Solo Violin. It’s a Schoenbergian series of short variations on blues phrases, with a lingering, aching close-harmonied midsection and a coda that reaches toward oldtime gospel jubilation. The composer was an interesting guy, a jazz musician who toward the end of his career paid the bills by writing far more pedestrian charts for 1960s top 40 hitmakers.

On the better-known side, Gershwin – one of the original white bluesmen – is represented by four short numbers from Porgy and Bess. Pianist Zhu Wang joins Goosby in an elegantly ornamented, more than distantly troubled new arrangement of Summertime. Likewise, the two infuse A Woman Is a Sometime Thing with a stark ragtime energy.

Their incisive, tango-like strut and bluesy ornamentation in It Ain’t Necessarily So add a playfully devious edge. And they raise Bess You Is My Woman Now to a confidently restrained triumph.

Goosby brings Wang back for William Grant Still’s three-part Suite for Violin and Piano, beginning with the African Dance, whose shifting blues riffage and deliciously hard-charging conclusion make it a mini-suite in itself. Part two, Mother and Child rises fascinatingly from a lingering somberness to an assertive, Asian-tinged pentatonic theme and then a similarly triumphant ending. The two shuffle and flurry through Garmin, the jaunty conclusion.

The duo continue with three pieces by Florence Price. Adoration is a spare, rapt love ballad. Goosby gets to revel in the sharp-fanged cadenzas and resonant gospel lulls in her Fantasie No. 1 in G minor as Wang mashes up the blues with High Romantic phantasmagoria. The Fantasie No. 2 in F# minor starts as a more starkly pensive take on the same blend – blues melody, big Romantic chords and flourishes – and grows more lively.

Goosby and Wang play Maud Powell’s arrangement of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Deep River, leaping from gospel reverence to one of the composer’s signature sizzling crescendos. In many ways, the black British composer – who was a star conductor during his late 19th century heyday – was Dvorak in reverse. Where Dvorak brought Eastern Europe to the blues, Coleridge-Taylor did the opposite, with considerably wilder results.

The choice of Dvorak’s Sonatina in G major as a conclusion subtly brings the album full circle. It’s closer to courtly late Habsburg Empire music than 19th century spirituals, but the connection is still vivid, especially in the plaintive, wistful cadences and contrasting camp-meeting liveliness of the second movement. The two musicians bring an anthemic, occasionally coyly romping sensibility to the opening allegro, linger in the occasional moment of hazy unease in the scherzo and build folksy flair in the coda.

Much as it’s a great thing that music by neglected black composers is making a huge comeback, we need to make sure that this movement doesn’t get hijacked by the fascists who devised critical race theory as a smokescreen for the New Abnormal. One suspects that Goosby would heartily endorse that dedication to the cause.

December 28, 2021 Posted by | blues music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Overlook Champion Exhilarating, Riveting Works by Black Composers

Tuesday evening at the Hispanic Society of America, violinist Ravenna Lipchik of the Overlook flashed a knowing grin to her violist bandmate Angela Pickett, seconds before the string quartet launched into the third movement of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Fantasie-Stücke. With a passionate, syncopated pulse, a breathtaking melody burst out from the strings of the four women gathered in the front of the basement-level gallery space. This wasn’t exactly a witchy tarantella, or a slashing Balkan dance, but it had elements of both, blended into a breathtaking High Romantic triumph that quickly became the most exhilarating interlude anyone in New York has played for an audience this year.

Wow.

Admittedly, by normal standards, the number of concerts in this city this year has been the lowest on record since probably the 1700s. Still, this was a reminder of everything that was stolen from us during the lockdown – and what we need to get back, and this new string quartet are at the front of the pack leading the way.

The Overlook dedicate themselves to resurrecting material by undeservedly obscure black composers, and championing this era’s crop. Coleridge-Taylor’s five-part suite – recently recorded by another paradigm-shifting group, the Catalyst Quartet – was the legacy piece. Until recently, this once famous composer, conductor and contemporary of Dvorak and Brahms was largely forgotten outside of the organ demimonde. Judging from the rest of his work that’s recently been revived, he’s long overdue.

Coleridge-Taylor’s chamber music is more Slavic than Dvorak and has the same kind of playfulness and intricacy as Razumovsky Quartet-era Beethoven, combined with sometimes stark, sometimes stirring elements of African-American blues and gospel music. This piece had all of that, a gorgeously bittersweet theme and variations along with a devious return to that blazing dance before a somewhat more mutedly heroic coda.

The ensemble – which also includes cellist Laura Metcalf and violinist Monica Davis – bookended the piece with two more recent but equally fascinating works. Guest Tanya Birl-Torres introduced Leila Adu‘s If the Stars Align with a brief meditation suggesting we connect to a comfortable space in between the earth that grounds us, and the world above which gives us life.

Adu is better known as a singer of ornate, soaring art-rock, in a Kate Bush vein, so this was a revelation The music was deceptively simple, built around a series of subtly, increasingly complex gestures that grew into a more complex web, following a steady counterpoint, a series of handoffs and catch-and-follow. There was also a bustling, vividly urban interlude complete with sirens and busy crowds, as well as a flurrying intensity with echoes of Kurdish folk music.

Birl-Torres also served as narrator during the hazy, enigmatic introduction to the concluding work, Shelley Washington’s Middleground. The quartet dug into the piece’s insistent minimalism, akin to a similarly rhythmic but somewhat gentler Julia Wolfe, expanding a steady interweave, its close harmonies and short, emphatic gestures echoing the night’s first piece.

The Overlook’s next scheduled performance is Sept 12 at 4 PM with music by Eleanor Alberga, Florence Price, and Chevalier de Saint-Georges at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, 65 Jumel Terrace about a block south of 162nd St. in Washington Heights, The concert is free; take the A/C to 163rd St.

July 12, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, 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