A refreshing influx of music composed by black people


There’s so much going on as the classical music world embraces the repertoire of black composers that it’s hard to keep up. Seeing gig listings with names like Jessie Montgomery, Valerie Coleman, Florence Price and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is always remarkable but not at all unusual. Five years ago, could you even name a black composer? In fact, I bet you could, because if you’re of a certain age, you’ll probably remember Scott Joplin. Thanks to the hit 1973 film “The Sting,” starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman, Joplin’s piano rags like “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag” became the soundtrack of a decade.

With her delicious new CD “Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered”, pianist Lara Downes puts Joplin back in the mix. Downes has been devoting his considerable talents to new, forgotten and rediscovered music for some time and has amassed a significant discography, mostly of American classics, along the way. Many of his other records, like “America Reconsidered” and “Remembering Lenny,” are thoughtful collections of shorter works.

Local audiences have two upcoming opportunities to hear Downes in concert. First up is a recital at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 14 presented by SPAC and the Massry Center at Skidmore College. In his 90-minute schedule, Downes will play selections from Joplin, Price, Gould, Arlen, Beach, Holiday and Gershwin, among others. During this visit to the region, Downes will also lead workshops at the Charlton School in Burnt Hills and give a masterclass at Skidmore.

Downes will return on August 4 during the second week of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s residency at SPAC where she will perform Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement as well as Strayhorn’s Concerto, which combines three songs by Billy Strayhorn arranged by the composer Chris Walden. The latter was co-commissioned by SPAC and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

In his Joplin CD, Downes shows a nice sensitivity to the 17 tracks, both the favorites and some lesser-known selections, like “Reflection Rage” and “Solace.” But everything has a sympathetic familiarity and charm. On eight of the tracks, Downes is joined by a soloist or ensemble. “The Entertainer” duet with mandolin was strange and surprising. On the other hand, when Downes is joined by a string trio and clarinet in “Maple Leaf Rag” and “Magnetic Rag,” the results sound like an old-time dance hall. It was then.

A few of the selections also include vocals. Baritone Will Leverman lends rugged dignity to the tearful ballad “A Picture of Her Face,” and the CD ends with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus singing “A Real Slow Drag,” a lovely piece from Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha.” .

It’s in the book essay by Downes that she explains a bit about why the record is called “Scott Joplin Reconsidered.” The original ragtime craze took place in the mid-1890s and 1897, when the music was fresh, even radical. The St. Louis Dispatch described the brand’s twitches as “a true call of the wild.” The way Downes puts it is that Joplin created the opening of the 20th century, including jazz, rock and blues.

As for the 1970s, ragtime provided a carefree emotional uplift to American audiences after the traumas of JKF, Vietnam and Watergate. It will probably take more than a few cheerful tunes to soothe the restless spirits of our present times. But hey, let’s welcome it back.

On a personal level, Downes writes that Joplin served him as an early historical example of a musician who flourished in classical and popular forms. With artists as communicative and versatile as her among us, maybe everything will be fine.

Walker’s Piano Sonatas

If composer George Walker, who died in 2018, had lived only a few more years, he might have reached his centenary in 2022. More importantly, he would also have witnessed the current source of interest in his music. . Walker was the first black person to study in France 47 with Nadia Boulanger, the first to enter the Curtis Music Institute, and the first to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Obviously, it did not go completely unnoticed. Albany Records released many records of his music which were supervised and sometimes performed by the composer who was also an excellent pianist.

The time has come for a wider embrace of Walker’s music and a new release by pianist Steve Beck on Bridge Records shows off the strengths of his keyboard writing. Beck gives beautiful and muscular accounts of Walker’s five sonatas, which date from 1953 to 2003.

The evolution of the composer’s musical language reflects his time. The first sonata combines youthful vigor with gnarled but mostly tonal counterpoint. The kinetic energy never wanes, even as the writing ventures further into atonal rigor in later sonatas. The final entry is a single movement of barely five minutes, written when the composer was 80 years old. It’s a breathtaking download of ideas and statements that, in Beck’s strong hands, is delivered with defiance and confidence.

ASO does its part

When it comes to promoting composers from diverse backgrounds, the Albany Symphony has been ahead of the field for many years. But that hasn’t stopped music director David Alan Miller from stepping up his game in this new era. In the just-announced 2022-23 season, he’s giving prominent roles on nearly every program to people of color, whether as songwriters, performers, or both. The season runs from October 8 to June 10, 2023. Highlights include the return of Carol Jantsch, principal tuba of the Philadelphia Orchestra, performing a new concerto by John Harbison in November, and percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie in a Kamran Ince concerto in January. March’s program includes Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony and Viet Cuong’s new Concerto for Orchestra, while in Albany, Pro Musica sings in Beethoven’s Ninth. For the June 2023 edition of the American Music Festival, the orchestra will finally perform music by Albany native Adolphus Hailstork, and jazz violinist Regina Carter will premiere a new concerto by Patrice Rushen.

Speaking of the annual American Music Festival, this year’s edition will not take place at its usual venue EMPAC, which remains closed. The full orchestra concert on Saturday, June 4 will take place at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. The venue for the previous night’s Dogs of Desire concert has yet to be announced. “Trail Blaze NY” is this year’s theme and additional performances will continue throughout the 4th of July weekend with concerts in Schuylerville, Kingston, Hudson, Schenectady, Albany and Amsterdam. Most of these family events will take place outdoors.

Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.


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