Catalyst Quartet shines the spotlight on the chamber music of black composers

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The Catalyst Quartet: violist Paul Laraia (left), cellist Karlos Rodriguez and violinists Abi Fayette and Karla Donehew Perez. Photo: Ricardo Quinones

Even in 2021, it shouldn’t be assumed that the works we regularly hear in concert halls and on recordings represent all the music that is truly worth hearing. The richest truth – both frustrating and exhilarating – is that there are mountains of rewarding music from composers who have been overlooked by history for one reason or another.

Let’s not be shy about it: one of the main causes of this neglect is race. And race is at the heart of the formation of “Uncovered,” the ambitious programming and recording project first undertaken in 2018 by the Catalyst Quartet.

Over the course of four recordings screened on the Azica label – the first of which has already been released and the second is slated for release in February – the group plans to perform and record all of the string quartet music written by six prominent black composers.

The goal, cellist Karlos Rodriguez told The Chronicle in a phone interview, is to make sure these pieces come out of the shadows and enter the mainstream of performance practice.

“It all started during a summer in-room program at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia,” he recalls. “Our fellow faculty members continued to bring this incredible repertoire, but much of it was hard to find. These were songs for which there were no recordings, and so it was not scheduled. Or they were songs that people had heard of but didn’t know where to find the music.

“So we decided to record all of these songs – just put them down and we’d be done with the conversation about people who can’t know or find this music.”

The selected musicians cover a range of geography, style and historical eras, from 18th-century French composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, to African-American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, who died in 2004. Between the two, the late 19th century English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and three other prominent 20th century African-American composers: William Grant Still, Florence Price, and George Walker.

Some of the results of that work are being rolled out in four recitals this season for San Francisco Performances. The October opening included an appearance by pianist Stewart Goodyear. For the next recital, scheduled for Thursday, November 11, clarinetist Anthony McGill is expected to join the ensemble to music by Perkinson, Price and Coleridge-Taylor.

But that’s only a fraction of the material that the quartet – which also includes violinists Karla Donehew Perez and Abi Fayette, and violist Paul Laraia – are integrating. By the end, Perez said, the band will have added around 30 quartets to their active repertoire, a learning process for the band and its listeners.

“This must have been like reading a Brahms quartet or something similar for the first time,” she said. “Most of these works have zero or one recording, so it’s up to us to create an original interpretation. There is a lot of pressure, but it is also extremely rewarding work.

The Catalyst Quartet Photo: Ricardo Quinones

For most of the composers represented, forgetting history only echoes the struggles they faced in their lifetime. Coleridge-Taylor, for example, was championed by Elgar but was continually frustrated in his career aspirations. (The repeated names are potentially confusing but no coincidence: Coleridge-Taylor was named after the Romantic poet, and Perkinson in turn was named after him.) Price’s music was only heard widely. recently, almost 70 years after his death in 1953..

To some extent, issues of racial diversity are ingrained in Catalyst history. The group was founded in 2010 by the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based company dedicated to promoting the careers of black and Latin classical musicians, and three of the members are Latinx (Fayette succeeded African-American composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery in the group list). But Rodriguez, who is Cuban-American, insists that diversifying the performing repertoire is a task that can and should be left to anyone.

“It’s not the job of people of color to right everyone’s wrongs. I don’t think music belongs to a race. Music is for everyone, ”Rodriguez said. “It is certainly not the sole responsibility of black artists to promote, perform and record the music of black artists. It’s like saying that only Germans should play German music.

As the ensemble deepens this repertoire, the process consists of immersing yourself in the sound universe of each composer.

“Music has existed in a tradition at one point in time that we’re not a part of,” Rodriguez said, “and unlike contemporary music, we don’t have direct communication with the composer. So what we tended to do was look at the music that surrounded these composers, and see what they were drawing from.

“Florence Price, for example, draws a lot from the spiritual and popular songs of her time. So we did some research, say, on the first recording of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ to find out what she might have heard.

The music of Florence Price (1887-1953) has only recently been widely distributed. Photo: University of Arkansas Libraries

The goal, ultimately, is to help create a performance tradition that brings this music back from obscurity. Perez again cites Brahms as a contrasting example.

“If you were hearing Brahms today for the first time, with no idea what the tradition of the show was, you would probably think his music is really weird. That’s the situation with these songs, because they haven’t had 10, 15, or 100 artists playing them over and over.

While the group claim to have covered all of the string quartet music of historically significant black composers, the truth is that this is only the beginning of an ongoing unveiling in the musical world. Just as a volume of “Uncovered” grew to four, a similar endeavor could be undertaken with other marginalized groups.

“It could happen with Latin music, with Asian music, with music by gay composers,” Rodriguez said. “There are a million directions he could go. People are strong and specific about it, and that’s fine with us.”

Catalyst Quartet with clarinetist Anthony McGill: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, November 11. $ 45- $ 65. Herbst Theater, 401 avenue Van Ness, SF 415-392-2545. www.sfperformances.org


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