When I select which discs I wish to review I choose either music by composers I know and admire or music by composers I don’t know at all. If the former I opt for music I don’t know or don’t know well. Either way it’s all in an effort at extending my musical knowledge. When I spotted a disc in the list entitled Music by African-American Composers for Clarinet and Piano
I was intrigued. I knew that it must contain music by composers I didn’t know.
In the event, of the ten composers here I knew of only two: William Grant Still and Scott Joplin. Just as I was stupefied to learn just how many women composers there were I have also been similarly surprised to learn how many African-American composers there are. Conventional “wisdom” has led us to believe that “serious” music is the province mainly of the white western male. How refreshing it is, therefore, to have our preconceptions challenged and often wrought asunder! This disc should certainly help in this process and, incidentally, apart perhaps from Joplin’s contribution, no one would guess the background of any of these composers solely by the music itself.
So, ten composers and ten works; I feel like a contestant on the long-running British radio panel game “Just a minute” which requires talking for a minute on a subject without hesitation, deviation or repetition. That said, I’m going to be hard pressed to avoid repetition. Why? Because the music is all uniformly excellent and I don’t know enough superlatives to choose different words each time.
The disc opens with a short chamber work Night Fantasy
by Dorothy Rudd Moore. It is one of the more “modern” works on the disc. It is a wonderfully evocative work conjuring up the spirit world. The clarinet first of all weaves a beautifully simple tune in the first movement, Largo
, and then, with spiky rhythms, dances Puck-like in the second effusive and sparkling Allegro
. The composer was yet another student of that doyen of music teachers Nadia Boulanger. The second short piece is taken from a larger chamber work and was arranged by the composer for clarinet and piano. It is very much in the spirit of the first work and could almost be a third movement of that. It is a wonderfully playful piece in which both the clarinet and piano duet, almost mirroring each other in every note.
New Orleans native Batiste was principally known and respected as an avant-garde jazz clarinettist who famously played with the likes of Ornette Coleman and ‘Cannonball’ Adderley. This will also come as a surprise to anyone who may believe that jazz and classical music composers cannot exist side by side. Clarence Cameron White’s Basque Folk Song
is a wonderfully descriptive piece with a simple beauty that is enchanting. A professor at Virginia State University for forty years Undine Smith Moore’s Introduction and Allegro
is another delightful work that, like the others, though short in length, makes up for it in the wealth of ideas within its brief span. There’s a real dialogue between the two instruments that end their conversation in the middle of a “sentence”. The beautiful piece Pastorale
from Scenes for Nigeria
is by Samuel Akpabot. Strictly speaking he was not an ‘African-American’ but rather an African composer who spent a great deal of time pursuing a career in the USA. Be that as it may, this extract from a longer work shows him to have been an extremely sensitive composer. This short piece is very emotive and quite melancholy in its treatment of the melody; a hymn to his native country.
A complete change of tempo comes next with Quincy Hilliard’s Coty
which is in three short movements. The first of these, Daybreak
, is a frenetic race for both clarinet and piano to reach its end before the other. The calm second is entitled Sunset
and is relaxed and lyrical. The piece ends with Dance
which is jerky sounding duo. William Grant Still is a name I’m sure most listeners will be familiar with. He is probably the best known of all African-American composers and his Romance
justifies that position. It is a gorgeous song without words that allows the clarinet fully to exploit its most attractive notes with a lovely piano accompaniment.
Scott Joplin, whose rag The Entertainer
made its composer famous through its use in the 1973 hit film The Sting
with Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Robert Shaw, This led to its achieving hit status for its arranger and huge interest in Joplin’s music (at last!) including Weeping Willow
. It is a charming two-step that convincingly describes a swaying willow in that winning way that Joplin naturally possessed. Soul Bird
by Todd Cochran is beautifully soulful. It perfectly captures the nature of a bird as the clarinet awakes and flies around against the background of the piano before finally resuming its sleep.
Todd Cochran is yet another composer whose career has included a period in which he embraced jazz and he played piano with the great jazz multi instrumentalist Rashaan Roland Kirk, not that you’d guess from this lovely uncomplicated tune. The final piece on the disc is a really attractive arrangement of Amazing Grace
attributed to H. Stevenson about whom nothing is written in the notes and about whom I could find nothing anywhere. The arrangement brings out the best elements of the tune and allows you to hear it afresh in a charming display of the clarinet’s attributes.
Marcus Eley has done a great service to African-American composers. He is a brilliantly talented advocate for his instrument who successfully exploits everything a clarinet can do while Lucerne DeSa is an extremely sympathetic partner. Together they have created a disc of unalloyed joy. I sincerely hope that there will be more in the pipeline as he suggests this is only the tip of a musical iceberg in terms of similar works by other unknown composers.
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