b. August 15, 1875 / Holborn, London, UK
d. September 1, 1912 / Croydon, Surrey, UK
Four Novelletten for Violin and Strings, Op. 52 (1903)
III No. 3 in A minor – Valse: Andante con moto
The program begins with a movement from the Novelletten for strings and percussion by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. He was born in Victorian England in 1875, the son of a white English woman and a black father originally from Sierra Leone, who was training to be a doctor in the UK. Samuel’s father was frustrated by the racial prejudice he faced and chose to leave the UK and work as a doctor in Africa. Young Samuel was raised within his mother’s quite musical family, where he blossomed. His mother named him after Samuel Taylor-Coleridge (born 100 years earlier), the British poet whose works she adored. He studied composition at the Royal College of Music under the tutelage of Stanford.
Coleridge-Taylor’s African roots descend from a group of American slaves who remained loyal to the British crown throughout the American revolutionary war, and who were returned to West Africa after the United States gained its independence. By the early 20th century Samuel’s international celebrity had increased, and he travelled frequently to the United States. There he pursued his interested in musical forms being written and played by black musicians in America. He was fascinated with Native American stories and themes, which gave rise to his popular musical trilogy: Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, The Death of Minnehaha, and Hiawatha’s Departure.
Sadly, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor died tragically young, at the age of 37, from pneumonia. Although his printed music was widely circulated and immensely popular, he saw little of the money that should rightly have come his way. He had often sold his works outright, for immediate cash, without maintaining his copyright. His legacy continues to be explored and his importance appreciated as an artist who championed social awareness and the music of marginalized people.
b. June 27, 1922 / Washington, DC, USA
d. August 23, 2018 / Montclair NJ, USA
In 2001, the eminent radio host, producer and interviewer Bruce Duffie had a dilemma. The station where he had worked for some 25 years, WNIB, Classical 97.1 FM, was about to cease operations. Duffie would be on the air when the transmitter was switched off. So, what piece of music should he present as the longstanding station’s swan song? He chose Lyric for Strings, by the American composer George Walker. It was an unusual, but wholly appropriate selection.
George Walker was born in Washington D.C. in 1922. He completed high school at the age of 14 and received a piano scholarship to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. Following his graduation in 1941, he enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he began piano studies with Rudolf Serkin, and composition with Rosario Scalero. The latter would prove to be the more influential figure.
Walker was a man of many firsts. In 1945, he became the first African-American pianist to play a recital at New York's Town Hall, the first Black pianist to play as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the first Black graduate from Curtis. But even after signing with a major artist’s management agency and touring Europe, he soon realized that his prospects were limited. As he told The New York Times, “Because I was Black, I couldn’t get either major or minor dates. From the outset they explained that getting concerts for me — a Black pianist playing classical music — would be an uphill battle.”
Walker’s parallel passion for composition proved to be an advantage, and the basis for a long and distinguished academic career in which he earned Guggenheim, Rockefeller and Fulbright fellowships. His output encompassed more than 90 compositions, from solo piano pieces to vocal, chamber and orchestral works. In 1996 he became the first African-American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Music, for his work Lilacs, a setting of verses by Walt Whitman that lament the death of Abraham Lincoln.
Lyric for Strings is George Walker’s best-known and most frequently performed work. Although it was published in 1990, its roots stretch back to the beginning of his career. While he was a graduate student at Curtis, Walker’s grandmother passed away. In 1946 he wrote a string quartet and the second movement, titled Lament, was dedicated in her memory. Years later, he expanded the piece to suit a string orchestra, retitled it Lyric, and it achieved widespread acclaim. Keep in mind that Walker’s composition instructor at Curtis was Rosario Scalero, the same person who taught Samuel Barber a decade earlier. Barber’s career was truly launched when the second movement of his own string quartet gained fame as the Adagio for Strings. Many people have commented that the two works, Lyric and Adagio, share a similar emotional arc that touches the heart.
When the time arrived for that final sign off at station WNIB, broadcaster Bruce Duffie remarked, “I wanted something special, reflective, tender, strong, and positive to end…The calls and e-mails which I received after that were bittersweet, but they all said the same thing - that I had spoken eloquently, and had chosen the absolutely perfect piece to end.”
b. December 8, 1981 / New York, NY, USA
Jessie Montgomery is a composer, violinist and educator, now based in Princeton, New Jersey, where she has been working towards her PhD in composition. Born in Manhattan, she grew up in a household steeped in music, theatre, story-telling and social activism. She maintains an active performance career as a violinist with her own ensembles, as well as with the Silkroad Ensemble and Sphinx Virtuosi.
In 2020 she was awarded a Medal of Excellence and a $50,000 career grant from the SPHINX Organization, with whom she has been associated for nearly 20 years. Sphinx was founded in 1997 by Aaron P. Dworkin with the goal of addressing the underrepresentation of people of color in classical music. Sphinx’s four program areas form a pipeline that develops and supports diversity and inclusion in music education, artists performing on stage, the repertoire and programing being performed, the communities represented in audiences, and the artistic and administrative leadership within the field.
”I began my relationship with Sphinx as a junior division competitor (some) years ago,” she told The Violin Channel, “and have since been a two-time laureate in the senior division, taught at the Sphinx Performance Academy, have been Composer-in-Residence with the Sphinx Virtuosi, a member of the Catalyst Quartet, and served on various panels for their annual conference. I cannot stress enough how important this organization has been for me and for all of the musicians they have served and continue to serve. My community has grown because of their work, and it has been inspiring to [see] communities outside of the Sphinx network change and be inspired to change their views on who deserves what opportunities in classical music. I see things becoming more equalized in small pockets of our field–little by little, the shift is happening.”
As she describes, "I wrote Starburst in 2013 for the Sphinx Virtuosi, an amazing, conductor-less string ensemble. I remember vividly at the time that I wanted to write something that was reflective of the ensemble itself…so I composed this encore to be very explosive and celebratory, a fiery and very energetic piece.” Ms Montgomery describes in her program note that the dynamic nature of the group closely matches the astronomical definition of a starburst:…the rapid formation of large numbers of new stars in a galaxy at a rate high enough to alter the structure of the galaxy significantly.
b. October 18, 1961 / New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
Wynton Marsalis is an internationally acclaimed musician, composer, bandleader, educator and a leading advocate of American culture. He is the world’s first jazz artist to perform and compose across the full jazz spectrum from its New Orleans roots to bebop to modern jazz. By creating and performing an expansive range of brilliant new music for quartets to big bands, chamber music ensembles to symphony orchestras, tap dance to ballet, Wynton has expanded the vocabulary for jazz and created a vital body of work that places him among the world’s finest musicians and composers.
In 1987 Wynton Marsalis co-founded, and became Artistic Director for Jazz at Lincoln Center and Music Director for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. In July 1996, due to its significant success, Jazz at Lincoln Center was installed as new constituent of Lincoln Center, equal in stature with the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, and New York City Ballet - a historic moment for jazz as an art form and for Lincoln Center as a cultural institution. In October 2004, with the assistance of a dedicated Board and staff, Marsalis opened Frederick P. Rose Hall, the world’s first institution for jazz. Under Wynton’s leadership, Jazz at Lincoln Center has developed an international agenda presenting rich and diverse programming that includes concerts, debates, film forums, dances, television and radio broadcasts, and educational activities. In 1997, Wynton Marsalis became the first jazz musician to receive the Pulitzer Prize for music, for his epic oratorio Blood on the Fields.
It was the 1918 musical theatre piece by Igor Stravinsky, L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldiers’ Tale) that was the inspiration for A Fiddler’s Tale. Jazz at Lincoln Centre commissioned Marsalis to write a work using exactly the same musical forces (violin, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, bass, and drums) as the Stravinsky, but with a modern twist on the old tale of making a deal with the devil. The Vancouver based actor Garfield Wilson serves as
narrator, as well as a cast of characters, from an innocent violinist, to the legendary fiddler who she aspires to be – to the Devil himself, ol’ Beelzebub, Bubba Zee Beals! The libretto to the cautionary tale was created by the late American poet Stanley Crouch, a long-time friend and mentor of Wynton Marsalis. (The complete work will be presented on a future date at The ConcertHall.ca)
b. Berkeley, California, USA
With a palpable authenticity, towering four-octave range, and a powerful blues and gospel-tinged jazz vocal approach, Dee Daniels has built a sterling reputation amongst jazz fans and critics around the world for over three decades. She has performed with symphony orchestras and big bands globally but has called Vancouver her home for more than thirty years. It is a pleasure to welcome Dee Daniels back to the Orpheum in the present program: For the Love of Song. Among the titles that Dee Daniels shares are two tunes associated with the great Nat King Cole.
The American songwriter, jazz pianist and actor Bobby Troup planned to “travel west” in 1946, in search of opportunities in California. Inspired by the journey, he penned the musical travelogue Route 66. The tune was recorded by Nat King Cole and became a hit on the R&B and pop record charts.
The enigmatic musician and songwriter known as eden ahbez (his name is un capitalized) was a progenitor of the back to nature lifestyle of Southern California’s Laurel Canyon. He shared a piece of sheet music with Nat Cole’s manager, and promptly disappeared. It was only after he was tracked down, living outdoors under the famous Hollywood sign, that Nat could release the tune: Nature Boy.
The performance closes with the premiere of new piece written by Dee Daniels last summer. “Let Freedom Ring” ( aka The Ballad of John Lewis) was inspired by an essay written by the late US congressman and civil rights leader. Shortly before his death in July of 2020, The New York Times printed an essay by Lewis titled “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.” As Dee Daniels recalls, “I teared up. I was aware of his history, what he accomplished, and what he stood for. I so admired him and his contributions. I went to my piano, and it took me half an hour to come up with a melody that I could set these words to. The song just evolved and morphed.” One of the lines in Lewis’s essay is particularly moving: Now it is your turn to let freedom ring. With her soaring voice and impassioned performances, Dee Daniels is giving voice to that message.
MEASHA BRUEGGERGOSMAN closes the program with an unaccompanied African American Spiritual: Over My Head I Hear Music in the Air. She performed it recently as part of The Resilient Symphony, the VSO Virtual Gala Concert which was held on February 18, 2021.
Notes by Matthew Baird.