August 25, 2020
Celebrating Black Composers in August
During the month of August, the Minnesota Orchestra’s nightly outdoor chamber music performances on Peavey Plaza are each featuring a piece of music by a Black composer. Read on for a brief introduction to these composers and their works.
Grammy Award-nominated composer and flute player Valerie Coleman is regarded as one of today’s top female classical composers, and she was recently named the 2020 Classical Woman of the Year by the radio program Performance Today. Born in 1970 in Kentucky, she has performed with numerous top orchestras and is the creator of the highly-influential Imani Winds ensemble. Among her many works for woodwind ensembles is the one featured on the August 4, 5 and 6 program, Tzigane. Composed in 2011 for that year’s Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival, it is described by the composer as “a high-charged, passionate journey through Eastern Europe, by way of the Romani.”
Listen to Tzigane performed by the Imani Winds.
Singer, instrumentalist, record producer, songwriter and composer Devonté Hynes has found success in numerous musical genres, including R&B, electronic, indie rock and funk. Born in 1985, he is a former member of the dance-punk band Test Icicles, and has released albums under the names Lightspeed Champion and Blood Orange. In 2018 he collaborated with Chicago-based Third Coast Percussion ensemble and the Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to create an evening of percussion music and dance that included the work featured on the August 7, 8 and 9 program, Perfectly Voiceless, which uses elements of minimalist music—including repeating patterns and slowly-mutating ideas—with a catchy pop melody as its core.
Listen to Perfectly Voiceless performed by Third Coast Percussion.
String Quartet No. 2
Composer and pianist Eleanor Alberga, who was born in Jamaica in 1949 and is now based in the U.K., has composed a wide variety of music for orchestras, choirs, chamber ensembles and solo piano, as well as film scores and two operas. She has received commissions from such prominent institutions as the BBC Proms and the Royal Opera, and is the founder of the Arcadia Festival. Her Second String Quartet, performed on August 11, 12 and 13, was commissioned by the Smith Quartet and premiered in 1994 at the Greenwich Festival in the U.K. An annotator’s description called the quartet “a truly forward-thinking piece, bringing out Alberga’s great skills as an artist and composer.”
Listen to String Quartet No. 2 performed by Ensemble Arcadiana.
William Grant Still
William Grant Still, born in Mississippi in 1895, blazed many trails during his lengthy musical career. He was the first African American composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra and was the first to conduct a major American orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He composed nearly 200 works, including nine operas and five symphonies, the most popular of which is his first symphony, the Afro-American Symphony, which infused the classical symphony form with the melodic and harmonic styles of African American spirituals, jazz and blues music. His Lyric Quartet, subtitled Musical Portraits of Three Friends, was composed in 1960 and is a beautiful and deeply personal work dedicated to his friend Joachim Chassman, a violinist. It was performed on August 14, 15 and 16.
Listen to the Lyric Quartet performed by the Apollo Chamber Players.
String Quartet No. 1, movement II (Lyric for Strings)
Composer, arranger and pianist George Walker, who passed away just two years ago at the age of 96, was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, in 1996 for Lilacs, a work for voice and orchestra. One of the first Black graduates of the Curtis Institute of Music and the first to earn a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music, he wrote more than 90 compositions for orchestra, chamber ensembles, chorus and solo instruments. The August 18, 19 and 20 concerts featured one of his most famous pieces, the second movement of his First String Quartet, which is also often performed separately by string orchestra under the name Lyric for Strings. That version received its world premiere in a 1946 national radio broadcast.
Listen to Lyric for Strings performed at the BBC Proms by Chineke! Orchestra.
Quintet for Clarinet, Two Violins, Viola and Cello
Black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, born in 1875 in London, achieved great success in both Europe and the United States during his short 37-year life. His music was widely performed, and he had particularly great support among African Americans, helped by his three tours to the U.S. His most famous works are the three cantatas based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, Song of Hiawatha. His Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, performed on August 21, 22 and 23, is one of his earlier works, composed at age 20 upon a challenge from his composition teacher Charles Stanford—and the result was a Clarinet Quintet that “demonstrates beyond any doubt that Coleridge-Taylor was a gifted composer of chamber music,” according to annotator Lionel Harrison.
Listen to the Quintet for Clarinet, Two Violins, Viola and Cello.
One of the most successful classical composers of her generation, Jessie Montgomery is a New York native born in 1981 and active as a composer, chamber musician and music educator. Many of her compositions focus on improvisation, language and social justice, and she is the composer-in-residence for the Sphinx Virtuosi. Her string quartet Break Away, performed on August 25, 26 and 27, was written for the PUBLIQuartet for a 2013 premiere at the Music of Now Festival, and incorporates numerous musical styles while calling for the performers to play the written music and at times “break away” from the score by improvising, therefore making each performance unique.
Listen to Break Away performed by the PUBLIQuartet.
In Response to the Madness
Born in Atlanta in 1988, Emmy Award-winning composer, pianist and conductor Joel Thompson has made an impression in the classical music world for works that respond to current events and the struggle for justice, including Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, which sets to music the final words of seven African American men killed by police or authorities. Thompson is pursuing a doctorate in composition at the Yale School of Music and in 2019 composed the string quartet In Response to the Madness, which will be played on August 28, 29 and 30. The composer calls it “a stream-of-consciousness response to the political mayhem, the massacres, the climate, and our seemingly futile attempts at trying to make things better,” noting that he hopes it “gives voice to our current angst and perhaps inspires us to change our tune.”
Listen to the premiere performance of In Response to the Madness by the 2019 Grant Park Music Festival Project Inclusion String Quartet.