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Inside the Music

Program Notes: More to Hear—The Listening Project

Eleanor Alberga, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Florence Price (top row); Hale Smith, Margaret Bonds and Adolphus Hailstork (bottom row)
Eleanor Alberga, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Florence Price (top row); Hale Smith, Margaret Bonds and Adolphus Hailstork (bottom row)

On Friday, October 7, 2022, the Minnesota Orchestra presents More to Hear: The Listening Project, with Kensho Watanabe conducting by music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Eleanor Alberga, Hale Smith, Adolphus Hailstork, Margaret Bonds and Florence Price, with Christopher Humbert Jr. as bass-baritone soloist in Eleanor Albergas The Soul’s Expression and Margaret Bonds’ Spirituals. The concert is hosted by Dr. Louise Toppin.

The concert, which features five works that have never been recorded professionally and one receiving its U.S. premiere, will be recorded live and broadcast on stations of YourClassical Minnesota Public Radio, and recordings of each work on the program will be made available free of charge for listeners and orchestras around the world, with the aim of encouraging future performances by other ensembles. Learn more about the Listening Project, its background and how repertoire is selected.

Program Notes

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Born: August 15, 1875, London, England
Died: September 1, 1912, London, England

Idyll
Premiered: 1901

English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor lived an all-too-brief life, passing away from pneumonia at 37—an age at which many great composers are only beginning to achieve renown. Despite this, he left a remarkable legacy and a compositional output that included more than 80 works. The most famous of these was an expansive cantata he composed at age 23, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, which quickly attained great popularity in his home country and abroad. Among his many international successes were three tours of the U.S., one of which included a visit to the White House at the request of President Theodore Roosevelt. He was mentored by Edward Elgar and studied alongside composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst at the Royal College of Music.

A beautiful picture

Coleridge-Taylor’s Idyll began as the second movement of his First Symphony, which he composed while still a student at Stanford University. He originally titled the movement Lament, but after many revisions spanning several years, it reappeared as Idyll and received its first performance at the Three Rivers Choir Festival in 1901. At that time, the piece received wildly mixed reviews; some critics praised Coleridge-Taylor for Idyll’s beauty, while other critics pined for a work that was more complex.

It was because of this lukewarm reception that the work was not fully published at the time. To keep expenses low, it was not unusual for new compositions to reach the engravers and printers and only see a full score or select parts made available. This process made Coleridge-Taylor’s music almost inaccessible for any orchestra seeking to perform it unless they rented the parts in manuscript form. A fully engraved set of score and parts for Idyll only became available widely in 2021.

Idyll is airy and picturesque, highlighting the sweet-singing capabilities of the woodwinds and horns and the lyrical beauty of the string section. The word idyll comes from the Greek eidyllion, which means “little picture,” and it most commonly refers to a poem or story of a simple, beautiful or peaceful place, often in a rural setting. From start to finish, this piece is exactly that: a blissful little escape into a dreamlike musical landscape.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp and strings

Eleanor Alberga
Born: September 30, 1949, Kingston, Jamaica

The Soul’s Expression
Premiered: May 30, 2017

In recent years, the Minnesota Orchestra has explored several pieces by Jamaican-born British composer Eleanor Alberga, including her Second String Quartet in the fall of 2020 and Shining Gate of Morpheus for horn and string quartet in the spring of 2021. Then, one year ago, the Orchestra created the first professional recording of Tower, one of her full-orchestra works, as part of the Listening Project recording initiative that was introduced last year and has expanded this year to encompass tonight’s public concert. 

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1949, Eleanor Alberga asked her mother if she could begin piano lessons when she was 5 years old; at age 10, she penned her first composition, inspired by her family’s dog Andy. Now based in rural Herefordshire, England, Alberga has crafted a catalog of works that includes music for piano, choral ensembles, chamber music, orchestra, film, opera, and two violin concertos premiered by her husband, violinist Thomas Bowes.

Songs from three poets

The Soul’s Expression is Alberga’s setting of four poems by women from 19th-century England: two poems by George Eliot (a pen name for Mary Ann Evans), and one each by Emily Brontë and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Divided into four movements and spanning 17 minutes, it is scored for bass-baritone and string orchestra. The premiere was given in 2017 by the Welsh Chamber Orchestra and baritone Jeremy Huw Williams, with Anthony Hose conducting. A recording by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Morgan Pearse has recently been released on the Lyrita label, making it the only work on tonight’s program that has been previously recorded—but notable for another reason, as this is the composition’s U.S. premiere.

The Soul’s Expression begins as the baritone voice emerges from a rich, mysterious string texture singing text by George Eliot; gradually, the tempo increases and the intensity heightens. The second section features the words of Emily Brontë sung over more delicate harmonies that lead into another selection from Eliot, depicting the profound sweetness of a shower of rose petals. The final poem is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose message begins:

              With stammering lips and insufficient sound
              I strive and struggle to deliver right
              That music of my nature, day and night

Between each of the four sections is an interlude that condemns evil, particularly any evil words that might be spoken.

Instrumentation: solo baritone voice and strings

 

Hale Smith
Born: June 29, 1925, Cleveland, Ohio
Died: November 24, 2009, Freeport, New York

Contours
Composed: 1960

Hale Smith’s range of musical creativity is exceptional, comprising works for radio and television, film, jazz records, army bands, soloists and major symphony orchestras. His earliest inspirations came from playing side gigs as a pianist with Dizzy Gillespie and learning from other jazz greats during the mid-20th century such as Duke Ellington, Art Tatum and Jimmy Jones. In addition to composing, he held roles as an editor and consultant for several New York City- and Chicago-based music organizations, and was also a professor of music at Long Island University in Brookville and the University of Connecticut in Storrs. He also worked for some time with the Karamu House in Cleveland, which was founded in 1915 and is recognized as the oldest actively producing African American theater in the U.S.

Jazz and modernist influences

In 1960, Smith was commissioned by Broadcast Music Inc. to compose Contours. The piece opens with bold exclamations from the full ensemble and features dark harmonies and syncopated rhythms, especially in the brass section. Staccato motives and special techniques, such as a flute solo with bending notes, speak to Smith’s experience in stage bands and jazz combos, but the character and tonality of the piece are also akin to those of modernist 20th-century classical composers such as Arnold Schoenberg or Anton Webern. It has by far the largest complement of percussion instruments, 16 in all, of any work on tonight’s program.

Contours is dedicated to the memory of two of Smith’s closest friends, Clarence Cameron White and Wallingford Riegger, both New York-based composers who had passed away around the time that Smith received the commission for this work. Smith himself lived for another five decades.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, hand cymbals, 3 suspended cymbals, 3 gongs, slapstick, tambourine, tom-toms, triangle, xylophone, glockenspiel, piano (doubling celesta) and strings

 

Adolphus Hailstork
Born: April 17, 1941, Rochester, New York

Lachrymosa: 1919
Premiered: May 12, 1995

Dr. Adolphus Hailstork has had a strong bond with music since childhood when he first began learning the piano. He ultimately earned four degrees in music and composition at Howard University, the Manhattan School of Music and Michigan State University. Today, he lives in Virginia Beach and is part of the music faculty of Old Dominion University. 

Hailstork’s catalog includes more than 100 compositions for chamber ensemble, chorus, orchestra and solo instruments—and it is continuing to expand in the composer’s 80s, with recently published works including his Fourth Symphony and A Knee on The Neck, a choral-orchestral tribute to George Floyd, which was premiered by the National Philharmonic in May 2022.

Remembering the Red Summer of 1919

When Hailstork began work on Lachrymosa in 1994, he had hoped to compose a piece in celebration of the Virginia Symphony’s 75th anniversary. However, as he contemplated the original inspiration, he couldn’t separate the ensemble’s founding year of 1920 from a series of events that instead had occurred just before that, in the summer of 1919, when at least 77 Black Americans were lynched. 

In the composer’s own words, he explains: 

“I join with the Virginia Symphony in their joy of having been founded in 1920. Had I focused on that year, I, perhaps could have squeezed a flippant fanfare of some sort out of myself. In Black history, however, 1919 conjures up darker and weightier matters.

“During World War I, there had occurred a great migration of Blacks from farms in the south to factories in the north. The return of the soldiers who originally had those jobs provided the spark for an inevitable clash. There were riots in 26 cities, and the summer of 1919 is known, in Black history, as the Red Summer.

“Black troops, who had fought valiantly for democracy in Europe, returned to the United States, believing they would share in a new spirit of freedom at home…They even dared to hope that they would experience the same respect and freedom from prejudice they had enjoyed in France. That was not to be.” 

Lachrymosa, which was premiered by the Virginia Symphony under the direction of JoAnn Falletta on May 12, 1995, features two chords which the composer identifies as the “Amen” chords. This recurring statement and other choral-inspired textures tie the work to the mournful music of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, which also inspired the work’s title. Lachrymosa is simple and contemplative, with a sadness that speaks powerfully of the events of one especially dark summer in our country’s history.

Instrumentation: 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and strings

Margaret Bonds
Born: March 3, 1913, Chicago, Illinois
Died: April 26, 1972, Los Angeles, California

Spirituals
Published: ca. 1962-63

While she was a college student at Northwestern University, the extraordinary pianist and composer Margaret Bonds was invited to solo with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a part of the same concert when Florence Price’s music was first premiered. Thus, she became the first Black instrumental soloist in the ensemble’s history. As a young girl, Bonds studied piano with her mother, whose own professional and social circles were rich with many of Chicago’s leading artists and writers. Bonds’ advanced studies led her to Northwestern University, where racism was abundant and ever-present in her years as an undergraduate and graduate student, prohibiting her from accessing housing, facilities, or anything beyond her scheduled classes.

It was during this time that Bonds found solace in a book of poetry by Langston Hughes that she had discovered in the local public library, a place she could explore freely unlike the one on campus. This marked just the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Hughes, whom she met a few years later and whose poems she set to music on many occasions.

Celebrating the spiritual tradition

Through the mentorship of artists like Hughes and Florence Price, who was one of her composition teachers, Bonds was determined to enhance, promote and celebrate African American art forms and artists as much as possible. Her own music demonstrated this by incorporating jazz idioms, texts from Black writers, spirituals and gospel traditions from throughout African American history. Ultimately, much of Bonds’ music remains a mystery to us now as it is unpublished, and many of her original manuscripts were discarded after her death in 1972. 

Bonds’ Spirituals Suite was designed as a piano recital piece for herself, one that would help her express herself in a similar manner to how she had heard spirituals sung by musicians such as Marian Anderson when she was a child. Each of the suite’s songs—five of which are performed in tonight’s concert—is based on a traditional African American spiritual.

Bonds’ score does not specify an exact male or female voice type as the soloist, calling instead for the less specific “high voice.” At tonight’s performance the solo part is rendered by bass-baritone, with only a slight adjustment at the close of the final movement to bring it down to a lower range.

Instrumentation: solo high voice [performed here by bass-baritone] with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, alto flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, crash cymbals, harp, celesta and strings

 

Florence Price
Born: April 9, 1887, Little Rock, Arkansas
Died: June 3, 1953, Chicago, Illinois

Colonial Dance
Published: 2019

Musicologist Douglas Shadle noted in a New York Times article that “Our understanding of American modernism of the 1930s and 1940s is not complete without [Florence] Price’s contribution.” 

Born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas, Price is widely known as America’s first Black female composer to be publicly recognized in classical music circles. She was the first Black American woman to have her music played by a major American symphony orchestra—specifically, the Chicago Symphony at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.

Recent discoveries

A pianist, organist, teacher and composer, she left an extensive catalogue of work that included more than 300 pieces of music. However, much of her music went missing after her death in 1953. It was only in recent years that many of her manuscripts were discovered in both an abandoned house outside of Chicago and as part of an auction of music from a private collection. Since these discoveries and multiple ongoing efforts to engrave and publish what was found, Price’s music has seen a significant increase in performances around the world.

Originally composed for piano, Price’s orchestral arrangement of Colonial Dance makes for an ideal concert opener or closer. It is a quick-paced, playful dance, written in 3/4 time and the carefree key of C major. The exact date of composition has not been determined, as the score’s manuscript was located only recently and published in 2019.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, chimes and strings

Program notes by Emma Plehal.